UK real wage growth continues to disappoint

Today brings us back to the domestic beat and in fact the heartbeat of the UK economy which is its labour market. This has in recent years seen two main developments. The first is a welcome rise in employment which has seen the unemployment rate plunge. But the second has been that wage growth has decoupled from this leaving the Ivory Towers of the establishment building what might be called castles in the sky.  In that fantasy world wage growth would now be around 5% except it is not and in fact it is nowhere near it.

Oh tell me why
Do we build castles in the sky?
Oh tell me why
Are the castles way up high? ( Ian Van Dahl)

Or if we look at the Bank of England Inflation Report from earlier this month.

A tightening labour market and lower unemployment is typically associated with higher pay growth  as it becomes more difficult for firms to recruit and retain staff.

This is another way of expressing the “output gap” theory which keeps needing revision as it keeps being wrong. As this from Geoff Tily shows that has been a consistent feature of Governor Carney’s term at the Bank of England.

In 2014, Bank of England Governor Mark Carney told the TUC Congress that wages should start rising in real terms “around the middle of next year” and “accelerate” afterwards” .

They did rise in the first half of 2015, but then decelerated afterwards.

Actually the Inflation Report does address the issue but only with what George Benson described as “hindsight is 20/20 vision”.

During the financial crisis, output fell and unemployment rose, as companies reduced hiring and increased redundancies. The number of additional hours people wanted to work also rose, perhaps in response to a squeeze in their real incomes. Taken together, these factors led to a substantial degree of spare capacity opening up in the labour market over this period. This, in turn, was a significant factor behind subdued wage growth during 2009–15.

It is a shame they did not figure that out at the time and looking forwards seems to be stuck on repeat.

Pay growth has risen over the past year  and tightness in the labour market is expected to push up pay growth slightly further in coming years.

At least there has been a slight winding back here but something rather familiar in concept pops up albeit that the specific number keeps changing.

This was broadly in line with the MPC’s judgement of the equilibrium rate of unemployment of 4¼%, suggesting little scope for unemployment to fall further without generating excess wage pressure.

The problem here is that an unemployment rate of 7% was supposed to be significant when Forward Guidance began although it went wrong so quickly that we then had a 6.5% equilibrium rate then 5.5% then 4.5%. The February Inflation Report gave us  “a statistical filtering model” which seems to have simply chased the actual unemployment rate lower. Along the way I spotted this.

The relationship between wage growth and
unemployment is assumed to be linear

You basically need to have lived the last decade under a stone to think that! Or of course be in an Ivory Tower.

Today’s data

This brought some excellent news so let’s get straight to it.

The unemployment rate (the number of unemployed people as a proportion of all employed and unemployed people) was 4.0%; it has not been lower since December 1974 to February 1975.

This of course has an implication for the Bank of England which has signaled an equilibrium rate of 4.25% as discussed above. Thus we can move on knowing that its improved models ( we know they are improved because they keep telling us so) will be predicting increased wage growth.

Returning to the quantity or employment situation we see that it looks good.

There were 32.39 million people in work, 42,000 more than for January to March 2018 and 313,000 more than for a year earlier.The employment rate (the proportion of people aged from 16 to 64 years who were in work) was 75.6%, unchanged compared with January to March 2018 but higher than for a year earlier (75.1%).

This is good news but needs to come with some caveats. The first is that the rate of improvement looks to be slowing which is maybe not a surprise at these levels. The next issue is more theoretical which is the issue of how we record employment and the concept of underemployment where people have work but less than they want. We do get some flashes of this and this morning’s release did give a hint of some better news.

There were 780,000 people (not seasonally adjusted) in employment on “zero-hours contracts” in their main job, 104,000 fewer than for a year earlier.

But if we switch back to the unemployment rate we know from looking at Japan that it can drop to 2.2% which means that we cannot rule out that ours will go lower and maybe a fair bit lower. So there could be a fair bit of underemployment out there still which is backed up by the attempts to measure it.

By this measurement, the number of underemployed people in the three months to June 2018 stood at 2.39 million, down 121,000 when compared with the previous quarter.

This compares to under 2 million pre credit crunch although I am not clear why these numbers consider the working week to be 48 hours?

Wages

This should be a case of “the only way is up” if we look at the Bank of England analysis.

regular pay increased by 2.7%, slightly lower than the growth rate between March to May 2017 and March to May 2018 (2.8%)……total pay increased by 2.4%, slightly lower than the growth rate between March to May 2017 and March to May 2018 (2.5%)

There is an initial feeling of deja vu as we were told this last month so the past has seen an upwards revision but there is little or no sign of the “output gap” pulling it higher. In fact bonuses fell by 6.6% on a year ago in June meaning that total pay growth fell to 2.1%. This means that in the first half of 2018 the rate of total pay growth has gone from 2.8% to 2.1% via 2.6% (twice) and 2.5% (twice). Unless you live in an Ivory Tower that is lower and not higher.

The Bank of England response mirrors their response when inflation was a particular problem for them which is to keep breaking the numbers down until you find one that does work. In this instance it takes two steps moving first to the private-sector to eliminate the public-sector pay caps and then to regular pay eliminating the bonus weakness. On that road you can point out a 2.9% increase although attempts to say it is rising have the issue of it being 3% in February and 3.2% in March. If they want more they could point us to regular pay in construction which is rising at an annual rate of 5.6% ( which of course begs a question about the official output statistics there).

