Economists Should Not Have Been Surprised by the December Drop In Wages

January 13th, 2015
in Op Ed

by Dean Baker, Center for Economic Policy Research

The Washington Post article on the December jobs numbers told readers:

"Though there were nascent signs of wage growth in November, the data from December showed average hourly earnings slid backward by five cents, to $24.57.

"That wage decrease over the past month, a surprise to economists, indicates that the nation has not yet reached 'full employment' - a condition in which demand from employers is broad enough that workers have a degree of leverage and a chance to see pay raises."

Follow up:

This comment earns a really big OY!

No, the drop in average hourly earnings should not have been a surprise to economists. As some of us were screaming following the November jump in hourly wages, the monthly data are erratic. As I pointed out at the time, the jump reported in November followed two months of very weak wage growth. It simply is not plausible to think that millions of employers who were being tightfisted September and October suddenly got really generous with their workers in November. The world doesn't work that way.

The more obvious explanation is that the monthly changes are driven largely by measurement error. A weak number in one month is likely to lead to a strong number the next (and vice versa) because a weak number likely understated the true rate of wage growth. If the next month's number then accurately measures the true wage, then it will appear like a large jump. This is a regular pattern that anyone who follows the data (e.g. economists) would know.

The point about full employment is also seriously off. The employment to population ratio is still close to four percentage points below its pre-recession level. And, contrary to the protestations about this being due to the retirement of the baby boomers, the decline is largely due to prime age workers (age 25-54) leaving the labor force. And it's a bit hard to believe that all these people in their 30s and 40s just decided they no longer feel like working. In addition, the number of people involuntarily working part-time is still up by more than 2 million from its pre-recession level.

In other words, we are still very far from what would have been considered full employment back in the good old days of the Bush presidency. Folks should be very upset if the Fed starts raising interest rates to slow the economy and keep people from getting jobs.

This piece also misleads readers in saying:

"Another strong sector was professional and business services - accountants, architects, consultants - which added 52,000 positions. The pick-up in better-paying industries is in noted contrast to periods earlier in the recovery, when growth was concentrated in part-time positions and the retail and health sectors."

Actually, most of the growth in the professional and business services sector (67.7 percent) was in the relatively low-paying administrative and waste services categories.

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