Lodi News-Sentinel

Labor costs show signs of slower inflation

- Molly Smith

U.S. employment costs rose at a slower-than-expected pace in the closing months of 2022, adding to signs of moderating inflation that reinforces the case for a smaller interest-rate increase by the Federal Reserve this week.

The employment cost index, a broad gauge of wages and benefits, increased 1% in the fourth quarter, according to Labor Department figures released Tuesday. Labor costs have risen at least 1% for six straight quarters, extending what was already a record streak in data back to 1996.

The median estimate in a Bloomberg survey of economists called for a 1.1% advance.

The data are consistent with other measures that show wage growth is slowing, though still not enough for the Fed to feel confident that such inflationa­ry pressures have been quelled for good. Policymake­rs have been adamant that their work is far from over, which could lead them to keep interest rates high for an extended period of time.

The release comes at the start of the Fed’s two-day policy meeting, at which officials are expected to slow the pace of rate hikes to a quarter point. However, Chair Jerome Powell will likely balance that with a still-hawkish tone and push back on bets that the central bank will lower borrowing costs this year.

Powell has been particular­ly concerned with inflation in services outside of energy and housing, which points to signs of more durable price pressures and largely reflects wages.

Inflation in that category ticked up last month, though broader measures, which the Fed bases its inflation targeting, continued to cool, Commerce Department data released last week showed.

The moderation in compensati­on gains last quarter was mainly due to a stepdown in employment costs at service providers.

Unlike the earnings measures in the monthly jobs report — which is forecast to show this week that average hourly earnings moderated in January — the ECI is not distorted by employment shifts among occupation­s or industries.

Compared with a year earlier, the labor costs measure rose 5.1%, a slight pickup from the prior period. However, excluding incentive-paid occupation­s — a measure the Fed tracks closely — employment costs decelerate­d.

Labor costs have mostly been receding from record highs as turnover eases and several employers slow hiring or dismiss staff. The Atlanta Fed’s wage growth tracker decelerate­d to 6.1% in December, the lowest in seven months.

However, many companies are still struggling to attract and retain workers. Walmart Inc. the largest private-sector employer in the U.S., is raising its starting wage 17% amid inflation and heightened competitio­n for workers, and Citigroup Inc. is bumping pay for junior bankers by as much as 15%.

Wages and salaries for civilian workers rose 1% in the final three months of 2022, while benefits climbed 0.8%, the ECI report showed. Pay at state and local government­s increased at less than half the rate as the prior quarter.

Pay has largely not kept up with inflation, inflicting financial stress on many households. Inflation-adjusted consumer spending fell in December for a second month and the saving rate rose, suggesting Americans may be preparing for tougher times ahead.

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