The compensationless recovery

New York Times David Leonhardt argues that real wages are rising, so those resilient workers that remain employed will benefit from the bounce-back in “effective pay”. The problem with this insight is twofold: first, the expansion phase of real hourly compensation, a broader measure of total earnings, is falling; and second, sitting atop a mountain of consumer and mortgage debt, the aggregate economy cannot afford a compensationless recovery.

From the NY Times:

But since this recent recession began in December 2007, real average hourly pay has risen nearly 5 percent. Some employers, especially state and local governments, have cut wages. But many more employers have continued to increase pay.

Something similar happened during the Great Depression, notes Bruce Judson of the Yale School of Management. Falling prices meant that workers who held their jobs received a surprisingly strong effective pay raise.

Rebecca: The referenced “real wages” are the real average hourly earnings figures for production and nonsupervisory workers, 80% of the total nonfarm payroll. The broader measure of total earnings is real hourly compensation (see Table A and get the data from the Fred database). Real hourly compensation measures compensation for all workers, including wages, 401k contributions, stock options, tips, and self-employed business owner compensation. (You can see a comparison of the earnings/compensation series in Exhibit 1 here.)

Since December 2007, real hourly compensation has increased just 1.3%. Furthermore, the index declined four consecutive quarters through Q2 2010, a first since 1979-1980. If the NBER dates the onset of the expansion at Q3 2009 (the first quarter of positive GDP growth in 2009), real hourly compensation will have dropped .7% through Q2 2010! That’s pathetic compared to the average 2.5% gain during the first 4 quarters of expansion spanning the previous 10 recessions.

The table lists the gain/loss of real hourly compensation, measured by the BLS, during the recession and early recovery for the business cycle as dated by the NBER.

Here’s how I see it: the problem is not that real hourly compensation is falling during the the recovery, per se, it’s that real hourly compensation is falling during the recovery of a balance sheet recession.

In the context of wage and compensation growth, the NY Times article was misleading in its comparison of the Great Depression to the ’07-’09 Great Recession. Mass default during the Great Depression wiped private-sector balance sheets clean, no debt. But not this time around. We’re going to need a lot of income growth (the BLS measure of real hourly compensation includes measures of income at the BEA) to increase saving enough to deleverage the aggregate household balance sheet.

I’ll say it again: we can’t afford a jobless recovery. Specifically, we can’t afford a compensationless recovery.

Rebecca Wilder
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