Wages rise faster than inflation: cause to celebrate or just a blip?

Posted: June 14, 2013 in Employment, UK Economy, United Kingdom
Tags: , , , , , ,

In April wages, including bonuses, fell by 0.3 per cent. This was a staggeringly awful piece of economic data, but was it just a one-off?

This morning data for May was out, and it was much better, with average wages rising 3.3 per cent in the year to May. During the same period, inflation was 2.4 per cent, so for the first time in a very long while, average wages rose faster than prices, meaning that average workers were better off.

There are some buts, however.

Firstly, it appears that the figures were distorted by the end of the tax year. Bonus payments were delayed until after April to take advantage of lower income tax rate. So that at least partially explains why the data for April looked so awful, but so good for May.

The ONS prefers to look at a three month periods. And in the three months to April, average wages rose by 1.3 per cent compared to a year ago. That was better than April when they rose by 0.6 per cent, but still at the lower end of what we have seen over the last few years. In other words, once again, the average worker was worse off in the three months to May, after taking into account inflation compared to the same period in 2012.

Secondly, because the end of the tax year distorted bonus payments, maybe on this occasion we should consider wages before bonuses – or regular pay as the ONS calls it. In May regular pay rose by 1.3 per cent, but in the three months to May it rose by just 0.9 per cent, which was the second lowest increase in the last 12 months.

Inflation is expected to rise over the next few months, so there is little reason to believe wages will grow faster than inflation meaning that there will be no positive growth in real wagesfor many months.

This is the flip side to better data on the jobs front. At 1.51 million, the unemployment rate in the three months to January (the latest period for which we have data) was at a two year low.

But relatively low unemployment – that is to say low considering where the economy is at – is being paid for by low wage growth. So the economy is still in a downturn, unemployment is surprisingly high given this, but look to wages for a partial explanation. This is why some say we have a problem of zombie companies in the UK, maybe even a zombie workforce, keeping low paid jobs, with low levels of productivity growth.

© Investment & Business News 2013

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