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The Boss Recovery

Wages are finally rising. But it's only bosses who are getting the pay hikes.

A waitress at a coffee shop in Atlantic City, NJ. Chris Goldberg / Flickr

Stock markets have been swooning, in no small part because last Friday’s US employment report showed that average hourly earnings (AHE) — the average wage, excluding benefits, received by private sector workers — rose smartly in January. This prompted fears that inflationary pressures are mounting, wages will eat into profits, and the Federal Reserve might raise interest rates more aggressively than had been thought as recently as last Thursday. Or, as the New York Times put it in a headline, with its patented mix of dullness and alarm: “Powell Becoming Fed Chief as Economy Starts to Show Strain.”

What these scaremongers aren’t telling you is that it’s only bosses that are getting the raises.

Here’s a graph of the yearly growth in AHE.

You may notice that this series begins in March 2007. That’s because the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) only started reporting hourly earnings for “all workers” in March 2006. It has been reporting monthly AHE stats for “nonsupervisory” or “production” workers since 1964. Nonsupervisory workers — defined by the BLS as “those who are not owners or who are not primarily employed to direct, supervise, or plan the work of others” — are about 82 percent of the private sector workforce, a share that has hardly changed over the last fifty-three years.

Most Wall Street analysts have been focusing on the all-worker series, because it’s broader, and because many of them have a hard time thinking about more than one thing at a time. And if you’re looking to be alarmed about something, you can find a rising trend in the graph above. Yearly wage growth (not adjusted for inflation) hit a post-recession low of 1.5 percent in October 2012; in January 2018, it rose to 2.9 percent, the highest in almost nine years. Yes, the number is noisy, but there’s no mistaking the rising trend.

But those who’ve been panicking about a wage explosion haven’t bothered to look at the nonsupervisory series. That has shown no rising trend at all over the last two years. AHE for nonsupervisory workers were up 2.4 percent for the year ending in January — just as they were in December, and less than September 2017’s 2.6 percent. In January 2016, the gain was 2.4 percent. In other words, 80 percent of the workforce has seen no acceleration, on average, in wage growth — which, by the way, is barely ahead of inflation.

The BLS doesn’t report AHE for supervisory workers. But since we know the nonsupervisory share of the workforce and the all-worker and nonsupervisory AHE numbers, we can estimate what the supervisory wage looks like with some middle-school math. Here’s a graph:

For the year ending in January, supervisory wages were up 3.9 percent, compared with 3.0 percent in December. Over the last three months, supervisory wages are up 6.4 percent at an annual rate. (In January, nonsupervisory wages averaged $22.34, and supervisory earnings, according to my estimate, sat at $47.35.) In 2015 and 2016, both series moved pretty much together, but the boss sector began pulling ahead of the bossed in early 2017, and the gap has been widening since.

The series does bounce around a lot, and it’s quite possible that some of the January spike will be reversed in February. But the central point is this: the alarming acceleration in wages is not a mass phenomenon. It’s for the $95,000 a year set, not the $45,000 crew.