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Prices are rising. So are wages. And that worries some economists.

Mitchell Hartman Oct 29, 2021
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Though some economists are worrying about the potential for an inflation spiral, the biggest pay hikes are currently going to younger workers and service workers in low-wage professions — such as supermarket cashiers. Jean Philippe-Ksiazek/AFP via Getty Images

Prices are rising. So are wages. And that worries some economists.

Mitchell Hartman Oct 29, 2021
Heard on:
Though some economists are worrying about the potential for an inflation spiral, the biggest pay hikes are currently going to younger workers and service workers in low-wage professions — such as supermarket cashiers. Jean Philippe-Ksiazek/AFP via Getty Images
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The inflation rate in September was 4.4%, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis. Core inflation, which excludes food and energy, was 3.6%. So it’s fairly high and pretty much holding steady from summer.

Data was also released on wage inflation Friday, in the form of the Labor Department’s employment cost index — one of the most comprehensive measures of what it costs employers to employ workers. That was up 3.7% for the third-quarter from a year ago and up from 2.9% in the second quarter — to the highest level since the stats people started crunching this data in 1996.

So, with wages up and prices up … is this a wage-price spiral in the making?

Up until now, the main reason for sharp price rises has been the messed-up pandemic supply chain. But the rising cost of wages and benefits is potentially more troubling: They’re up about 4% in the private sector year over year, around 7% for hotel and restaurant workers, and more than 8% in financial services.

“It was pretty fast wage growth. It was one data point, but we’ll keep an eye on it,” said Josh Bivens at the Economic Policy Institute.

But if employers keep raising wages this much, they could be driven to raise prices, too.

“That sort of wage-price spiral is what worries kind of macro policymakers the most. That’s the genie they don’t want to let out of the bottle,” he said.

Like what happened in the bad ol’ 1970s, said University of Michigan economics professor Betsey Stevenson.

“Workers trying to build into their contracts automatic wage increases of 5% or 6%, because they think, ‘I’m going to need that just to buy the same set of things I was buying the year before.’ And that can become a self-fulfilling prophecy,” she said.

But workers today don’t have nearly as much leverage as they did in the ‘70s, according to Brad McMillan at Commonwealth Financial Network.

“We don’t have the union participation, we don’t have the industrywide labor agreements. I think it’s going to be a much tougher path to see that kind of wage-price spiral take off,” he said.

McMillan sees the current increase in worker compensation in a more virtuous cycle kind of light: “That money, if it goes into consumers’ pockets, actually is going to help the economy grow going forward,” he said.

And the biggest pay hikes right now are going to younger workers and service workers in low-wage professions — those who need the money most to keep up with rising prices.

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