Comment

The credit crunch era has been one where we have found ourselves ripping whole chapters out of economics 101 textbooks. By contrast both the establishment and the Ivory Towers have clung  to them like a life raft in spite of the evidence to the contrary. Of course one day their persistent lottery ticker buying will likely bear fruit but there is little sign of it so far. Instead they have the Average White Band on repeat.

Let’s go ’round again
Maybe we’ll turn back the hands of time
Let’s go ’round again
One more time (One more time)
One more time (One more time)

For the rest of us we see that there is more work but that wage growth seems to get stuck in the 2% zone. Even at the extraordinary low-level of unemployment seen in Japan the wage position remains Definitely Maybe after plenty of real wage falls. I am not sure that the productivity data helps as much as it used to as we have switched towards services where it is much harder to measure and somewhere along the way capital productivity got abandoned and now it is just labour. Of course all of this simply ignores the self-employed as they are not in the earnings figures and nor are smaller businesses.

 

 

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Has Abenomics in Japan found what it is looking for?

This morning has brought news from Nihon the land of the rising sun and no I do not mean that the summer has been especially hot this year peaking at above 40 degrees centigrade around Tokyo. I mean this from The Japan Times.

Separate data showed workers’ real wages rose 2.8 percent in June from a year earlier, accelerating from a 1.3 percent increase in May and marking the fastest pace of growth since January 1997.

We have been noting a change in the pattern and waiting for developments and the June numbers are good but come with a kicker. What I mean by this is that it is the month where around two thirds of the summer bonuses are paid so it is good for workers as the 2.8% is of a larger than normal amount as pay is 41% above average in the month. But the kicker is that the boost is mostly bonuses and therefore will fade.

Looking into the detail we see that nominal wage growth was 3.6% and was pulled higher by the manufacturing sector where the summer bonuses saw wage growth rise to 4.2%. It must have been party time in the wholesale and distribution sector as total wage growth rose at an annual rate of 10.7%. So there was an excellent bonus season as 3.6% growth replaced the 0.4% of this time last year.

What about base or regular pay?

This was by no means as good as contracted earnings rose at an annual rate of 1.5% and scheduled earnings at 1.3%. However these are better numbers than seen in 2017 or indeed in the Abenomics era. Just to give you the picture starting in 2014 annual growth has gone -0.1%, 0.2%,0.2% and 0.4% last year. When you consider that one of the Abenomics “arrows” was supposed to be higher wages that was quite a failure when you consider all the monetary easing.

Now the picture looks a little better as real wage rises have replaced falls albeit that they are small such that pressure is put on the accuracy of the data. They probably cannot take it but they are what we have.

Full employment

I get regularly asked what this concept is and if it is seen anywhere in practice Japan seems to be it. For example whilst the unemployment rate nudged higher to 2.4% in June it is extraordinarily low. The job applicant to vacancy ratio has been setting new highs at 2.47 according to Japan Macro Advisers. Thus economic theory would predict that wages would have been rising and frankly surging, after all the Bank of Japan estimated that the structural rate of unemployment was 3.5% as another Ivory Tower foundation bites the dust.

The blame game

At the end of last month the Bank of Japan published some new research on this issue. First we get something of a criticism of what is called Japan Inc.

Basically, the reason for this is that, under Japan’s
labor market structure, which is characterized by
different wage-setting mechanisms for regular and
non-regular employees, the increase in wages of
regular employees has been remarkably
sluggish.

This is pretty standard analysis world-wide of course except the degree of tightness of the labour market is exceptional in Japan. But the theme of employers being willing to do almost anything other than raising basic pay we have seen pretty much all over the world. However the next bit of research has more than a few implications.

With labor shortage intensifying recently, the pace
of increase in the labor force participation rate,
especially among women and seniors, is
accelerating.

Encouraging women to work has been a government objective and you can see the rise in older people working in two ways. One as a sign of good health in that they can but the second is not so positive as I have noted before some are forced to work because times are hard. A while back I noted the issue of retired women in Japan sometimes being very poor which is against its culture. Well if you throw all of these factors into the pot look what the Bank of Japan thinks you get.

In other words, among these groups,
there will be greater labor supply for the same rate
of increase in wages . As a result, as
labor demand increases (represented by a shift of
the labor demand curve to the right in the chart),
women and seniors will supply more labor, which
in turn suppresses wage increases.

So this has been a boost for Japan Inc which has increased its labour supply cheaply but not good for existing workers.

If the labor supply of women and seniors were not elastic,
wage increases likely would have been larger.

So it was them that done it if we look at it in tabloid terms but where the Bank of Japan does not go I will. You see if we go back to the critiques of the likely behaviour of Prime Minister Abe before he was elected there was the case that he would favour Japanese businesses and Japan Inc. Just like he had in his first term. Well is there anything they would like more than a cheap labour supply? Especially in a country which due to a shrinking population has a clear issue with labour supply.

Next comes the impact of a supply of cheap labour. This makes me think of the UK where the Ivory Towers tell us again and again that the increase in labour supply from net immigration did not affect wage growth. Now there are various factors to put in this particular melting pot but this research from the Bank of Japan is clearly heading in the opposite direction.

Productivity

Here is something you may not expect but I mention it from time to time so let me hand over to the Bank of Japan and the emphasis is mine.

