January 09, 2023
Everyone who carefully follows the news about the economy knows that we are in the middle of the Second Great Depression. On the other hand, those who read less news, but deal with things like jobs, wages, and bills probably think the economy is pretty damn good. We got more evidence on the pretty damn good side with the December jobs report and other economic data released in the last week.
The most important part of the jobs report was the drop in the unemployment rate to 3.5 percent. This equals the lowest rate in more than half a century. While many in the media insist that only elite intellectual types care about jobs, not ordinary workers, since the ability to pay for food, rent, and other bills is tightly linked to having a job, it seems that at least some workers might care about being able to work.
For these people, the tight labor market we have seen as the economy recovered from the pandemic recession is really good news. Not only do people have jobs, but the strong labor market means they can quit bad jobs. If the pay is low, the working conditions are bad, the boss is a jerk, workers can go elsewhere.
And, they are choosing to do so in large numbers. In November, the most recent month for which we have data, 2.7 percent of all workers, 4.2 million people, quit their job. This is near the record high of 3.0 percent reported at the end of 2021, and still above the highs reached before the pandemic and at the end of the 1990s boom.
The ability to quit bad jobs has predictably led to rising wages. Employers must raise pay to attract and retain workers. Real wages were dropping at the end of 2021 and the first half of 2022, as inflation outpaced wage growth, but as inflation slowed in the last half year, real wages have been rising at a healthy pace.
From June to November, the real average hourly wage has increased by 0.9 percent, a 2.2 percent annual rate. (We don’t have December price data yet.) Workers lower down the pay scale have done even better. The real average hourly wage for production and non-supervisory workers, a category that excludes managers and other highly paid workers, has risen by 1.4 percent since June, a 3.3 percent annual rate of increase. In the hotel and restaurant sectors, real pay has risen by 1.8 percent since June, a 4.4 percent annual rate of increase.
These real pay gains follow declines in 2021 and first half of 2022, but for many workers pay is already above the pre-pandemic level. For production and non-supervisory workers, the real average hourly wage is 0.3 percent above the February, 2020 level. For production and non-supervisory workers in the hotel and restaurant sectors real pay is up by 4.7 percent. The overall average for all workers is only down by 0.3 percent, a gap that will likely be largely eliminated by the wage growth reported for December.
While we may still have problems with inflation going forward, the sharp slowing in recent months was an unexpected surprise. We saw gas prices fall most of the way back to pre-pandemic levels. Many of the items where prices rose sharply due to supply chain problems, like appliances and furniture, are now seeing rapid drops in prices. Rents, which are a huge factor in the Consumer Price Index (CPI) and people’s budgets, have slowed sharply and are now falling in many areas. It will be several months before this slowing shows up in the CPI because of its methodology for measuring rental inflation, but based on private indexes of marketed housing units, we can be certain we will see rents rising much more slowly soon.
In short, there are good reasons for believing that we will see much slower inflation going forward. If we continue to see moderate nominal wage growth in 2023, that will translate into a healthy pace of real wage growth.
Also, contrary to what is widely reported, we had a largely positive picture on housing in the last three years. While current mortgage rates are pricing many people out of the market, homeownership did rise rapidly since the pandemic
The overall homeownership rate increased by 1.0 percentage point from the fourth quarter of 2019 to the third quarter of 2022. For Blacks, it rose by 1.2 percentage points, from 44.0 percent to 45.2 percent. For young people it rose by 1.7 percentage points, from 37.6 percent to 39.3 percent. For lower income households it rose by 1.3 percentage points from 51.4 percent to 52.7 percent.
It is striking that this rise in homeownership, especially for the most disadvantaged groups, is 180 degrees at odds with what is being reported in the media. These data come from the Census Bureau, which is generally considered an authoritative source. Nonetheless, the media have insisted that this has been a period in which young people, minorities, and low-income households have faced extraordinary difficulties in buying houses.
The media have also frequently told us that people are being forced to dip into their savings and that the saving rate is now at a record low. While the saving rate has fallen sharply in the last year, a major factor is that people have sold stock at large gains and are now paying capital gains taxes on these gains. Capital gains do not count as income, but the taxes paid on these gains are deducted from income in the national accounts, thereby lowering the saving rate. It’s not clear that people who sold stock at a gain, and then pay tax on that gain, are suffering severe financial hardship.
We also have the story of rapidly rising credit card debt. This has been presented as another indication of financial hardship. There actually is a simple and very different story. In 2020 and 2021, tens of millions of homeowners took advantage of extraordinarily low mortgage rates to refinance their homes. When they refinanced, they often would borrow more than their original mortgage to pay for various expenses they might be facing.
The Fed’s rate hikes have largely put an end to refinancing, including cash-out refinancing. With this channel closed to households, people that formerly would have looked to borrow by refinancing mortgage are instead turning to credit cards. This is hardly a crisis. Furthermore, tens of millions of families that were paying thousands more in mortgage interest, now have additional money to spend or save. This is not reflected in aggregate data.
It’s also worth noting one reason that inflation may have left many people strapped: the cost-of-living adjustments for Social Security are only paid once a year. This meant the checks beneficiaries were getting could buy around 7.0 percent less in December than they had the start of the year. However, Social Security beneficiaries are seeing an 8.7 percent increase in the size of their checks this month. That should make life considerably easier for tens of millions of retirees, and also modestly boost the saving rate.
Productivity Growth and Working from Home
Other bright spots in the economy include the return of healthy productivity growth and the huge increase in the number of people working from home. We saw two quarters of negative productivity growth in the first half of last year.
Productivity growth is poorly measured and highly erratic, but there seems little doubt that productivity growth was very poor in the first and second quarters of 2022. This added to the inflationary pressure that businesses were seeing.
This situation was reversed in the third quarter, with productivity growth coming in at close to 1.0 percent, roughly in line with the pre-pandemic trend. It looks like productivity growth will be even better in fourth quarter. GDP growth is now projected to be well over 3.0 percent, while payroll hours grew at just a 1.0 percent annual rate, implying a productivity growth rate close to 2.0 percent. This would be great news if it can be sustained, but as always, a single quarter’s data has to be viewed with great caution.
The other big positive in the economic picture is the huge increase in the number of people working from home. One recent paper estimated that 30 percent of all workdays are now remote, up from around 10 percent before the pandemic. While that number may prove somewhat high, it is clear that tens of millions of workers are now saving thousands a year on commuting costs and hundreds of hours formerly spent commuting. That is also a huge deal which is not picked up in our national accounts.
If the Economy Is Great, Why Do People Say They Think It Is Awful?
I’m not going to try to answer that one, other than to note that there has been a “horrible economy” echo chamber in the media, where facts have often been distorted or ignored altogether. I don’t know if that explains why so many people say they think the economy is bad, I’m an economist, not a social psychologist.
I will say that people are not acting like they think the economy is bad. They are buying huge amounts of big-ticket items like appliances and furniture, and until very recently houses. They are also going out to restaurants at a higher rate than before the pandemic. This is not behavior we would expect from people who feel their economic prospects are bleak.
To be clear, there are tens of millions of people who are struggling. Many can’t pay the rent, buy decent food and clothes for their kids, or pay for needed medicine or medical care. That is a horrible story, but this unfortunately is true even in the best of economic times. Until we adopt policies to protect people facing severe hardship we will have tens of millions of people struggling to get the necessities of life.
But this is not the horrible economy story the media is telling us. That is one that is suppose to apply to people higher up the income ladder. And, thankfully that story only exists in the media’s reporting, not in the economic data.