In the News: Wages growth is worse than the headlines claim

For once the headlines have been underplaying bad news. That stubbornly weak wage price index (WPI)? The reality is worse.

The Reserve Bank’s quarterly statement on monetary policy, released on Friday, highlights two broader and arguably better wages measures that are tracking lower than the low WPI.

And the RBA, like much of the rest of the world, remains uncertain about when and how the trend might change, clinging somewhat hopefully to the old economic textbook explanations while acknowledging the world has changed.

The bank does have a hot tip on how to get a decent pay rise: change employer.

It also has a warning about pay rates if you stay put – the average enterprise bargaining agreement signed last year means lower wages growth for the next two or three years.

The RBA warns that the strength of household consumption is a major uncertainty in its otherwise rather rosy economic outlook. That uncertainty in turn rests mainly on the inability of households to earn much more money.

The WPI running around 2 per cent growth is in effect flatlining in real terms – it’s barely marking time with inflation.

But as the accompanying RBA graph shows, our average earnings per hour growth is about half the WPI. The nominal wage price is one thing, what people are actually being paid per hour is quite another.

The other half of the same graph shows both a dire warning and the cause of a surprise disappointment.

Thanks primarily to the minimum wage case, the average award wage increase last year was markedly higher. The surprise was that this had minimal impact on overall wages. Award movements aren’t what they used to be, never mind when pay is cut through the removal of penalty rates.

The warning is in the downturn in pay rises granted in EBAs signed over the past year. As the RBA summarises:

“The rollover to new enterprise bargaining agreements with lower wage growth than current agreements will exert downward pressure on overall wage growth for the next couple of years.”

And then there’s the bad news of a yet-broader measure, AENA – average earnings from the national accounts. Says the RBA:

“Growth in AENA remains subdued and noticeably weaker than growth in the WPI. AENA includes a broader range of labour earnings than WPI, such as allowances and redundancy payments, and captures any compositional changes in the labour market.”

Another surprising aspect is that AENA growth was particularly weak in “goods-related industries such as construction”. The RBA suggests that might have reflected the slowing in demand for highly paid construction jobs in new mining projects – it certainly doesn’t reflect what’s been happening in the cities with big infrastructure projects and strong housing starts.

Among those compositional changes is a widening gap between entry-level and median wages, as the graph demonstrates. The SOMP cites Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) survey data that show the dollar gap has not been wider between the median hourly wage and that for those who had been unemployed or not in the labour force.

The same survey points to about the only way most people are able to get an inflation-beating wage rise: change employer. The RBA notes broad-based declines in wage growth for the majority of workers who have remained with the same employer in recent years.

“The share of workers changing employers has been at a low level in recent years and the boost to earnings from changing jobs has declined since the mining boom,” say the RBA economists.

As RBA governor Philip Lowe said in a speech last week, the RBA is paying close attention to wage growth as it could have a significant impact on the outlook for growth and inflation over the next couple of years, but it seems our central bank, like others, is still struggling to nail down the issues behind the issue.

Lowe’s first speech on the subject last year infamously (in my opinion) ignored all consideration of the decline of unionism and the rise of cost-cutting as a determinant of executive bonuses. Now the SOMP at least includes “changes to employee bargaining power” as one of the factors contributing to subdued wage pressures.

The bottom line for the governor remains faith in the laws of supply and demand still working, that there will be a gradual pick-up in wage growth as the economy strengthens. It’s something he’s hoping for, saying some higher wages growth would be a welcome development.

“Indeed, a lift in wage growth is likely to be necessary for inflation to average around the midpoint of the 2-3 per cent medium-term inflation target,” he said. “Stronger growth in real wages would also boost household incomes and create a stronger sense of shared prosperity.”

The federal government talks the same talk, the Treasurer telling workers to ask for more money. There’s plenty of irony. The fabulously profitable RBA is itself only granting wages rises of 2 per cent a year for the next three years.

That’s in keeping with the federal government restricting public service union enterprise agreements to 2 per cent for the next three years. Bigger increases are possible only if employees ditch their unions and go for individual arrangements.

The public service is one of the last bastions of Australian unionism but under the Turnbull government’s new bargaining policy, federal government agencies will be able to employ all workers on common law contracts.

There’s a silver lining to most clouds, in this case for Australians with big mortgages. The continuing squeeze on wages growth means a RBA interest rate rise remains distant. Rates aren’t going up until wages are.

“The size of new wage claims, both in enterprise and individual agreements, will provide an indication of any recovery in wage growth,” concludes the RBA’s statement – and there’s no such indication.

Publisher: The Sydney Morning Herald

Author: Michael Pascoe