One reason is that the productivity of
Japanese firms is relatively low and there is large
room to raise productivity, mainly in the
nonmanufacturing sector. In fact, Japan’s labor productivity remains at only 60 to 70 percent of the U.S. level.

Japan has been doing well in terms of growth recently but there are two issues. Firstly even 1.2% per annum is not great and secondly it has been forced on it as it looks to a future of labour shortages.

Comment

There is a fair bit to consider here. The rise in wages in June is welcome and the Yen in the workers pocket does not know whether it is a result of regular or bonus pay. But for now it looks like some icing on a similar cake. Combining this with the news on inflation that I discussed last time means that one area of Abenomics failure will in fact  be a positive here.

Another factor is that households are reluctant to
accept rises in housing rent and administered
prices given the low actual inflation rate and
inflation expectations ( Bank of Japan)

If we throw in imputed rent as well that is half the inflation measure. The Japanese do not know have lucky they are to have this and for all the Turning Japanese themes the Bank of Japan wants them to turn British in this respect. But if we move on from the detail we see that low inflation means this looks like a better year for real wages. Accordingly if we look back to my last update on this issue from a fortnight or so ago this from Gavyn Davies in the Financial Times looks even worse than it did then.

Even with very careful communication and forward guidance, monetary policy may not be sufficient, on its own, to reach the inflation target. Eventually, unconventional fiscal easing may also be needed, though this is not remotely on the horizon at present.

As ever the picture remains complex as so far the wages growth has yet to filter through.

Household spending fell 1.2 percent in June from a year earlier, government data showed on Tuesday, marking the fifth straight month of declines.

 

 

 

UK employment looks strong but wage growth less so

Today brings us a consequence of yesterday;s discussion as we analyse the latest wages numbers which are entwined with the productivity situation. These days the causality is invariably assumed to be from productivity to wages but there is this about Henry Ford from National Public Radio in the US.

 $5 a day, for eight hours of work in a bustling factory.

That was more than double the average factory wage at that time, and for U.S. workers it was one of the defining moments of the 20th century.

Which led to this.

”It was an absolute, total success,” Kreipke says. “In fact, it was better than anybody had even thought.”

The benefits were almost immediate. Productivity surged, and the Ford Motor Co. doubled its profits in less than two years. Ford ended up calling it the best cost-cutting move he ever made.

Some combination of positive and lateral thinking led Henry Ford to quite a triumph as we mull whether anyone would have that courage today. Perhaps some do but they are on a smaller scale and get missed.

Also there is the issue that some advances take us backwards in some respects as research from Princeton in the US quoted by regis told us this.

In their aggressive scenario, the world stock of robots will quadruple by 2025. This would correspond to 5.25 more robots per thousand workers in the United States, and with our estimates, it would lead to a 0.94-1.76 percentage
points lower employment to population ratio and 1.3-2.6 percent lower wage growth between 2015 and 2025.

This type of analysis is usually nose to the grindstone stuff however or if you like a type of micro economics where the measured effects are likely to look bad as robots replace people and the loss of usually skilled jobs leads to lower average wages. PWC have given a more macro style analysis a go. From the Guardian.

Artificial intelligence is set to create more than 7m new UK jobs in healthcare, science and education by 2037, more than making up for the jobs lost in manufacturing and other sectors through automation, according to a report.

A report from PricewaterhouseCoopers argued that AI would create slightly more jobs (7.2m) than it displaced (7m) by boosting economic growth. The firm estimated about 20% of jobs would be automated over the next 20 years and no sector would be unaffected.

In essence it comes down to this assumption.

as real incomes rise

Some may be wondering if “as society becomes richer” necessarily leads to that especially after a period where policies like QE have led to wealth rising via higher asset prices but real incomes have struggled in many places and real wages in the UK have fallen. The truth is that we are unsure and analysis on both sides mostly depends on the assumptions behind it. You pretty much get the answer you looked for.

What are wages doing?

Actually UK wage growth has been if we allow for the margin of error looks to have been pretty stable so far in 2018.

Between March to May 2017 and March to May 2018, in nominal terms, regular pay increased by 2.7%, slightly lower than the growth rate between February to April 2017 and February to April 2018 (2.8%).

Between March to May 2017 and March to May 2018, in nominal terms, total pay increased by 2.5%, slightly lower than the growth rate between February to April 2017 and February to April 2018 (2.6%).

Whilst there is a small fall on this basis we see that from February to May total pay growth has gone 2.6%, 2.5%, 2.6% and now 2.5%. By the standards of these numbers that is remarkably stable. This poses a question for the Bank of England as there is not much of a sign of annual wage growth there.

If we move to real wages we find that most of the change we have seen has come from falling inflation.

Between March to May 2017 and March to May 2018, in real terms (that is, adjusted for consumer price inflation), regular pay for employees in Great Britain increased by 0.4% and total pay for employees in Great Britain increased by 0.2%.

Actually they are being a little disingenuous there as people might think that this refers to the CPI inflation measure whereas later they explain that it is CPIH ( H=Housing) with its fantasy imputed rents. This flatters the numbers as the latter keeps giving lower inflation readings and this is before we get to the Retail Price Index or RPI which would have real pay still falling.

The output gap

Today’s quantity numbers for the UK labour market were good again.

There were 32.40 million people in work, 137,000 more than for December 2017 to February 2018 and 388,000 more than for a year earlier…….The employment rate (the proportion of people aged from 16 to 64 years who were in work) was 75.7%, higher than for a year earlier (74.9%) and the highest since comparable records began in 1971.

