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Weighting the Wage Growth Tracker

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« GDPNow's Forecast: Why Did It Spike Recently? | Main ​ The Atlanta Fed's Wage Growth Tracker (WGT) has shown its usefulness as an indicator of labor market conditions, producing a better-fitting Phillips curve than other measures of wage growth. So ...

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The Atlanta Fed's Wage Growth Tracker (WGT) has shown its usefulness as an indicator of labor market conditions, producing a better-fitting Phillips curve than other measures of wage growth. So we were understandably surprised to see the WGT decline from 3.5 percent in 2016 to 3.2 percent in 2017, even as the unemployment rate moved lower from 4.9 to 4.4 percent.

This unexpected disconnect between the WGT and the unemployment rate naturally led us to wonder if it was a consequence of the way the WGT is constructed. Essentially, the WGT is the median of an unweighted sample of individual wage growth observations. This sample is quite large, but it does not perfectly represent the population of wage and salary earners.

Importantly, the WGT sample has too few young workers, because young workers are much more likely to be in and out of employment and hence less likely to have a wage observation in both the current and prior years. To examine the effect of this underrepresentation, we recomputed median wage growth after weighting the WGT sample to be consistent with the distribution of demographic and job characteristics of the workforce in each year. It turns out that this adjustment is important when the labor market is tight.

During periods of low unemployment, young people who stay employed tend to experience larger proportionate wage bumps than older workers. In 2017, for example, the weighted median is 40 basis points higher than the unweighted version. However, both the unweighted version (the gray line in the chart below) and the weighted version of the WGT (the blue line) declined by a similar amount from 2016 to 2017. The decline in the weighted median is also statistically significant (technically, the p-value for the test is 0.07, indicating that the data are reasonably unlikely given the null hypothesis of no difference in the median).

Another issue that could affect comparisons of wage growth over time is the changing demographic characteristics of the workforce. In particular, we know that workers' wage growth tends to slow as they approach retirement age, and the fraction of older workers has increased markedly in recent years. To examine this trend, we re-computed the weighted median, but fixed the demographic and job characteristics of the workforce so they would look as they did in 1997.

Our 1997-fixed version shows that median wage growth in recent years would be a bit higher if not for the aging of the workforce (the dashed orange line in the chart below). Moreover, this demographic shift appears to explain some of the slowing in median wage growth from 2017 to 2016. Whereas the 1997-fixed median also slows over the year, the difference is not statistically significant (a test of the null hypothesis of no change in the 1997-fixed weighted median between 2016 and 2017 yielded a p-value of 0.38).

Long story short, our analysis suggests that median wage growth of the population of wage and salary earners is currently higher than the WGT would indicate, reflecting the strong wage gains young workers experience in a tight labor market. Moreover, the increasing share of older workers is acting to restrain median wage growth. Although the decline in median wage growth from 2016 to 2017 appears to be partly the result of the aging workforce, there still may be more to it than just that, and so we will continue to monitor the WGT and related measures closely in 2018 for signs of a pickup. We also want to note that with the release of the February wage data in mid-March, we will make a monthly version of the weighted WGT available.

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The Atlanta Fed's macroblog provides commentary and analysis on economic topics including monetary policy, macroeconomic developments, inflation, labor economics, and financial issues. Authors for macroblog are Dave Altig, John Robertson, and other Atlanta Fed economists and researchers.

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