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Bill Schmick: Wages aren't keeping pace with inflation, and workers are feeling the pinch

Thanksgiving Inflation

Americans saw double-digit percent increases in the price of turkey, potatoes, stuffing, canned pumpkin and other staples this Thanksgiving, likely erasing any wage gains they may have received in recent years.

American workers are making more dollars per hour than they did before the pandemic. That's the good news. The bad news is that inflation is wiping away most of those gains and the rate of wage growth is slowing.

Most Americans look at their paychecks today and feel pretty good. However, they realize that after spending on essentials such as food, fuel, education and health, they realize that their wages are not keeping up with the cost of living. "Real wages on average are falling, not rising," says San Francisco Fed President Mary Daly, summing up the present state of wage growth.

To be sure, there was a one-time surge in salaries back in 2021, which spilled over into the early months of this year, but since then, wage growth has been slowing.

Real average hourly wages in the U.S. in the private sector rose at a 3.9 percent rate in the three months ended in October, which is down from a high of 6.3 percent at the end of 2021, and they fell further to 5.9 percent as recently as the three months ended in July.

In general, the rate of change in wages has been falling for well over a year, while inflation at 7.8 percent remains close to its highest rate in decades. In dollars and cents terms, let's say you are an average worker making $30.06, which was the average wage back in March 2021. Fast forward to August of this year and now you are making $32.36. Not bad, huh?

Now let's throw in the inflation rate during that period, which had risen by 11.81 percent. Let's say it costs you $5,000 per month to pay all your bills, after inflation that monthly nut had now climbed to $5,591.

Over the past year, the Federal Reserve Bank has been doing its best to battle inflation back down to the 2 percent range, but it cautions that this is a process that will take time. This week. in a speech at the Economic Club of New York, John Williams, the New York Fed president, sees inflation falling to 5.0 to 5.5 percent by late 2023 as more interest rate hikes restore balance to the economy. How does raising interest rates to reduce inflation and restore economic balance?

For one thing, it reduces demand in the economy by reducing discretionary spending, which is an economic buzzword for making it harder to make ends meet if you are a typical worker. Higher interest rates spill over into borrowing rates, which make buying a home, or an automobile, or paying down your credit card more expensive to consumers. So, the tools that the Fed is using to reduce inflation are hurting the labor force, while wages are not keeping up with inflated expenses.

One way out of this dilemma for many workers is to job jump. After all, jobs are plentiful right now, so if you don't like the one you have, just get another one. As an added incentive, in this tight labor market, switching jobs frequently comes with another bump up in pay or at least a signing bonus. Some workers I know personally have moved positions two or three times in the last two to three years while upping their total compensation on every move.

However, those days may be coming to an end. Fed President Williams, while admitting that the job market remains remarkedly tight, expects the U.S. unemployment rate to rise from 3.7 percent today to 4.5 to 5 percent by the end of next year. If so, job hopping to keep ahead of inflation might not be as easy to pull off.

If it makes any difference, you are not alone. European workers are experiencing a similar gap between wages and inflation even though they are represented by far more unions than here in the U.S.

Bill Schmick is registered as an investment adviser representative of Onota Partners Inc. in the Berkshires. He can be reached at 413-347-2401, or email him at billiams1948@gmail.com.

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