Also whilst we do not have a formal measure of underemployment like the U-6 measure in the United States it looks as though it is improving too as Chris Dillow points out.

Big drop in the wider measure of joblessness in Mar-May (unemp+part-timers wanting f-t work + inactive wanting a job) – down from 4.51m to 4.35m

Yet the continuing good news does not seem to be doing much for wages. We get surveys telling us they are picking up but the official data is either missing it or it is not happening. If we go through that logically then is wage growth is taking place it must be in the ranks of the self-employed or smaller companies ( the various official surveys only go to companies with a minimum of ten or in some cases 20 employees).

Productivity

This looks to have improved because the economy was growing through this period albeit nor very fast but hours worked did this.

the number of people in employment increased by 137,000  but total hours worked fell slightly (by 0.3 million) to 1.03 billion. This small fall in total hours worked reflected a fall in average weekly hours worked by full-time workers.

An odd combination in some ways as why take on more staff whilst reducing hours? But the optimistic view is that employers were expecting a rise in demand and were getting ready for it. Whatever the reason recorded productivity looks to have risen.

Comment

There is quite a bit to consider here. If we look back to 2007 we see total pay growth fluctuating around 5% and making a heady 7.3% in February. But before that there were plenty of 4% numbers. Now we occasionally break the 3% barrier but the last time if we use the three-month average was in the summer of 2015. So much for “output gap” style analysis so beloved by the Ivory Towers and the Bank of England.

As to the possible Bank of England move in August today’s numbers are unlikely to change your mind. Those arguing for a rise will look at the strong employment situation and those against will note the slight fading of wage growth. Which will an unreliable boyfriend go for?

What we need are better data sources and let me ask for two clear changes. We need wages data which at least tries to cover the self-employed and smaller businesses. We also need to be much clearer about what full-time employment is. As we stand we are in danger of failing the Yes Minister critique.

Sir Humphrey Appleby: If local authorities don’t send us the statistics that we ask for, then government figures will be a nonsense.

James Hacker: Why?

Sir Humphrey Appleby: They will be incomplete.

James Hacker: But government figures are a nonsense anyway.

Bernard Woolley: I think Sir Humphrey want to ensure they are a complete nonsense. ( The skeleton in the cupboard via IMDb)

 

 

 

 

UK real wages resume their fall

This morning brings us to the UK labour market data and if it feels early you are right. You see the UK statistics bodies decided that our Members of Parliament needed more time to digest the numbers before Prime Ministers Questions on a Wednesday lunchtime. It is not that big a deal except perhaps for confidence in the mathematical ability of our MPs.

In terms of expectations the mood music for wages has been positive with the latest survey from Markit/REC leading the way.

Strong demand for staff and low candidate
availability underpinned further increases in starting salaries and temp pay. Notably, salaries awarded to successfully placed permanent workers rose at the
steepest rate for three years.

This was driven by this.

Growth of demand for staff strengthened to a sixmonth
high in May, with sharp increases in both
permanent and temporary roles signalled by the
latest data.

So according to them there was more demand for staff which ran into shortages.

Overall, candidate availability declined at a sharper
rate midway through the second quarter. Permanent
candidate numbers fell at the fastest rate for four
months, while short-term staff availability
deteriorated at the quickest pace since last
November

Hence the higher pay albeit that beating the last 3 years is not spectacular but it is an improvement. Of course after yesterday’s data we are likely to be more sceptical about surveys from Markit as I note that it contradicts that release in a coupe of ways. Firstly this.

Although growth of demand for both permanent and
temporary staff in the private sector edged down
slightly since April,

It seems unlikely that manufacturers were looking for extra staff in April after the decline in production but let us be optimistic for now and hope that there was a surge in May leading to this.

Engineering was the best performing sector in the
demand for permanent staff league table during May.

Retail

Even the Markit/REC report pointed out the signs of trouble here.

with the exception of Retail, which registered a further
decline.

Indeed this seemed to be on the march again only yesterday.

Discount retailer Poundworld has appointed administrators, putting 5,100 jobs at risk.

The move came after talks with a potential buyer, R Capital, collapsed leaving Poundworld with no option other than administration. ( BBC)

This morning brought news of a major factor driving this as the high street New Look fashion store had very weak figures and the online Boohoo very good ones. But even if we add in the job gains as for example Amazon announcing 2500 new jobs recently to deliver all this online business this is a sector with falling employment overall.

Today’s data

Let us start with wages.

Between February to April 2017 and February to April 2018, in nominal terms, total pay increased by 2.5%, slightly lower than the growth rate between January to March 2017 and January to March 2018 (2.6%).

That is not inspiring for the survey we looked at earlier although there is some better news if we look into the detail. This is because total wage growth was revised up to 2.5% in March which April matched. So the numbers are now holding on a monthly basis at a higher level than we though last month but they are not rising.

As ever many prefer to cherry pick the data as for example the BBC is using a sub set of the numbers.

Between February to April 2017 and February to April 2018, in nominal terms, regular pay increased by 2.8%, slightly lower than the growth rate between January to March 2017 and January to March 2018 (2.9%).

This poses a problem as bonus pay matters to many so why does it get ignored? For example if you get the number quoted for average regular pay of £484 per week would you ignore the £32 of bonuses? At a time of pressure on real wages surely bonuses are more important.

