why the Fed is looking at/for wage gains

This is Jackson Hole week, when the world’s central bankers convene in Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming to compare notes.  From their meetings, we’ll get a better sense of what the architects of the current emergency-easy money policy are thinking and planning.

Conventional wisdom  is that in times of economic stress the central bank should lower interest rates to a point significantly below the rate of inflation–and keep them there until people and companies borrow the “free” money and invest in large enough amounts to launch an economic rebound.

One indicator that the Fed is watching carefully is the rate at which wages are rising.  In theory, employers only raise wages a lot when they’ve run out of available unemployed workers and can expand only by headhunting away people who are already employed elsewhere.  So wage increases at a faster clip than inflation mean it’s high time to tighten money policy;  sub-inflation wage gains–the kind we have now–mean there’s no rush.

Policymakers appear to be giving this rule of thumb a rethink, however.

For one thing, short-term interest rates have been at effectively zero for over half a decade.  You’d think unequivocal signs of economic strength should have been evident long before now.

There’s no sign I can see that central bankers have any sympathy for the plight of savers (read: the Baby Boom and the elderly), whose desire for safe and stable fixed income investments has been the chief casualty of the economic rescue effort.  However, they do seem to be concerned that the search for yield in a zero-interest-rate world has caused savers to buy exotic instruments (hundred-year bonds, contingent convertibles, for instance) that will likely suffer wicked losses as rates begin to eventually rise toward a normal 3.5% or so.  Is the cure worse than the disease, at this point?

Lately, the money authorities seem to be expressing a second worry.  Suppose the emergence of inflation-beating wage gains isn’t the reliable indicator it’s thought to be.  If so, the Fed may be distorting the fixed income market–and buying trouble down the road–for no good reason.

Why would sub-inflation wage gains be the norm, even in an expanding economy?

Maybe in past economic cycles, high wage gains were caused mostly by the tendency of union contracts to index wages for inflation, not by overworking headhunters.  Maybe the psychology of managements penciling in inflation-plus or simply inflation-matching annual wage increases for the workforce has gone by the boards in a world that has experienced two ugly recessions–the more recent one an epic decline–since the turn of the century.  …sort of in the way inflationary expectations have disappeared from the minds of current workers.  Again, if so, maybe interest-rate normalization should happen at a faster pace than currently planned.

We’ll likely hear more on this topic as this week’s meeting gets under way.

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