Worker wages may be growing faster than you think

Worker wages may be growing faster than traditional economic indicators show, according to a Federal Reserve gauge.

The central bank's Atlanta branch, which also employs a gross domestic product tracker that has become popular in recent months, measures wage growth by tracking the Current Population Survey.

According to the September reading, which is the most recent month for which data is available, worker wages actually rose 3 percent on an annualized basis.

That's a good deal higher than the government's numbers. The Bureau of Labor Statistics, in its closely watched nonfarm payrolls report, indicated that average hourly earnings in September actually edged lower from the previous month and were tracking at just a 2.2 percent gain from the year-ago period.

Commuters arrive to Grand Central Station on the Harlem Line.
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Commuters arrive to Grand Central Station on the Harlem Line.

More recently, the BLS reported a larger gain in October, but even the 2.5 percent annualized growth remains shy of the Atlanta Fed tracker.

The importance of where wage growth stands is significant to the Federal Open Market Committee, the central bank's monetary policy-making group.

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As part of its mission, the FOMC seeks to establish price stability, and more specifically is hoping to see the economy generate positive inflation through wage growth. The lack of significant improvement in consumer buying power has held the Fed back from raising interest rates.

The Atlanta Fed's measure differs from the BLS in that it uses a "matched sample," or only worker wages counted in the present survey and from a year ago. The difference is important in that some believe that the increasing number of baby boomers headed to retirement as well as the addition of low-wage jobs results in negative "composition affects" for the BLS count, Goldman Sachs economists said in an analysis of wage growth.

In addition to the Atlanta Fed count, payroll processor ADP also has a relatively new wage tracker. ADP releases a monthly payroll report that focuses on private companies and comes out the Wednesday before the official government count.

By ADP's measure, wages for those still in the same job from a year ago are growing at an even more robust 3.5 percent pace, while job switchers have been seeing 6.5 percent wage growth. Taken together, Goldman said the ADP numbers average out to 4.2 percent growth.

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Using all the indicators, Goldman said it still only sees wage growth around 2.3 percent.

The big caveat for both series is that they are relatively new and thus their importance to the Fed is hard to gauge.

However, the Atlanta Fed's GDP tracker has been pretty accurate through 2015.

The bad news on that front is that while the Atlanta tracker shows wages rising above the BLS rate, it also does show growth is decelerating somewhat.

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The most recent peak was in April, which showed 3.3 percent growth, with the number trending down since. Tracing the number through time, the longer-term peak was at 5.4 percent growth in December 2000 and was at 3.6 percent in January 2009.

Recent Fed indicators show that the FOMC officials feel the economy is progressing toward the 2 percent inflation target. Fed fund futures traders at the CME were putting the chance of a December rate hike, which would be the first in more than nine years, at 74 percent, off a peak earlier in the day of 76 percent.