If we stick with cherry pickers it was a dreadful month for the Bank of England as it has guided us towards private-sector regular wages which rose by 3.2% in March and 2.5% in April! Ooops and time for that to be redacted and replaced by a new measure like the unemployment rate was in the first phase of Forward Guidance. On a 3 monthly comparison it only falls from 3% to 2.9% but the catch is that April will be in the next two versions of that.

Moving to real wages we see sadly yet more cherry-picking. From the official release.

Between February to April 2017 and February to April 2018, in real terms (that is, adjusted for consumer price inflation), regular pay for employees in Great Britain increased by 0.4% and total pay for employees in Great Britain increased by 0.1%.

They use the woeful CPIH for this which assumes that owner occupiers rent their property to themselves when they do not. Whereas if they used the CPI for example as the casual reader might assume then real wages fell by 0.1% if compared to total pay. Fan of the Retail Price Index or RPI will continue to see falling real wages.

This is a familiar issue and seems to be something of a never-ending story.

Employment and Unemployment

The number below continues to be rather stellar.

There were 32.39 million people in work, 146,000 more than for November 2017 to January 2018 and 440,000 more than for a year earlier.

This does confirm at least part of the recruiters survey above. Let me just point out for newer readers that this is a quantity measure not a quality one and we have already had an issue with the quality number called wages. As another example the definition of full-time employment is of the chocolate teapot variety in my opinion. We may be getting a hint of an issue here from this alternative measure.

but total hours worked decreased by 4.1 million to 1.03 billion. (the number of people in employment increased by 146,000)

Maybe this was an impact of the cold snap we got in February/March but it is a rare sign of weakness in these section of data as hours worked per full-time employee fell.

Meanwhile there was more good news on unemployment

There were 1.42 million unemployed people (people not in work but seeking and available to work), 38,000 fewer than for November 2017 to January 2018 and 115,000 fewer than for a year earlier.

We have had loads of forecasts that unemployment will rise in the UK and even sectoral examples of it ( Retail) but overall it continues to fall even though it includes the recent weaker period if we look at the GDP numbers.

Also I get asked on here from time to time about the residual sector in these numbers which has been improving too.

The inactivity rate (the proportion of people aged from 16 to 64 years who were economically inactive) was 21.0%, lower than for a year earlier (21.5%) and the joint lowest since comparable records began in 1971.

Comment

Let me open with  piece of good news which is that it looks like UK productivity is currently improving as we may not have had much economic growth in 2018 but it is divided by a falling number of hours worked.

That is something although if we switch to the Ivory Towers things are going from bad to worse. After all the Office for Budget Responsibility switched about 9 months ago to projecting weaker productivity growth. That is before we get to the output gap theories it and the Bank of England hold so dear. As unemployment falls below what the Bank of England considers to be the equilibrium rate wages should be soaring except when you climb out of its dark,dank and dusty bunker they are not growing at the 5% per annum suggested by the OBR back in the day.  Forward Guidance and all that.

Let me finish by pointing out that rather shamefully the self-employed are excluded from the average earnings data. The numbers need some Coldpaly.

Lights will guide you home
And ignite your bones
And I will try to fix you

 

 

 

Japan is a land of high employment but still no real wage growth

Some days quite a few of our themes come naturally together and this morning quite a few strands have been pulled together by the news from Nihon the land of the rising sun. Here is NHK News on the subject.

Workers in Japan are continuing to take home bigger paychecks. A government survey says monthly wages rose year-on-year for the 9th-straight month in April.

Preliminary results show that pay for the month averaged about 277,000 yen, or roughly 2,500 dollars. That includes overtime and bonuses.

The number is an increase of 0.8 percent in yen terms from a year earlier. But when adjusted for inflation, the figure came in flat.

Nonetheless, labor ministry officials say that wages are continuing on a trend of moderate gains.

As you can see this is rather familiar where there is some wage growth in Japan but once we allow for inflation that fades away and often disappears. This is a particular disappointment after the better numbers for March which were themselves revised down as Reuters explains below.

That follows a downwardly revised 0.7 percent annual increase in real wages in March, which suggests that the government’s repeated efforts to encourage private-sector wage gains have fallen flat.

Growth in March was the first in four months, which had fueled optimism that a gradual rise in workers’ salaries would stimulate consumer spending in Japan.

Actually Reuters then comes up with what might be one of the understatements of 2018 so far.

The data could be discouraging for the Bank of Japan as it struggles to accelerate inflation to its 2 percent price target.

Let us now step back and take a deeper perspective and review this century. According to Japan Macro Advisers real wages began this century at 114.1 in January 2000 and you already get an idea of this part of the “lost decade” problem by noting that it is based at 100 some fifteen years later in 2015. As of the latest data it is at 100.5 so it has been on a road to nowhere.

Abenomics

One of the features of the Abenomics programme which began in December 2012 was supposed to be a boost to wages. The Bank of Japan has launched ever more QE ( which it calls QQE in the same way that the leaky Windscale nuclear reprocessing plant became the leak-free Sellafield) as shown below. From July 2016.

The Bank will purchase Japanese government bonds (JGBs) so that their amount outstanding will increase at an annual pace of about 80 trillion yen.

This is the main effort although as I have noted in my articles on the Tokyo Whale it has acquired quite an appetite for equities as well.

