Anemic Wage Growth Restraining Economy

Sluggish worker earnings keep consumer spending in check

By Eric Morath

While some employers in low-wage industries say they’re seeing increased pressures tied to minimum-wage increases, others say there’s been little pressure to boost pay. Here, Brittney Bounds bags groceries at a market in Sacramento, Calif., last year. Photo: Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press


Years of solid job gains are failing to produce a breakout in wages, suppressing the spark needed for a sustained pickup in economic growth.

U.S. employers for the past four years created more than 200,000 jobs a month on average. That has driven the unemployment rate down to 5% last month from above 8% in early 2012.

But wages have shown little progress. Wages and salaries for private-sectors workers advanced 2% in the first quarter from a year earlier, the Labor Department said Friday. The measure has grown near that rate, on average, since the start of 2012.

The U.S. economy, like much of the globe, is stuck in a slow-growth rut. Turmoil overseas and still-weak commodity prices are preventing the manufacturing, trade and energy sectors from supporting growth. That leaves U.S. consumers to boost the expansion. But without accelerating wages, it’s difficult for them to step up spending.

“We continue to be on track for very slow progress,” said BNP Paribas economist Laura Rosner. “That’s reflected in the lack of wage growth."

Economists harbor little hope for a significant economic rebound this spring, though they do expect some pickup after a disappointing winter performance when the economy expanded at a 0.5% pace.

Forecasting firm Macroeconomic Advisers projects gross domestic​product to advance at a 2.1% pace in the second quarter. GDP figures are adjusted for price changes. Such an​acceleration would only bring growth roughly back in line with the overall​pace of the lackluster expansion.

Overall compensation for all workers, a figure that includes benefits, rose 1.9% from a year earlier, the Labor Department said. Federal Reserve officials watch the gauge for signs of labor-cost inflation.

The reading has been consistently stronger than overall inflation. Consumer prices rose 0.8% from a year earlier in March, a separate Commerce Department report said Friday. But the compensation growth remains small compared with the pace of increases during the previous expansion. From 2002 through 2007 compensation averaged better than 3% annual growth.

Another measure of wages, average hourly earnings for private-sector workers, shows slightly stronger gains, up 2.3% in March from a year earlier. But that, too, is little changed from recent years. Four years ago, in March 2012, the annual gain was 2.1%.

Some employers that hire low-wage workers say they are seeing increased pressures tied to minimum-wage increases in 26 states since the start of 2014. But other firms say there’s been little change.

Wage pressures are “nothing really any different than we’ve seen in the past,” Jeff Shaw, executive vice president for store operations at O’Reilly Automotive Inc., told investors Thursday. “There’s always a scramble for great people in the market. But…really no changes that we’ve seen.”

Several factors are constraining wage growth.

The unemployment rate might not fully reflect the degree of slack in the labor market. Some older workers and those displaced during the recession have returned to the workforce recently, and that makes it difficult for existing workers to demand higher pay.

And productivity growth in many service fields has been low, meaning even small wage gains can feel expensive for employers in those sectors, said BNP’s Ms. Rosner. That could partially reflect global cost pressures due to services that can more easily be provided from overseas, via the Internet and call centers, she said.

Weak wage gains are at least partially responsible for lackluster spending. Overall consumer outlays increased just 0.1% in March from February. Accounting for price increases, spending was flat for the second time in three months, Commerce Department data showed. The same report showed consumers are increasing savings at a faster rate than spending, a potential sign of shaky confidence.

The University of Michigan’s gauge of U.S. consumer sentiment, also released Friday, declined in April to its lowest level in seven months.

“Consumer mood and spending have been rather subdued recently due to volatility in the stock market and rising pump prices, despite well received employment reports,” said IHS economist Chris Christopher. But he forecasts better April spending, “so long as the stock market behaves itself, second-quarter consumer spending is likely to be significantly stronger than the first quarter.”

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