Dallas Federal Reserve President Richard Fisher said Friday the US economy was threatend by higher wages. Via Reuters:
Fisher said on Friday he worries that further declines in unemployment nationally could lead to broader wage inflation. To head that off, and also to address what he called rising excesses in financial markets, Fisher said he prefers to raise rates by springtime, sooner than many investors currently anticipate.
After a snarky tweet, I wondered if he was not misquoted or misinterpreted. But he definitely warns that wage growth is set to accelerate in his Fox News interview (begin at the 3:50 mark). The crux of his argument is that wage growth accelerates when unemployment hits 6.1% and he uses strong wage growth in Texas as an example. He seems genuinely concerned that wage growth is negative outcome - that wage growth in Texas is a precursor to a terrible outcome for the US economy as a whole.
His entire tone is odd, and I feel compelled to clean up his argument, at least as much as is possible.
Fisher says that he presented evidence at the last FOMC meeting that 6.1% was the tipping point for wage acceleration. I can't disagree - I said as much this past March. The updated chart:
It is reasonable to expect that wage growth will accelerate as unemployment moves below 6%. I believe this is something of a test of the hypothesis that alternative measures of under-utilization more accurately convey information about the degree of slack. If that hypothesis is correct, then wage growth should not accelerate.
That said, why should Fisher fear wage growth? I don't see how one can expect real wages to rise in the absence of nominal wage growth in excess of inflation. And once you accept the possibility of real wage growth, you recognize the link between wage growth and inflation could be very weak. And so it is:
Note the period of disinflation that pulls inflation down to it's range since the mid-90s across a wide-variety of wage growth rates. The past 20 years give no reason to believe that 4% wage inflation cannot happily coexist with 2% price inflation.
So if wage inflation does not necessarily translate into price inflation, why worry at all? Why is Fisher even worried about wages? The key is really just this quote:
This is like duck hunting, you shot ahead of the mallard rather than try to get it from behind, otherwise you can't hit it.
It is all about the timing. I think his argument might be more effective is he said this:
- The reason low unemployment does not cause inflation - or, essentially, why the Phillips curve is now flat - is that policymakers remove financial accommodation ahead of actual inflation. This is implicit in the Summary of Economic Projections. The reason inflation stabilizes near target is because unemployment settles near its natural rate, guided there by higher interest rates.
- To judge the appropriate timing and magnitude of financial market accommodation, the Federal Reserve traditionally used the unemployment rate as a key indicator of slack in the economy. Accommodation would be reduced as the unemployment rate moved close to its natural rate, and conditions tightened has unemployment moved below the natural rate.
- The Texas experience suggests that these traditional measures remain relevant - this should be his key point. Low unemployment rates stoke wage inflation as firms compete for workers, just as it has in the past.
- Rather than act disgusted by higher wage growth, he should say that the Fed needs to ensure that such growth translates into real wage growth, and the Fed accomplishes this by adjusting accommodation to maintain its price inflation target. The Fed wants to hold unemployment in a zone consistent with both real wage growth and low and stable inflation. This requires nominal wage growth in excess of 2%.
- It follows then that given the unemployment rate is already near 6%, it is not reasonable for the Fed to suggest that the first rate hike is a "considerable period" off in the future. The Fed traditionally moves ahead of inflation, and higher wage growth, which will soon be at hand, will be evidence that the first rate hike needs to be pulled forward.
Stated like this, I suspect a large portion of the FOMC would be sympathetic. For example, recall San Francisco Federal Reserve President John Williams from this past March:
“At that point if we don’t start to adjust monetary policy there’d be a risk of overshooting,” he said. “You don’t wait until you’re at full employment before you start to raise interest rates from zero.”
That said, most members lack Fisher's certainty that wages gains are set to accelerate and indicate that labor market slack has dwindled to the point that it is appropriate to remove financial accommodation. There remains the concern that the unemployment rate is not the best measure of labor market slack. They would prefer to wait until they have firm evidence of the absence of labor market slack and risk a small overshoot of inflation.
Moreover, as we now know, showing their anti-inflationary resolve did not do the Fed any favors in 2006 and 2007. As a whole, the Fed is acutely aware of this result. It has not gone unnoticed that the while the economy has suffered from repeated recessions since the great Moderation began, it has not suffered from a bout of inflation. It is reasonable to thus conclude that on average, the Fed has been too tight, not too loose. Hence again why the FOMC is willing to be patient in the normalization process.
Bottom Line: Fisher suggests that wage inflation by itself is a concern and needs to be brought to a halt. This is of course incorrect. Fisher sees an inflation threat in any and all data. Indeed, there could really be no other reason to be concerned about wage inflation. I suspect that Fisher has pivoted to concerns about wage inflation because his much feared price inflation has never emerged. That said, there is an element of truth here as well. Unemployment is nearing a range that is typically associated with faster wage growth. The Fed will respond to reduced slack in labor markets with less accommodation, and they will see accelerating wage growth as a signal that slack has largely been eliminated. But they are in no rush to do so any faster than necessary. Hence the slow taper and the subsequent delay in hiking rates. The balance of risks may be in the direction of tighter than expected policy, but the Fed needs to see more convincing data before they actually move in that direction.