The Bank will purchase ETFs so that their amount outstanding will increase at an annual
pace of about 6 trillion yen(almost double the previous pace of about 3.3 trillion yen)

As it likes to buy on dips the recent Italian crisis will have seen it buying again and as of the end of March the Nikkei Asian Review was reporting this.

The central bank’s ETF holdings have reached an estimated 23 trillion yen based on current market value — equivalent to more than 3% of the total market capitalization of the Tokyo Stock Exchange’s first section — raising concerns about pricing distortions.

So not the reduction some were telling us was on the way but my main point today was that all of this “strong monetary easing” was supposed to achieve this and it hasn’t.

The Bank will continue with “QQE with a Negative Interest Rate,” aiming to achieve the price stability target of 2 percent, as long as it is necessary for maintaining that target in a stable manner.

The clear implication was that wages would rise faster than that. It is often forgotten that the advocates of QE thought that as prices rose in response to it then wages would rise faster. But that Ivory Tower world did not turn up as the inflation went into asset prices such as bonds,equities and houses meaning that wages were not in the cycle. Or as Bank of Japan Governor Kuroda put it at the end of last month.

Despite these improvements in the real economy, prices and wages have remained sluggish. This phenomenon has recently been labeled the “missing inflation” or “missing wage inflation” puzzle………. It is urgent that we explore the mechanism behind the changes in price and wage dynamics especially in advanced economies.

Most people would think it sensible to do the research before you launch at and in financial markets in such a kamikaze fashion.

The economy

There are different ways of looking at this. Here is the economic output position.

The economy shrank by 0.6 percent on an annualized basis, a much more severe contraction than the median estimate for an annualized 0.2 percent.

Fourth quarter growth was revised to an annualized 0.6 percent, down from the 1.6 percent estimated earlier. ( Reuters)

Imagine if that had been the UK we would have seen social media implode! As we note that over the past 6 months there has been no growth at all. In case you are wondering about the large revision those are a feature of the official GDP statistics in Japan which reverse the stereotype about Japan by being especially unreliable.

If we move to the labour market we get a different view. Here we see an extraordinary low-level of unemployment with the rate being a mere 2.5% and the job situation is summed up by this from Japan Macro Advisers.

In March 2018, New job offers to applicant ratio, a key indicator in Japan to measure the tightness of the labor demand/supply was 2.41 in March, signifying that there are 2.41 new job postings for each new job seeker. The ratio of 2.41 is the highest in the statistical history since it begun in 1963.

So the picture is confused to say the least.

Comment

There is a fair bit to consider here but let us start with the reality that whilst there are occasional flickers of growth so far the overall pattern in Japan is for no real wage growth. Only yesterday we were looking at yet another Bank of England policymaker telling us that wage growth was just around the corner based on a Phillips Curve style analysis. We know that the Bank of England Ivory Tower has an unemployment rate of 4,25% as the natural one so that the 2.5% of Japan would see Silvana Tenreyro confidently predicting a wages surge. Except reality is very different. If we stick to the UK perspective we often see reports we are near the bottom of the real wage pack but some cherry picking of dates when in fact Japan is  worse.

Moving back to Japan there was a paper on the subject of low unemployment in 1988 from Uwe Vollmer which told us this.

Even more important, the division of annual labour income
into basic wages, overtime premiums and bonuses
allows companies to adjust wages flexibly to changes in
macroeconomic supply and demand conditions,
resulting in low rigidities of both nominal and real wages.

On the downside yes on the upside no as we mull the idea that in the lost decade period Japan has priced itself into work? If so the Abenomics policy of a lower exchange-rate may help with that but any consequent rise in inflation will make the Japanese worker and consumer worse off if wages continue their upwards rigidity.

Meanwhile as we note a year where the Yen was 110 or so a year ago and 110 now there is this from an alternative universe.

The Bank of Japan’s next policy move may be to raise its bond-yield target to keep the yen from weakening too much, according to a BOJ adviser and longtime associate of Gov. Haruhiko Kuroda.

Or maybe not.

With its inflation target still far away, the BOJ must continue its current monetary stimulus for now, Kawai said

Also in his land of confusion is a confession that my critique has been correct all along.

While a weak yen helps the BOJ’s efforts to stoke inflation — and has been an unspoken policy objective — too much weakness can hurt businesses that import raw materials, while some consumers would feel the pain of higher prices for imports.

He seems lost somewhere in the Pacific as in terms of the economics the economy has seen a weak patch and you are as far away as ever from your inflation target yet you do less? Still the inflation target will be helped by a higher oil price except as I often point out Japan is a large energy importer so this is a negative even before we get to the fact that it makes workers and consumers poorer.

 

 

 

UK real wages fell again in March

Today brings us to an area of the UK economy where the trend has remained positive and frankly amazingly so. Regular readers will be aware that back in the “triple-dip” ( hat tip to Stephanie Flanders then of the BBC now of Bloomberg for the phrase) days of 2011/12 that the employment data moved first and was followed by GDP in 2013. Thus employment trends have become something of a leading indicator as again we face a phase where they tell us one thing whereas other signals head south.

An example of other signals was seen only yesterday.

Much could be made of the adverse impact on April’s footfall of Easter shifting to March, but even looking at March and April together – so smoothing this out – still demonstrates that footfall has plummeted.  A -3.3% drop in April, following on from -6% in March, resulted in an unprecedented drop of -4.8% over the two months. (Springboard)

They then made a somewhat chilling comparison and the emphasis is mine.

