Where to for wages growth? CBA's Kristina Clifton

Where to for wages growth? CBA's Kristina Clifton
Where to for wages growth? CBA's Kristina Clifton


Our model suggests that private sector wages growth is a little lower than it should be given the degree of labour market slack.

Nonetheless the current level of labour market underutilisation is consistent with wages growth of just above 2 percent.

Our model suggests that a steady decline in the underemployment rate to around 7 percent, would see wages growth return to normal in early 2019.

For Q1 2017, the model points to an outcome of 0.5 percent, which would see the annual rate tick up to 1.9 percent.

Private sector wages growth has been on a downward trend for the past four years. Wages growth was just 1.8 percent over the year to QIV, which was the lowest result in the history of the series. It is lower than would be expected given the level of the unemployment rate and the strong gains in commodity prices over the past year.

There are many explanations for low wages growth, including rising spare capacity in the labour market, heightened job security concerns, low inflation rates and declining commodity prices from the peak in 2011.

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Spare capacity in the jobs market has been rising since early 2011. While the unemployment rate has come down a little over the past year, there has been a steady increase in the underemployment rate. Underemployment measures people that have a job but would like to work more hours. The underemployment rate is now at a record high of 8.7%. Job security concerns also remain elevated. The combination of underemployment and job security concerns means that people are unwilling to push their employers for a pay increase.

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Slowing inflation rates have also contributed to low wages outcomes. While we typically think of low wages contributing to low inflation outcomes the reverse is also true. That is because low inflation outcomes can result in a drop in expectations about future inflation. And inflation expectations impact on actual inflation outcomes. Also, many wages are set with the CPI outcome in mind. Awards and minimum wage outcomes set by the Fair Work Commission are heavily influenced by the CPI. And the RBA has said that two-thirds of the firm’s in their liaison program have indicated that the CPI was a primary determinant in wage-setting.

Wages growth is also correlated with movements in commodity prices. The decline in commodity prices from the peak in 2011 until QII 2016 reduced company profits and constrained wages growth. The sharp lift in commodity prices since mid 2016 would suggest that wages growth should be picking up by now. However previous commodity price booms have typically occurred alongside rising mining investment. And this time mining investment is still falling, not rising.

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We estimate a Phillips curve (PC) model to explain wages growth. This relates wages inflation to labour market utilisation. Higher labour market utilisation should lead to higher wage inflation and vice versa. We use the underemployment rate to measure labour market utilisation as the unemployment rate has not fully captured the degree of spare capacity in recent years.

We include the quarterly change in the underemployment rate. And also the inverse of the underemployment rate. This allows the underemployment rate to have a larger effect on wages as it gets lower. We also include the lagged value of wages growth, as wages growth is related to it past values. We also estimate the model including lagged values of the CPI or inflation expectations but find that these variables don’t improve the fit of the model.

The model captures the trends in wages growth well. However it suggests that over the past few years wages growth has been a little lower than would be expected given the amount of spare capacity in the economy. Nonetheless the model points to annual rate of wages growth of just above 2% in the December quarter, which is well below the long run average.

RBA research says that recent low wages growth in Australia appears to be only partly explained by spare capacity in the labour market, the decline in inflation outcomes and the fall in the terms of trade from the 2011 peak. Using micro-level data on wages they also find that since 2012 wage increases have been less frequent than in the past. They have also found that wage growth outcomes have become more similar across jobs. This explains why wages growth is also weak in NSW and VIC, the States where the jobs markets are the strongest (see here for our note on labour market slack by State).

Wages growth in Q1 2017

We already have the underemployment rate for Q1 so we can use our model to forecast wages growth for the March quarter. The model is pointing to a 0.5% rise in private sector wages. This would see the annual rate of growth tick up to 1.9%.

When will wages growth return to normal?

We can also use our model to forecast the future path of wages growth. Our forecasts are for the unemployment and underemployment rates to fall gradually from here. A steady decline in the underemployment rate to around 7% in early 2019 would see wages growth returning to its 10 year average of 3%. It would take a sharp drop in the underemployment rate to around 5%, from its current value of 8.7%, to see wages return to a 3% growth rate this year.

These projections line up with the RBA’s forecasts, which show inflation only slowly returning to target. The Bank’s central forecast is for underlying inflation to remain below the bottom of its 2-3% until 2019. And the RBA is not expecting wages growth to begin to recover until late 2017.

Despite these forecasts, the RBA is unlikely to lower interest rates any further in this cycle. And that is because of financial stability concerns stemming from the rising level of household debt and strongly rising house prices in Sydney and Melbourne. The RBA would prefer to see a slow return of inflation to its target rather than cut rates and see inflation rates increase but household debt rise even further. The RBA have expressed some concern around these issue since late last year. And the rhetoric is getting stronger, with an acknowledgement in the latest Meeting Minutes that “there had been a build-up of risks associated with the housing market.” 

Kristina Clifton is economist, Commonwealth Bank, and can be contacted here.

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