Employment costs in U.S. match fastest 12-month gain since 2008

THE EMPLOYMENT COST Index rose 0.6 percent in the fourth quarter. / BLOOMBERG FILE PHOTO/LUKE SHARRETT

NEW YORK – Total United States employee compensation rose in the fourth quarter and matched the biggest 12-month gain since 2008, as private-sector pay picked up, Labor Department figures showed Wednesday.

Highlights of employment costs (Fourth quarter)

  • Index rose 0.6 percent quarter over quarter (matching est.) after 0.7 percent gain in prior three months
  • Wages and salaries rose 0.5 percent quarter over quarter following 0.7 percent gain
  • Benefit costs increased 0.5 percent quarter over quarter after rising 0.8 percent
  • Total compensation, which includes wages and benefits, rose 2.6 percent over past 12 months; matches 1Q 2015 as highest since 2008

Key takeaways

Private-sector wages and salaries rose from a year earlier by 2.8 percent, also matching the best gain of this expansion. Several industry groups registered increases of 3 percent or higher, led by transportation and material moving at 3.5 percent and service occupations at 3.3 percent, underscoring demand for labor.

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While wage growth has gradually improved, a sustained acceleration is yet to occur in the current economic expansion. The latest year-over-year increase in compensation indicates employers are making more generous offers as they compete for workers in the tightening labor market.

The government’s quarterly read on the ECI, which measures employer-paid taxes such as Social Security and Medicare in addition to the costs of wages and benefits, offers Federal Reserve policy makers another look into how compensation may feed into inflation. Central bankers later Wednesday will conclude a two-day policy meeting, where they’re expected to leave interest rates unchanged in Janet Yellen’s final gathering as chair.

January data on jobs and wages are due Friday in the Labor Department’s monthly employment report. Employers probably added around 180,000 workers to payrolls, the jobless rate held at 4.1 percent and average hourly earnings rose 2.6 percent from a year earlier, according to the median estimates of economists.

What our economists say

The broader trend in the employment cost index provides reassuring evidence that not only the Phillips Curve remains a sound economic principle, but also that Yellen’s assessment that there was more slack in the labor market than conventional measures (such as the unemployment rate) would otherwise suggest, was also a prescient judgment. In hindsight, the Fed rightfully normalized policy at a gradual pace, and the moderate upward slope in the ECI should give the Powell Fed the opportunity to continue along a similar trajectory.

Shobhana Chandra is a reporter for Bloomberg News. Carl Riccadonna and  Yelena Shulyatyeva are economists at Bloomberg Economics.

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