 Not since the depths of recession in 2009, has footfall over March and April declined to such a degree, and even then the drop was less severe at -3.8%.

This added to this from KPMG a few days before.

April’s figures show retail sales growth falling off a cliff, with sales down -3.1 per cent on last year, but we must exercise caution and remember that the timing of Easter makes meaningful month-on-month comparisons difficult. That said, the three-month average is more helpful to assess, but this too points to sales only growing modestly

As you can see there are poor numbers there but two factors are at play. Firstly there is the impact of the period we have been through where real wages fell and I mean that in two senses. We have seen a recent dip which we have at best only begun to emerge from backing up an overall fall which again depends how you measure it but is more than 5%. Next is the decline of the high street which if the ones by me are any guide is ongoing.

Germany

Another signal of a slow down that is much wider than in the UK was seen earlier as Germany reported this.

The Federal Statistical Office (Destatis) also reports that the gross domestic product (GDP) increased 0.3% – upon price, seasonal and calendar adjustment – in the first quarter of 2018 compared with the fourth quarter of 2017.

For perspective there is also this.

This is the 15th quarter-on-quarter growth in a row, contributing to the longest upswing phase since 1991. Last year, there were higher GDP growth rates (+0.7% in the third quarter and +0.6% in the fourth quarter of 2017).

So the slow down is much more than just the UK and we will have to see what develops next. I would remind you of yesterday’s subject which was hints of a fiscal stimulus in the Euro area as it becomes clearer why that might be doing the rounds. Also as I had started with leading indicators I am afraid it is yet another bad day for the Markit business surveys or PMIs which told us this in January.

“If this level is maintained over February and March,
the PMI is indicating that first quarter GDP would rise
by approximately 1.0% quarter-on-quarter”

That was for the Euro area and Germany had a higher reading so for them to have been right the German economy shrank in February and March.

UK Real Wages

There are signs of trouble here so let us go straight to the numbers.

Latest estimates show that average weekly earnings for employees in Great Britain in nominal terms (that is, not adjusted for price inflation) increased by 2.9% excluding bonuses, and by 2.6% including bonuses, compared with a year earlier.

In the rather odd world of Mark Carney and the Bank of England those are excellent figures especially if you look at the March figures alone which showed 3% growth on a year before. Let us continue on that sort of theme for a moment.

Latest estimates show that average weekly earnings for employees in Great Britain in real terms (that is, adjusted for price inflation) increased by 0.4% excluding bonuses, but were unchanged including bonuses, compared with a year earlier.

This has been copied and pasted across the media as showing real wage growth yet that is somewhat misleading. This is because if you actually look at what people get in they pay packets March actually showed a slowing to an annual rate of 2.3%. Now at absolute best the UK inflation rate was 2.3% according to the CPIH measure but that of course relies on imputed rents to bring it down from the 2.5% of CPI and is lower than the 3.3% of the RPI. According to the official data which you have to look up as it is not ready for copy and pasting real wages fell by 0.1% on the most friendly measure which is using CPIH.

Let me put this another way UK single month wage growth has now gone 3.1%, 2.8%, 2.6% and now 2.3%. I will not insult you by pointing out the trend here but will show you how this is being reported with the one strand of hope being that February has been revised up by 0.3% and fingers crossed for March on that front. From @katie_martin_fx

ING: “Rising UK wage growth points to summer rate hike”

Meanwhile the back picture is along the lines of this.

Actually it is worse than that in the longer-term because for some reason they use an inflation measure with imputed rents in it ( CPIH) which lowers the numbers. Secondly they are using regular pay which as I have explained above flatters wage growth at the moment.

Employment

This is the ying to the yang above as the numbers remain very good.

There were 32.34 million people in work, 197,000 more than for October to December 2017 and 396,000 more than for a year earlier………..Between October to December 2017 and January to March 2018, total hours worked per week increased by 6.6 million to 1.03 billion.

There was a dip at the opening of this year in hours worked per person but that may be the ides of March. However there was further credence to the view that the productivity issue is being measured badly and is often just the flipside of employment growth especially when GDP growth is low.

Output per hour – The Office for National Statistics’ (ONS’) main measure of labour productivity – decreased by 0.5% in Quarter 1 (Jan to March) 2018.

Comment

As you can see the strong employment growth seen in the UK for some time has fed into strong wages growth which meant that the Bank of England raised interest-rates in May. Oh hang on………

Sorry there must have been some strands of the Matrix style blue pill in my tea this morning. Returning to reality the UK’s employment numbers are excellent and the improvement as in fall in unemployment has continued. But the simple truth is that the wages data relies on two types of cherry-picking to also be good. Firstly you have to ignore what people actually get and concentrate on regular pay which may seem sensible at the Bank of England as on its performance bonuses must be thin on the ground but many rely on them. Next you have to use the lowest measure of inflation you can find which relies on fantasy rents and except for this purpose is usually roundly ignored.

I hope the number for March is revised higher and we can expect some pick-up in public-sector pay but as we stand total pay growth is seems to be following the lower inflation data. Also there is the issue of whether European economies pick up after a slower first quarter for 2018.

 

Wages finally rise in Japan but are such small rises the future for us too?

This morning has brought news from the land of the rising sun or Nihon. Actually it is news that much of the media has been churning out over the Abenomics era when they have tried to report wage growth when there has not been any. However today the Ministry of Labor published some better news of the real variety.

