Profits Are Still Rising, Why Is the Fed Worried About Wage Growth?

March 28, 2024

I was more than a bit surprised to see the profit data this morning. I really did believe that the profit surge during the pandemic was a one-off, associated with supply-chain issues.

We can argue about how much of this increase was a predictable story, where profits rise due to shortages, and how much was about companies exploiting market power to jack up prices, but the fact that profit shares increased is not disputable. In any case, it was reasonable to expect that profits would return to their pre-pandemic shares after supply chains returned to normal.

That doesn’t look like what is happening, as shown below.

Source: BEA and author’s calculations, see text.

The profit share of corporate income rose to 26.8 percent in the fourth quarter from 26.3 percent in the third quarter. That is down only 0.5 percentage points from its pandemic peak of 27.3 percent in the second quarter of 2021 and well above the 24.3 percent average for 2019.[1]

This rise in profit shares really should have the Fed rethinking its inflation-fighting strategy. It is certainly true that the 6.0 percent rate of wage growth at the end of 2021 and start of 2022 was inconsistent with the Fed’s 2.0 percent inflation target. However, the current rate of roughly 4.0 percent is obviously consistent with the Fed’s target, if it is allowing companies to increase their profit share. This implies that we should actually want to see a somewhat more rapid pace of wage growth, unless we think profit shares need to be increasing indefinitely.

There are a couple of important qualifications here. First, we saw extraordinary productivity growth in 2023. Clearly corporations were the main beneficiaries of this growth. If this uptick was an aberration and we revert to something closer to the pre-pandemic growth rate, then profit shares may not continue to rise with a 4.0 percent pace of wage growth and could even edge back somewhat.

The other big qualification is that there is a large and unusual discrepancy between GDP measured on the income side and GDP measured on the output side. In principle these sums should be identical, but in a $28 trillion economy, they never come out exactly the same.

In recent decades, the income side has generally been about 0.5 percentage points higher than the output side. In the fourth quarter, the income side was 2.0 percentage points lower. We usually assume that the true figure lies somewhere between the two measures.

This would imply that the true sum of wages and profits is 1.0 to 2.0 percentage points higher than what is now reported. If that gap ends up being disproportionately wages or profits it could change the picture somewhat, but even if the full 2.0 percentage points all ended up being wage income it would not change the fact that the profit share is still far above its pre-pandemic level.  

The upshot is that it really is time for the Fed to declare “Mission Accomplished” and take its foot off the brake. If profit shares are rising, there is no reason for it to be trying to slow wage growth.   

[1] These figures take Line 8 (net operating surplus) from NIPA Table 1.14, minus Line 11 (Federal Reserve Bank profits) from Table 6.16D divided by Line 8 plus Line 4 (labor compensation) from Table 1.14.


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