Show me the money

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Show me the money

Throughout previous editions we have continued the discussion around wage growth; more specifically the lack of growth, registering a general bewilderment with regards to its absence.

The economic downturn in 2008, unlike previous financial declines, saw the imposition of very large government bailouts across the banking sector. This was accompanied by austerity measures on government spending, low interest rates and quantitative easing. Throughout this challenging period, confidence about the future remained low and memories of the crash strong.

Within sections of the private sector, an increase in ‘zero-hour’ contracts, and multi-part-time jobs, appear to have contributed to lower wage growth. Job security in this area is low and employees lack the ability to argue for higher wages. At the same time ‘globalisation’ encouraged free movement of labour, and in the UK, many low paid, low-skilled jobs were filled by workers from overseas. In the state sector the introduction of austerity meant public sector wage growth was extremely limited. All these factors played a part restricting wage growth in inflation adjusted terms. It could be argued that with wages not keeping pace with inflation this has been influential in so called populist voting; voters wanting to escape austerity.

In recent months wage data has started to improve, albeit from a very weak level. This time, data released shows another steep increase in average weekly earnings (excluding bonuses). Wages are now 3.1% higher than a year earlier. This is the fastest rate of growth since the crash and subsequent recession and the first time the headline rate of pay growth has been higher than 3% in a decade. The rate of growth is also higher than inflation meaning that real spending power is improving.

UK Average Weekly Pay & Unemployment Rate

Source Bloomberg, October 2018

Getting to grips with the underlying determinants behind earnings growth starting to improve is complex. We offer two plausible explanations:

First, government finances, albeit still shaky by historic standards are improving. The UK’s fiscal deficit has fallen below 2% of GDP, much healthier than post-crisis levels when it soared into double digits. With tax revenues rising, the government appears to be signalling a desire to relax public spending constraints. For example, a pay increase of 3% for certain staff working in the NHS was recently announced. Such actions cause ripple effects, with remaining public-sector workers likely to argue for similar pay raises, which then spill-over into the private sector.

Second, employment levels have been improving for many months now. The latest reduction in unemployment, by 47,000, takes unemployment to 4%; the lowest level for over 40 years. The impact of lower unemployment levels means employers are more likely to offer incentives and higher wage levels. This helps them to attract a better standard of workers from a shrinking talent pool.

The question that has been asked over and over as to why it has taken longer for wage growth to emerge is one that can be argued about endlessly. After a long period of favourable employment conditions, it may simply be this – wages tend to operate with a lag.

What happens next is of great interest. A common by-product of wage-growth within an economy is a corresponding increase in inflation. However, if the UK economy achieves improvements in productivity and invests productively this is what will allow inflation to remain subdued for an extended period. We have discussed several times, the factors having an influence on inflation. There are many which are varied and too complex to forecast with accuracy. Hence, we must wait and see how the cycle unfolds.

One clear positive is the relevance of higher wage levels for future tax receipts. Tax revenue should increase. This is good news for the chancellor who must try and balance the books. The uptick in wages may also be timely for borrowers and consumers. While interest rates are still set on a low trajectory, there will be pressure for interest rates here in the UK to rise if growth picks up; rising wages are a useful offset to higher borrowing costs.

The catalyst for interest rates to rise from what are unprecedentedly low levels, could initially be Brexit. A breakthrough on the impasse that has formed will help alleviate fears around trade, growth and investment. However, with negotiations still underway we must wait and see what happens.

With investing, your capital is at risk. Investments can fluctuate in value and you may get back less than you invest. Past performance is not a guide to future performance. Tax rules can change at any time. This blog is not personal financial advice.

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