The most potent labor market indicator of all is still strongly positive

The Bonddad Blog

 – by New Deal democrat

On Monday I examined some series from last Friday’s Household survey in the jobs report, highlighting that they more frequently than not indicated a recession was near or underway. But I concluded by noting that this survey has historically been noisy, and I thought it would be resolved away this time. Specifically, there was strong contrary data from the Establishment survey, backed up by yesterday’s inflation report, to the contrary. Today I’ll examine that, looking at two other series.

Historically, as economic expansions progress and the unemployment rate goes down, average hourly wages for nonsupervisory workers improve at an increasing rate (blue in the graph below). But eventually, inflation (red) picks up and overtakes that wage growth, and a recession occurs shortly thereafter. Not always, as we’ll see in the graph below, but usually:

As you can see, there have been a number of exceptions to the rule, chiefly where inflation outstripped wage growth, but no recession happened anyway. Typically this has occurred because of the entry of so many more people (like women in the 1980s and early 1990s) into the labor force.

And we certainly see that inflation outstripped wages in 2022, not coincidentally when there were several negative quarters of real GDP. But with the decline in gas prices, in 2023 inflation subsided much more sharply than wage growth, and the economy improved more substantially. That has remained the case in the first two months of 2024.

But an even more potent indicator is one I have come to rely on even more: real aggregate payrolls for nonsupervisory workers. Here’s its historical record up until the pandemic:

There’s not a single false positive, nor a single false negative. If YoY aggregate payroll growth is stronger than YoY inflation, you’re in an expansion. If it’s weaker, you’re in a recession. Period.

And here is its record since the pandemic:

Real aggregate nonsurpervisory payrolls are positive, and they got more positive in 2023 compared with 2022. Currently they are 2.6% higher YoY than inflation.

In addition to the YoY comparison, real aggregate nonsupervisory payrolls have always declined, at least slightly, from their expansion peaks before every single recession in the past 50 years except for when the pandemic suddenly shut down the economy:

Not every slight decline means a recession is coming. But if real aggregate payrolls are at a new high, you’re not in a recession, and one isn’t likely to occur in the next 6 months, either.

And in case it isn’t clear from that long term graph, here’s the short term graph of the same thing:

Real aggregate nonsupervisory payrolls made a new all-time high in February. Despite the negative metrics in the Household survey, this is *very* potent evidence that not only are we not in a recession, but one isn’t likely in the immediate future either.

Perceptions of inflation vs. wage growth: why the divergence? Angry Bear, by New Deal democrat