Nominal cash earnings rose 2.1 percent year-on-year in March, the fastest annual gain since June 2003. It followed a revised 1.0 percent gain in February.

Regular pay, which accounts for the bulk of monthly wages, grew 1.3 percent in the year to March, the biggest gain since July 1997, while special payments jumped 12.8 percent as many firms offered their employees end-of-the-year bonuses.

Overtime pay, a barometer of strength in corporate activity, rose an annual 1.8 percent in March versus a revised 0.4 percent increase in February. (Reuters)

As you can see these numbers are something of a landmark in the lost decade era as we note the best overall earnings numbers since 2003 and the best regular pay data since 1997. Overtime pay was up too which is intriguing as the Japanese economy has not had the best start to 2018 and may even have shrunk in the first quarter ending a run of growth. Maybe this year Japanese employers are actually fulfilling their regular promises to raise wage growth.

Care is needed in that this is only one monthly number but after some revisions we see that 2018 so far has recorded annual wage growth of 1.2%,1% and 2.1%. These are low numbers but in the context are a shift higher. This can be explained if we look at the index for such numbers which is still only 101.9 after being set at 100 in 2015. We get an idea as it was 100 in 2014 as well and 100.6 in 2016 and 101 in 2017. Also we need to be aware that the main months for pay in Japan come in June/July and particularly December as for example pay in December is around double that for March but for now let us move on with a flicker of spring sunshine.

Is this the revenge of the Phillips Curve?

No doubt it is party time at the Ivory Towers although many may not have spotted this yet as of course news reaches them slowly. However I am still something of a “party pooper” on this subject as it still does not really work. Here is a tweet from a discussion I was involved in yesterday.

As you can see the state of play is very different between the American situation which we have looked at many times and the Japanese one. Female participation in the labour force changed with the onset of the lost decade era and male participation has picked up in the era of Abenomics although it had started around the beginning of the credit crunch.

If we look at the Abenomics impact I will let you decide if a major swing is good or bad. You see in the age group 55-64 the female participation rate is up by 10.2% in the past 6 years and the male one by 6.6%. I have written in the past that Japan looks after it older citizens well but there have been more and more suggestions that this is if not forced due to difficult circumstances. From the Independent on the 23rd of April.

For decades prior to this trend, it was a tradition for families and communities to care for their older citizens, but a lack of resources is making that harder to do so.

With the older population feeling more and more isolated as a result of this, women especially have turned to a life of crime in the hope that prison will provide them with a refuge and a home.

Returning to conventional economics there is also this to consider.

The number of unemployed persons in March 2018 was 1.73 million, a decrease of 150 thousand or 8.0% from the previous year.   The unemployment rate, seasonally adjusted, was 2.5%. ( Japan Statistics Bureau).

These are extraordinary numbers as it was 3.9% in 2007 so it has been singing along with Alicia Keys.

Oh baby
I, I, I, I’m fallin’
I, I, I, I’m fallin’
Fall

We cannot rule out the possibility it will fall even further as it was 2.4% in January. Also it is being combined with rising employment.

The number of employed persons in March 2018 was 66.20 million, an increase of 1.87 million or 2.9% from the previous year.

Inflation

I though I would add this into the mix as it provides something of an irony. The view of the Bank of Japan has been for so long that an annual inflation rate of 2% is just around the corner. Yet in its last report it lost the faith.

In terms of the outlook for prices, most members shared the view that the year-on-year rate of change in the CPI was likely to continue on an uptrend and increase
toward 2 percent, mainly on the back of the improvement in the output gap and the rise in medium- to long-term inflation expectations.

And later this.

the momentum of
inflation was not yet strong enough to achieve the price stability target of 2 percent at an
early stage.

Of course now with an oil price of US $77 for a barrel of Brent Crude they may see an inflationary push bringing them nearer to their objective. Of course they think inflation at 2% per annum is a good thing whereas I do not. After all even the recent better wage data would leave real wages flat in such a scenario.

We will have to see if oil prices remain here but for now the news just coming through that Saudi Arabia has intercepted two ballistic missiles seems set to support it.

Comment

Let me start with some good news for Japan which is that on what used to be called the Misery Index it is doing very well. It used to add the unemployment rate ( 2.5%) to the inflation rate ( 1%) and as you can see it is rather low. Very different to the double-digit numbers from the UK when it was a popular measure.

But for economic theory and for the Phillips Curve in particular this is much less satisfactory.  This comes partly from asking where has it been? Let me hand you over to the Bank of Japan.

(1) the actual unemployment rate had been substantially below 3.5 percent, which had formerly been regarded as the structural unemployment rate,

So wage growth should have been surging for ages and it has not. Now we face a situation which may be more like a cliff-edge that the smooth Phillips Curve. This is because on every measure Japan has been approaching full employment and in the mad world of economics 101 has in fact passed it.

(2) the recruitment rate of new graduates and the employment rate of women had risen
considerably.

In fact if you look at the demographic situation full employment seems set to be lower than it was due to the aging population as so far rising participation has offset it. But here is the rub if participation had not changed then unemployment would be below 2% now as we are left wondering what level would generate some real wages growth?

Meanwhile if we look back at the US participation data there were some chilling responses as to the cause. They looked at something which has troubled us before on here.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b09yfqsy#play