We have a serious problem with real wages

by Shaun Richards

One of the features of the early days of this website was the fact that there were regular replies/comments suggesting that wages and earnings would continue to be a problem for some time. I doff my cap to those who first suggested it as it has become a theme of the credit crunch era. This means that your unofficial Forward Guidance was vastly more accurate and useful than those paid to do it. Here is an example from back then (Summer 2010) from the grandly named Office for Budget Responsibility or OBR.

Wages and salaries growth rises gradually throughout the forecast, reaching 5½ percent in 2014.

That to borrow from Star Wars seems like something from “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away….”. It is even worse if we look at the situation in terms of real wages as the OBR forecast that it would be on target, so we see that real wage growth would be 3% per annum. Happy days indeed! But it was just an illusion.

The scale of that illusion was illustrated by this from Geoff Tily of the Trade Union Congress or TUC earlier this week.

So in the decade before the first TUC meeting in 1868, real wages had fallen by 0.1%. Since then, only the decade to 2018 has seen a worse performance, with real wages down by a whopping 4.4%.

So rather than the sunlit uplands suggested by the OBR we have seen a much more grim reality. As an aside this brings us back to the problem of “experts”. In my opinion you deserve that label if you get things right, for example aircraft designers as air travel is very safe. Whereas official economics bodies are regularly wrong and therefore in spite of the lauding they get from the media do not deserve such a label. I also note that those who debate that issue with me and claim that it does not matter the forecasts are wrong (!) are often from the group that have hopes of gaining employment in this area.

Discovering Japan

This morning has brought more news on wage growth in Japan but before we get to it we need to set the scene. This is because the land of the rising sun has been anything but in terms of wage growth. Or as Japan Macro Advisers put it.

Wages in Japan has been steadily falling in Japan since 1998. Between 1997 and 2012, wages have declined by 12.5%, or by 0.9% per year on average.

Japan has been the leader of the pack in a race nobody wants to win. It also provided a warning which has come in two guises. Firstly the concept of real wages falling in a first world industrialised country and secondly the very long period for which this has been sustained. This is one of the major players in the concept of the lost decade for Japan which in this regard has now lasted for two of them.

This was a driver between the original claims for Abenomics where ending the deflationary mindset was supposed involve higher wage growth. In reality the performance is shown by the official real wage index which was set at 100 in 2015 and was 100.5 last year. So very little growth and in fact a reduction on the 101 of 2014. But hope springs eternal and we know that May and especially June were much better so here is Reuters on this morning’s release of the July data.

Separate data showed Japanese workers’ inflation-adjusted real wages rose 0.4 percent in July from a year earlier, marking a third consecutive month of gains.

What this tells us is that as the bonus season is passing the better phase was for bonuses and nor regular wages or salaries. So whilst the news is welcome it is not the new dawn that some have tried to present it as. Indeed tucked away in the Reuters report is a major issue in this area.

 firms remain wary of raising wages, despite reaping record profits.

The link between companies doing well and wages rising in response has been broken for a while now. Earlier this week Japan Press Weekly was on the case.

Finance Ministry statistics released on September 3 show that in 2017, large corporations with more than one billion yen in capital increased their internal reserves by 22.4 trillion yen to a record 425.8 trillion yen.

Compared with the previous year, big businesses’ current profit was inflated by 4.8 trillion yen to 57.6 trillion yen, 2.3 times larger than that in 2012 when Prime Minister Abe made his comeback. The remuneration for each board member was 19.3 million yen a year, up 600,000 yen from a year earlier. Meanwhile, workers’ annual income stood at 5.75 million yen on average, down 54,000 yen from the previous year.

The section about the rise in profits for big businesses under Abenomics resonates because the critique of his first term was exactly that. He benefited Japan Inc and big business.

The United States

Later today we get the non farm payrolls release from the US telling us more about wage growth. But as we stand in spite of the fact the US economy has had a good 2018 so far the state of play is a familiar one.

Real average hourly earnings decreased 0.2 percent, seasonally adjusted, from July 2017 to July 2018.
Combining the change in real average hourly earnings with the 0.3-percent increase in the average
workweek resulted in a 0.1-percent increase in real average weekly earnings over this period.

Indeed if we look back as Pew Research has done we see that real wage growth has been absent for some time.

A similar measure – the “usual weekly earnings” of employed, full-time wage and salary workers – tells much the same story, albeit over a shorter time period. In seasonally adjusted current dollars, median usual weekly earnings rose from $232 in the first quarter of 1979 (when the data series began) to $879 in the second quarter of this year, which might sound like a lot. But in real, inflation-adjusted terms, the median has barely budged over that period: That $232 in 1979 had the same purchasing power as $840 in today’s dollars.

There have been gains in benefits but not wages over these times.

The Euro area

The Czech National Bank has looked at this and we see an ever more familiar drumbeat.

 In the euro area, nominal wage growth was 1.7% in 2017 Q4, while real wages were broadly flat.

This comes with factors you might expect ( Italy) but also I note Spain which is doing well.

In Italy, by contrast, hourly wages dropped both in nominal terms and in real terms (i.e. adjusted for consumer price inflation). Spain and Austria also recorded wage decreases in real terms.

Also they are not particularly optimistic looking forwards.

However, the wage growth outlooks available for the euro area and especially for Germany do not see wages accelerating significantly any time soon.

We could apply that much wider.


The message today was explained by Bob Dylan many years ago.

There’s a battle outside
And it is ragin’
It’ll soon shake your windows
And rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin’

The truth is that the economics profession has been slow to realise that not only would the credit crunch reduce wage growth, but that it was already troubled. Only last night in a reply to a comment I referred to Deputy Governor Wilkins of the Bank of Canada spinning the same old song.

Yet, wages were rising less quickly than we would expect in an economy that is near capacity.

The same old “output gap” mantra when in fact the reality is of inflation at 3% and wages growth at 2.5%.

To be fair some places do seem to be adjusting as the Czech National Bank faces up to an issue that the UK economics establishment continually assures us is not true.

Migration from Eastern Europe, Italy and Spain,3 which has increased mainly because of the financial and debt crisis, is playing a major role. Workers from these countries are increasing the labour supply and perhaps exerting less upward pressure on wages than incumbents. ( They are referring to German wage growth).

Some however seem to inhabit an entirely different universe as this op-ed from November last year in The Japan Times shows.

Thinning labor puts upward pressure on wages, increasing living standards……


Let me leave you with an optimistic thought. As I watched the AI documentaries on BBC Four this week I wondered if rather than fearing it we should have hopes for it. Maybe the rise of the machines will be fairer than our current overlords.

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