Economy

A sharp rise in wages is contributing to worries over inflation

Key Points
  • August's jobs report showed that wages are rising even with weak hiring.
  • Leisure and hospitality, which saw zero net job growth in August, saw wages jump 1.3% for the month and 10.3% on the year.
  • Federal Reserve officials have attributed higher inflation numbers to supply issues. A continued rise in wages could signal demand becoming a factor.
Thomas Trutschel | Photothek | Getty Images

Now might be a good time for the Federal Reserve to start worrying about inflation.

August's jobs report, besides being a big disappointment on the 235,000 headline number, also showed that wages are rising even with weak hiring.

Average hourly earnings jumped 0.6% for the month, about double what Wall Street had been expecting, and the increase from a year ago stood at a robust 4.3%, up from a 4% rise a month ago. Even leisure and hospitality, which saw zero net job growth in August, saw wages jump 1.3% for the month and 10.3% on the year.

Those numbers come as the Fed is weighing when to start pulling back on the historically easy monetary policy in place since the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic. Some voices on Wall Street expect the wage and inflation numbers to start resonating with Fed officials.

"The 5.2% unemployment rate and rapidly rising wages suggest building inflationary pressure that will ultimately lead to more hawkish policy," Citigroup economist Andrew Hollenhorst wrote in a detailed analysis of the current jobs situation.

While Fed officials mostly discuss the total payroll gains, Hollenhorst said he "would expect this rhetoric to shift a bit, perhaps at the September [Federal Open Market Committee] meeting, with more focus on the high level of job openings and increasing wages."

Fed Chairman Jerome Powell went to great lengths in his annual speech in August during the central bank's Jackson Hole symposium to knock down concerns about rising wage pressures as well as inflation overall, despite consistently higher numbers.

VIDEO3:1303:13
Niall Ferguson: Inflation could repeat 1960s, when the Fed lost control

"Today we see little evidence of wage increases that might threaten excessive," Powell said during the Aug. 27 speech. Measures Powell said he follows – he did not mention the Labor Department's monthly average hourly earnings figure – point to "wages moving up at a pace that appears consistent with our longer-term inflation objective."

One specific measure Powell mentioned was the Atlanta Fed's Wage Growth Tracker.

That measure looks at wages on monthly and 12-month basis and then uses a three-month moving average to iron out distortions. On a smoothed level, the tracker is showing wages rising at a 3.7% pace, fairly consistent with the past few years. Without smoothing, the 12-month rate runs to 4.2%, which is the highest since 2007 and representative of how bumpy the data has gotten lately.

The Atlanta Fed will next update the tracker Friday, giving the Fed another look at potential pressures that could trigger a wage-price spiral, which economists consider "bad" inflation.

Fed officials thus far have attributed higher inflation numbers to supply issues. A continued rise in wages could signal that demand is becoming a factor.

"When it is difficult to disentangle demand from supply effects, price signals become more important to assess the extent of excess demand," wrote Nomura chief economist Rob Subbaraman.

Concerns about policy

To be sure, there also is evidence that some of the issues that might spur inflation could abate ahead, particularly some of the supply chain issues Powell has cited.

The chairman also noted that unit labor costs remain low, meaning that companies still aren't spending substantially more for productivity, which also could tamp down inflation.

"They're taking a lot of solace in all these other factors," Moody's Analytics chief economist Mark Zandi said. "Inflation is on their radar screen, but it's not blinking red, not even yellow."

The rising wage numbers under most circumstances would be considered a positive.

However, the gains trailed the headline consumer price index growth of 5.4% in July and only matched the 3.6% increase when stripping out food and energy prices in July, the most recent month for which data is available.

Some central bank officials and economists worry that easy Fed policy is feeding inflation and starting to cause more harm than help. Rising home prices and high inflation expectations from consumers are fueling some of those fears.

"It is not surprising that a combination of doubling central bank assets over the past 18 months, massive fiscal stimulus, and a skill mismatch in the labor market has resulted in inflation rising to levels not seen in decades," wrote Komal Sri-Kumar, president of Sri-Kumar Global Strategies. "Drilling a square peg into a round ole does not solve problems. It worsens it."

Still, Zandi thinks Powell and the Fed will be content with allowing wages to rise for now.

"It's not like they're dismissing this as an issue. It's a factor in their thinking about broader inflationary pressures," he said. "But so far, they'd say the wage growth they're observing is more a feature than a bug."

VIDEO3:3503:35
Advanced economies need to make difficult decisions when interest rates go up

Become a smarter investor with CNBC Pro.
Get stock picks, analyst calls, exclusive interviews and access to CNBC TV.
Sign up to start a free trial today.