17.06.2024 Issuer Call Redemption Notice

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Sandeep Rao


Mixed Signals: US Wages Belie End of Recession

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Last week, it was confirmed that the US Consumer Price Index (CPI) rose 8.3% year-on-year. Given that July’s CPI of 8.5% was a little less than the previous month’s 9.1%, a continued downtrend would have been an indicator that US recession was showing signs of recovery. August’s number – in slight excess of forecasted estimates – this indicator doesn’t hold water. Since the announcement, the S&P 500 dropped 4.32% over the day.

In Bank of America’s Fund Manager Survey edition in July (which was discussed in an earlier article), it was estimated by the survey organizer that CPI month-on-month pivots has no means for reducing inflation rises by the end of the year.

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One means of combating inflation would be for the US Federal Reserve raising rates to mop up the money supply. However, as per estimations made of CPI changes versus that in the Fed Rate, it would be around a year until CPI changes stabilize.

Now, an earlier article had indicated how data suggests that both the “working-class” population segment (i.e. predominantly those without a college degree) and the “middle-class” segment (i.e. predominantly those with a college degree) in the U.S. had been driven to consider debt as a primary spend versus consumption. This affects growth outlook in the U.S. economy that is already battling inflation woes. However, despite over a year of steady inflationary pressure, U.S. authorities have been unwilling to call the current period a recession. The primary reason for this is the U.S. job market: data indicates that unemployment is low, thus rationalizing their argument that there is no potential recession.

On a purely quantitative basis, this argument holds water. However, on a qualitative basis, this argument has some worrying trends to contend with. The first one is trends in CEO pay vs average pay. As per a study published by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) in August 2021, CEO pay in the US has been skyrocketing relative to that of average worker pay (which includes both “working-class” and “middle-class” segments) since the mid-nineties.

In total terms, from 1978 to 2020, “realized” CEO compensation increased 1,322.2% — more than 60% faster than stock market growth (depending on the market index used) and substantially faster than the slow 18.0% growth in the typical worker’s compensation over the same period. From a relatively humble ratio of a little over 30X in the late seventies, this gap was 351X by the end of 2020. Also, interestingly, big pay gap highs have nearly always been followed by an economic downturn in the 21st century, following which the pay gap rationalizes to a degree.

The same study by EPI also examined evidence to conclude that CEO compensation grew much faster than the earnings of the top 0.1% of wage earners in the country, thus putting paid to arguments in some circles that increasing CEO compensation also implies a commensurate increase in pay of “productive workers”. For instance, data showed top 0.1% annual earnings growing 341% from 1978 to 2019, which is only a third as much as the 1,096% growth of our measure of realized CEO compensation for the same period. As of 2020, the gap between CEO pay gap was at a near-8 year high and trending further upwards.

In another study published in May this year that examined historical data, the EPI arrived at an interesting conclusion: low wage earners are less likely to leave an employer and seek higher wages elsewhere.

When this tendency was analyzed in residual terms (i.e. one that accounts for living costs across the board), it becomes clearer that low-wage earners and very high wage earners are less likely to while those in the “middle class” are more likely to. While very high wage earners are likely to have an inherent ownership interest, low wage earners typically used to find no significant upgrades in wages.

Given the middle class’ relative proximity to the top 0.1% wage earners and CEO – at least in terms of working relationships – this implies that the wage gap affects the middle class on a qualitative basis far more. However, in an inflationary setting, “labour elasticity”, i.e. an ability to jump from one employer to another, stiffens considerably. This leads to a phenomenon known as “non-engagement” wherein an employee does the bare minimum in order to remain employed and have no psychological connection to their workplace as opposed to those striving (“engaging”) to make personal gains via achievements. “Disengagement”, on the other hand, implies that employees feel their needs are not met.

Earlier this month, survey specialist Gallup published the results of a survey which showed an interesting phenomenon: while average disengagement has largely stabilized, average engagement has been dropping for nearly two years now.

During Q2 2022, the proportion of “engaged” workers remained at 32% while the proportion of “actively disengaged” increased to 18%. The ratio of engaged to actively disengaged employees is now 1.8 to 1, the lowest in almost 10 years. Managers, i.e. those more likely to be “middle class”, experienced the greatest drop in engagement. This means that 50% of the U.S. workforce is “not engaged”.

Given the trends in “engagement” loss, productivity now becomes incumbent on fewer and fewer people than ever before. The intertwining factors are thus: with rising inflation affecting input costs and high CEO/top 0.1% wage earners pay comes pressure on maintaining bottom lines. Maintaining wages along “other ranks” becomes the go-to option in many cases.

Interestingly, the US Federal Reserve’s Wage Growth tracker confirms this trend and adds a lot of interesting subtext to make inferences from.

Firstly, college degree holders – the “middle class” hasn’t experienced as great an increase in wages as “hourly wage” earners. This shows that, despite a lesser elasticity being imputed, the “working class” is both keenly affected by inflation and demanding a redressal in their situation. Secondly, “job stayers” – generally long-term “active engagers” – have seen the least wage increase while “job switchers” – generally “non-engaged” workers – have seen the highest increase in wages.

Qualitatively, “active engagers” tend to be have a positive impact on company profitability. Sacrificing them on the altar of expediency, if true, is a dire indicator for the outlook. There’s also another perspective: today’s “job switcher” is tomorrow’s “job stayer”. If “job stayers'” wages continue to flounder, increasing “active engagers” and stabilizing strong contributors will be increasingly difficult for companies. In this event, maintaining a positive outlook on corporate growth has yet another impediment.

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