- Despite an economy growing at the fastest pace since 2012 and unemployment falling to a four-year low, Australian wage growth is still struggling to keep pace with inflation.
- While improvements have been made, there’s still a large proportion of Australians who are unemployed or underemployed. This supply of excess labour is helping to suppress wage pressures. Most economists believe it will take quite some time for excess labour to fall to levels where wage pressures will pickup.
- Deutsche Bank says wage growth is likely to build far quicker than many expect, an outcome that will have ramifications for both the RBA and financial markets.
There’s not been much joy for Australian workers when it comes to pay increases in recent years.
In many instances, pay levels have actually gone backwards in real terms.
Australia’s wage price index (WPI) — a measure of the average increase in hourly pay rates excluding bonuses — shows wages for private sector workers grew by just 1.99% in the year to June, less than the 2.1% increase in inflation over the same period.
While public sector workers did a little better with average hourly wages increasing 2.41% from June 2017, combined with private sector wages, the average pay rate rose at the same pace as inflation.
This is at a time when the economy is growing at the fastest pace since 2012, with unemployment falling to the lowest level in four years.
Surely if wages increases were to occur, now would be the time, right?
There’s a problem. Despite above-trend economic growth and lower levels of unemployment, the proportion of Australian workers who are underutilised — either unemployed or in a job but who want to work more hours — remains elevated.
Put bluntly, despite strong employment growth in recent years, the number of people in Australia’s workforce has increased nearly as fast, meaning there’s still an ample supply of workers for employers to choose from, helping to keep wage increases, from a broad perspective, at paltry levels.
Many suspect that for wage pressures won’t truly emerge until Australia’s unemployment rate falls below 5%, below its current level of 5.3%.
Given the evidence from other major nations in recent years where labour market conditions are substantially tighter than here, some suspect unemployment will need to fall as low as 4% in Australia before workers wages start to stir.
Even policymakers at the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) — renowned for being glass-half-full types when it comes to Australia’s economic outlook — believe that a pickup in worker wages is only likely to be gradual in the years ahead.
Based on the prevailing view, it could be a tough period ahead for anyone hoping for a big pay rise.
But not everyone shares that view.
Tim Baker and David Jennings, Strategists at Deutsche Bank, are optimistic on what lies ahead for wages, predicting that Australia’s wage price index could accelerate to an annual pace as high as 2.75% in the not too distant future.
While nowhere near the levels seen either side of the GFC, such a result would undoubtedly be welcomed by not only workers but also the RBA who are relying upon larger wage increases to boost inflationary pressures.
Baker and Jennings point to recent economic data to explain their view.
Firstly, they say the proportion of underutilised workers, while still elevated compared to historic norms, is now starting to fall quite sharply, a good thing when it comes to fostering wage pressures.
“In [the September quarter], underemployment, and underutilisation, dropped to a four year low. That’s good news for the wage recovery thesis,” they say.
“Our work has found that it’s labour force underutilisation, not unemployment, that explains wage growth.
“Updating our wage model for this suggests wage growth should rise to 2.75%, compared to 2% at present.”
As shown in the chart below showing the relationship between Australia’s unemployment and underutilisation rates and the wage price index, it’s the latter, rather than unemployment, that has a better relationship with explaining annual growth in wages.
Australia’s underutilisation rate fell 0.4 percentage points to 13.4% in August in seasonally adjusted terms.
Along with a reduction in the number of unemployed and underemployed Australians, Baker and Jennings believe the recent mix of employment growth will also support faster wage increases ahead.
“Jobs growth was skewed towards lower-paying industries in 2014 to 2017,” they say.
“But the national accounts measure of wages — which captures those compositional changes in the labour market — has started to improve.
“This seems likely to continue, with the September quarter data showing more job growth from higher paying industries of late.”
So underutilisation is falling which, along with employment growth in high paying roles picking up sharply, points to larger pay growth for workers ahead in their opinion.
While a pickup in annual wage growth to 2.75% is at the optimistic end of the forecasting spectrum, Baker and Jennings point out that if it materialises it could have significant ramifications for Australian financial markets, which have adopted the mindset that weak wage and inflationary pressures will prevent the RBA from lifting official interest rates until late next year or 2020 and beyond.
“In rates, the market is only pricing a 50/50 chance of a rate hike over the next year. We see that being fully priced by year end,” they say, adding the subsequent narrowing in yield differentials between Australian and US bond yields will likely result in a firmer Australian dollar.
For stocks, Baker and Jennings say better wage growth should help the domestic economy story, and a scenario that typically sees value stocks outperform growth-linked rivals.
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