Popular Economics Weekly

This may finally be the year when jobs and the economic recovery are for real for most Americans. Median weekly wages grew at the fastest pace in the first quarter in more than four years, according to data released by the Labor Department on Thursday.

Why? Because unemployment rates are falling, and that pushes up wages, needless to say. And almost no wage growth since 2008 has kept consumers from spending more. Unemployment rates in all states had dropped below 9 percent for the first time since 2008. Twenty-one states have unemployment rate decreases, 17 states and the District of Columbia had increases, and 12 states had no change, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported today.

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Graph: Calculated Risk

Rhode Island had the highest unemployment rate among the states in March, 8.7 percent. The next highest rates were in Nevada and Illinois, 8.5 percent and 8.4 percent, respectively. North Dakota again had the lowest jobless rate, 2.6 percent. California still has the 4th highest unemployment rate at 7.9 percent.

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Graph: WSJ Marketwatch

The 2.7 percent median wage growth in the first quarter was the strongest since the fourth quarter of 2009, when wages grew 2.8 percent. Importantly, the wage growth was faster than the 1.4 percent increase in seasonally adjusted consumer prices over the same period. Without adjusting for seasonality, median weekly wages were $796 in the first quarter.

It is important that wages are rising faster than inflation for the first time in 4 years. It means consumer purchasing power is increasing again. Household incomes have actually been stagnant for more than 30 years, only keeping up with inflation, so that most consumers had just enough income for necessities.

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Graph: Econoday

Year-on-year, overall CPI inflation was 1.5 percent in March, compared to 1.1 percent in February (seasonally adjusted). The core rate increased 1.6 percent year-on-year, matching the rate for February. For March, not seasonally adjusted year-ago percent changes for total and core CPI were 1.5 percent and 1.7 percent, respectively.

Consumer price inflation firmed in March, but it was for just one month—not yet setting a trend. Within the Fed, the hawks likely will point to the stronger numbers while the doves will say it is too early to say that inflation is up to the 2 percent goal. This means driving is cheaper and eating is more expensive.

But Janet Yellen has been saying that interest rates will stay down much longer, even if inflation rises above their 2 percent target. And that can only hearten consumers and homebuyers who don’t want the Federal Reserve raising rates until they see a real jobs recovery and sustained wage increases.

Harlan Green © 2014

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