The latest economic data out last week was generally good. Home building activity remained above the 1 million a year rate. Consumer prices rose 0.4 percent in May, such that inflation during the past year is now 2.1 percent, about in line with what the Federal Reserve aims for.
But that inflation news carried with it a depressing side note. Now that the Consumer Price Index for May has been published, it is possible to determine inflation-adjusted hourly earnings for the month. And the number is not good.
Average hourly earnings for private sector U.S. workers rose about 49 cents an hour in the past year, to $24.38 in May. But that was not enough to cover inflation during the year, so in real or inflation-adjusted terms, hourly worker pay fell 0.1 percent over the past 12 months. Weekly pay shows the same story, also falling 0.1 percent in the year ended in May.
By the same measure cited above – average hourly earnings for private sector workers – the year that ended in February showed a strong 2.1 percent gain in pay versus only 1.1 percent inflation, which works out to a 1 percent annual gain in real hourly pay. That was the strongest in five years, and if it had been sustained would have been great news for U.S. workers.
But it was not sustained. The numbers since then suggest two things: The strong gain in hourly pay reported for the 12 months ended in February looks to have been an anomaly. And while inflation has picked up since then, reducing the value of workers’ paychecks, worker pay has only barely kept up with the higher prices.
The latest numbers should give pause to any Federal Reserve officials who see wage pressures as evidence that the economy is overheating. It might have been arguably true earlier in the year. It might prove true later in the year, if workers start successfully demanding wage increases in excess of inflation.
But for right now, the evidence points to more of what we’ve seen for most of the past six years: Employees have little negotiating power to demand higher pay.