With Russia now invading Ukraine and adding to the already highly disrupted supply chains linking products and nations, and the price fixers in OPEC and OPEC+ having a picnic on the uncertainty, inflationary pressures will continue to rise for the time being. Many commentators keep falling into the trap of saying that history is repeating itself – meaning that it is the 1970s over again. I maintain my position that this is not akin to what was going on in the 1970s although there are similarities – energy price rises accompanying war, etc. And if we make the same mistakes that were made in the 1970s now, then not only will the inflation persist but millions of workers will lose their jobs and their incomes.
Yesterday (February 23, 2022), the ABS released the latest – Wage Price Index, Australia – for the December-quarter 2021. The WPI data shows that nominal wages growth remained modest to say the least. The data shows that the significant cuts to workers’ purchasing power continue, and, in my view, constitute a national emergency. While the conservatives are railing about inflation now and looking to target workers’ wages (further cuts), the evidence is that the wages side is not driving any inflationary pressures – the opposite is the case. The business sector, as a whole, thinks it is clever to always oppose wages growth and the banks love that because they can foist more debt onto households to maintain their consumption expenditure. But the reality is clear – there can be no sustained recovery for the economy post Covid without significant increases in the current rate of wages growth.
It is Wednesday and I have three live presentations to make throughout the day. So we will be brief today. The ABS released the latest Wage Price Index today which shows that annual wages growth in Australia was 2.3 per cent, compared to the official inflation rate of 3.5 per cent. I will analyse that data in detail tomorrow, given I am short of time today. But there was also disturbing data coming out of the UK last week on the wages front, which reflects a major imbalance in priorities and also tells me that there is no wage demands driving the current inflationary episode.
The Bank of England governor Andrew Bailey caused a stir last week when he said that British workers should not get wage increases in the coming period. This was a day after the Bank of England raised interest rates, presumably because they have some theory that that will cure Covid and get trucks moving again. There was general outrage expressed by a range of voices, who often are not on the same page – unions, corporate interests, the ‘high wage’ aspiring Tory government (perhaps). The outrage was, unfortunately, personalised with critics pointing out that “Bailey was paid £575,538, including pension, last year” (Source) and hasn’t offered to give any of that fat cat salary back. But as in most things, getting personal usually misses the point. Beyond the rage, in a sense, he was correct to highlight that if the current supply-induced price pressures trigger a wider distributional struggle then accelerating inflation will result and the policy implications of such an event as that will be very damaging to workers in the UK. But, the problem was that he didn’t go far enough. This won’t be a popular view but it comes from studying inflationary mechanisms all my career, which means I think I understand how supply constraints move into a generalised wage-price spiral, which then causes worker more damage than some wage restraint. And, remember, we are talking about Capitalism here – not some profit-sharing, collectively-owned nirvana. The Bank of England Governor was clearly thinking that the conditions for a 1970s wage-price spiral are approaching for the UK, which means that wage restraint would be sensible if the goal was to insulate the current supply shocks arising from the pandemic and aberrant behaviour by OPEC etc and render them transitory. I don’t think the conditions are present yet and he should have generalised the concern to focus on other more obvious triggers that do exist at present.
Last Friday (February 4, 2022), the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) released their latest labour market data – Employment Situation Summary – January 2022 – which reported a total payroll employment rise of only 467,000 jobs in December and a rise in the participation rate – which often leads to a rise in the unemployment rate as marginal workers outside the labour force sense their opportunities for work are now better. Employment growth accelerated in January 2022 which reverses the recent trend. 0.3 points decline in the official unemployment rate to 3.9 per cent, while participation was unchanged at 61.9 per cent. While the US labour market is still creating work – it is doing so at a declining rate and there are unequal patterns across the industrial sectors. The US labour market is still 2,875 thousand jobs short from where it was at the end of February 2020, which helps to explain why there are no fundamental wage pressures emerging. Any analyst who is claiming the US economy is close to full employment hasn’t looked at the data.
