Stunning jobs numbers mean Amazon wage hikes may spread: Don Pittis

The startling decline in the U.S. jobless rate could be a sign Amazon's wage hikes will spread through the economy. And not everyone will be happy.

But for homeowners and bond holders, signs of an economic boom are not all good

Although it has cut some other reimbursement schemes to cover the cost,a net increase in Amazon wages may force competitors to follow suit. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

A plunge in the U.S. jobless rate to levels not seen in nearly half a century could be a new turning point for North American wage rates, and not everyone is happy about the prospect.

For workers who have seen wage rates stagnate since the mid-1970s it is a potential cause for celebration.

And while the critics of President Donald Trump have denounced his misinterpretation of economic data in the past, the U.S. leader has reason to crow.

Falling unemployment combined with strong economic growth can be seen as a vindication of Trump's stimulus plan if it can be shown that the benefits are flowing beyond the capitalist class and down to ordinary wage earners.

Wages on the upswing?

While not all experts agree, there are early signs — including this week's announcement by Amazon that the company was raising its national minimum wage to $15 US an hour — that North American pay could be on the upswing.

"Many people believe that instead of being a linear relationship, it's more like a hockey stick," says Frances Donald, head of macroeconomic strategy with Manulife Asset Management. "You reach a point in the economic cycle where, very suddenly, instead of being a gradual response, wages start to take off more aggressively."

If that actually turns out to be the case, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, so good at foreseeing the online retail market, may be heralding a change in the job market, too. By being a market leader as an employer, Amazon has had a chance to work out where the money is coming from to pay the higher rate. Competitors playing catchup will not have that luxury.
(Natalie Holdway/CBC)

There are a number of reason why that will not make everybody happy, because according to traditional economic theory described by something called the Phillips curve, rising wages are a driver of inflation.

As I wrote just over a year ago, many economists were debating why it was that the Philips curve relationship — where a shortage of workers leads to higher wages, leading to higher prices to pay those wages, leading to rising inflation and thus rising borrowing rates— seemed not to be functioning normally. 

At the time, one of the economists I spoke to said maybe we just had to wait for the effects to feed through the economy. And if that's what's happening now, it is exactly what central bankers in the U.S. and Canada have been expecting.

"Central banks including the Federal Reserve and the Bank of Canada have been raising rates despite not meeting the typical wage criteria," says Donald. "Higher wages will be great comfort to (Fed chair Jerome) Powell and (Bank of Canada governor Stephen) Poloz, who have been raising rates in anticipation that wages would indeed follow."

But the Manulife economist says so far, wages have not been rising as fast as traditional economic trends might indicate, which she blames on structural issues such as the falling age of the U.S. workforce as boomers enter retirement.

Bond market tizzy

Nonetheless, fear that a strong economy, of which falling unemployment is a traditional part, caused a tizzy in bond markets this week. Bond traders, already facing yields above three per cent earlier in the week, were waiting to see these jobs numbers. And when they did, U.S. treasury bills fell, pushing interest rates to levels not seen since 2011. (For an oversimplified backgrounder on the inverse relationship between bonds and interest rates, or yields, see this previous column.)

Dangerous as it is to argue with the bond market, Henry Siu, an economics professor at the University of British Columbia, remains sceptical that wages are beginning to rise at a rate likely to push interest rates higher.

Siu has studied what he calls job polarization, where wages in the modern job market have grown apart. While workers with special skills do well in a high-technology job market, the unskilled or less-skilled who would normally earn the minimum wage have been making little progress.

One reason is that jobs that can be replaced by machines are being replaced, and that affects simpler jobs such as secretarial tasks and warehouse forklift operation. But part of the blame, says Siu, goes to the growing power of large national employers such as fast food chains and retailers like Amazon that are able to act like monopolists, only in hiring.

"What's increasingly true is that the labour market is becoming less competitive and more what we call in economics, monopsonistic, which is the labour-side analog of a monopoly," says Siu.

The other issue, he says, is that while the unemployment rate is definitely falling, the number of available workers is not rising at anything like the rate it has during previous booms.
Facing the chill of rising interest rates: A real estate sign stands in Calgary after the surprise dump of snow on Oct. 1. (Robson Fletcher/CBC)

"If you look at the more telling statistic, I think it's the employment to working-aged population ratio," says Siu. "What's true is that number is barely higher today than it was at the end of the 2009 recession."

But whether its purpose is to steal workers from other employers or to draw non-workers back into the workforce, Katie Bardaro, chief economist at PayScale, a company that monitors compensation levels in Canada and the U.S., says increasing wages in one place forces other employers to compete.

Bardaro is based in Seattle, also home to the Amazon world headquarters, where the city's minimum wage is already set at $15 US and where it is difficult to find employees.

She says that in that case the ripple effect is already visible as employers in nearby towns complain: "Well, I can't find workers who want to work here because they'll just go five miles in and, you know, work there."

To get workers to stay, employers have to pay something closer to Seattle wages. Bardaro says that as Amazon begins to mop up workers with higher wages, especially for seasonal employment, the same thing may be happening across the country.

"As it stands now, it's not a large enough move for a large enough group to have an impact on overall inflation, but if it keeps moving in that direction, we could start to see some increasingly inflationary impacts."

Follow Don on Twitter @don_pittis


Don Pittis

Business columnist

Based in Toronto, Don Pittis is a business columnist and senior producer for CBC News. Previously, he was a forest firefighter, and a ranger in Canada's High Arctic islands. After moving into journalism, he was principal business reporter for Radio Television Hong Kong before the handover to China. He has produced and reported for the CBC in Saskatchewan and Toronto and the BBC in London.


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