Wage Growth Does Not Necessitate Inflation

There seems to be a certain segment of the economic commentariat who believe that whatever the reason, tightening is the answer. The latest reason to tighten is that there is evidence that the labour market is tightening. Wage growth in the US is staging a modest recovery.

However, this does not imply that the CPI is going to rise. Lets have a quick look at average hourly compensation vs inflation since 2000.

Compensation and Inflation

We can see that inflation and wage growth typically track each other fairly closely. This correlation is likely spurious, an artefact of the fact that productivity growth and population growth have similar magnitudes. I am more interested in the effect of total compensation on inflation. Since the argument goes that wage growth leads to inflation, lets note first that wage growth is still far below historical norms.

Inflation is generated when demand outstrips supply. Labour market tightening means that workers have better bargaining positions, and then can bargain for better wages. Wage growth is coming, and wage growth means rising AD, but inflation comes only when AD outstrips AS. There are two reasons that that this might not happen at once:

(1) Productivity growth. It is a feature of recessions generally that Capex falls because companies do not invest in productivity enhancements in an environment of weak demand. Technological progress marches on regardless, and the result is that there is a steady stream of available but unbuilt productivity enhancements that a company could invest in. Thus we should expect that productivity growth could stage a catch up. This is supported by the general observation that RGDP has grown on the same trendline for decades, and it would be a remarkable coincidence if trend growth had a secular change exactly at a time that happened to have a financial crises.

(2) Corporate Profit Margins. CPI measures consumer prices, which is not quite the same thing as monetary inflation. This is punishing on the way down, when consumer prices do not fall in line with the changing money demand, but can be beneficial on the way up. For example, a decline in corporate profit margins as a tighter labour market allows workers to capture more of their marginal product can give you rising demand without rising consumer prices.

The economy is complicated, and no one can predict what will happen with perfect certainty, but you should not give undue credence to those who tell you that rising wage growth is certain to generate inflationary pressure. As in the late nineties, wage growth can be large while inflation is low for years at a time. We have two plausible stories that can support the hypothesis that this is a likely outcome, it is certainly where I would place my chips.

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