Yesterday (November 29, 2021), the Australian Bureau of Statistics released the latest – Business Indicators – for the September-quarter 2021. This dataset provides quarterly estimates of private sector sales, wages, profits and inventories. It provides a means of viewing exactly what has gone wrong with the Australian economy over the last two decades as successive governments have failed to prioritise general well-being, and, have instead, acted as agents of capital. There is a massive imbalance in the capacity of workers and profit-recipients to access national income that is produced by the workers. Profits have been booming while wages growth has been low for a long time now. And if you thought the booming profits would be siphoned into productive investment to lift productivity and create the non-inflationary space for real wage increases, then you would be wrong. The massive lift in profits has gone into unjustifiable increases in executive pay, property booms and financial market speculation. None of the things that help lift national prosperity and well-being.
The British Labour Party leader (for now) Keir Starmer gave a – Keynote Speech – to the Annual Conference of the Confederation of British Industry in Birmingham on November 22, 2021. If you read it or heard it you will know that his leadership marks the return of British Labour as class traitors. He started by saying the “Labour is back in business”, which should have been ‘Labour is the agent of business’ He played up the line that Britain’s future depends on the business sector profits growing stronger than they are now and that everyone benefits when profits are high and growing. Even at the most elementary level that statement defies the evidence. But for a Labour leader to make it spells trouble for the Party. So what else is new.
Today (November 17, 2021), the ABS released the latest – Wage Price Index, Australia – for the September-quarter 2021. The WPI data shows that nominal wages growth rose above levels recorded in previous quarters and the pattern resembled the pre-pandemic growth path – low to modest. The inflation rate continues to outstrip nominal wages growth, which means that workers in all sectors bar ‘Professional, scientific and technical services’ experienced on-going cuts drops in their real wages (purchasing power). The behaviour of nominal wages in Australia gives us a clear signal that there is little prospect of sustained inflationary pressures emerging from the labour market any time soon. Wages in the public sector grew by only 1.6 per cent over the 12 months as a result of the ridiculous wage freezes and wage caps that the federal and state governments are imposing. There can be no sustained recovery for the economy post Covid without a significant shift in the way we think about wages growth.
One of the important concepts one learns in studying the way firms work with respect to pricing and markups is the distinction between quantity and price adjustment over the course of an economic cycle. When economists talk of supply and demand, they usually refer to price adjustment, where prices adjust up or down when there is an imbalance between these aggregates. Orthodox economics presumes that prices adjust, for example, to eliminate an excess supply, which they apply to the labour market and conclude that the cure for mass unemployment is wage cutting. The problem is that in many circumstances, firms use quantity adjustments long before they contemplate price adjustments, because the former involves lower costs. The Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) ran a story from its business reporters today (November 16, 2021) – As migration restarts, will it hold down wages for everyone? – which has also become a feature news segment on its television coverage today. The analysis presented is seriously misleading. It not only fails to characterise the problem properly but buys into a highly contentious debate about whether migration has negative impacts on the labour market prospects for local workers. It behoves analysts to actually construct the problem correctly before they start taking sides in this debate. The ABC article fails in that regard which is disappointing. Their failure also reflects the lack of diversity in opinion they seek these days. They chose to simply rehearse the arguments presented by one pro-migration analysis as if it was definitive rather than seek expert opinion from neutral analysis. But it also demonstrates why understanding the difference between quantity and price adjustment is crucial to getting the conclusions right.
I have been researching the so-called labour shortage that business types are talking about relentlessly as part of their on-going strategy to undermine the conditions of work and make more profit. In the course of that enquiry, I came across an interesting juxtaposition between two US companies that illustrate a lot of what we have known about for years but have allowed this relentless, neoliberal, race-to-the-bottom to obscure. Well-paid workers with job security, work better and are happy workers. Companies that pursue the ‘race-to-the-bottom’ strategy and seek to build profits by trashing the conditions they offer workers eventually struggle to prosper because their bad reputation undermines their ability to attract productive workers. In the case we discuss today, the so-called ‘labour shortage’ is really just a signal of management caprice. Rather than being a shortage of workers, there is a shortage of workers who will tolerate the indignity of low wages, onerous conditions and capricious management. It is also a union versus non-union type of discussion where the unionised work places generate high productivity and worker attachment, while the non-unionised workplaces find it hard to attract reliable staff and blame it all on ‘labour shortages’.