Friday 14th June 2024

Since when were wage rises bad news?

Brits are finally getting proper wage rises for the first time in many years. But somehow this is being treated as a massive problem, Mouthy Money editor Edmund Greaves writes, instead of something to be celebrated.

Bank of England unhappy about wage rises

Since when were decent wage rises a bad thing? Since this week it would appear.

As of January to March this year, according to the figures release on Tuesday by the Office for National Statistics, wages rose (excluding bonuses) by 6%.

Taken against the current CPIH inflation (the ONS’s preferred measure) of 3.8% and we’ve got 2.2% real terms pay increase, on average, for British workers. This means Brits are getting a proper pay rise for the first time in many years.

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Now, we last had real-terms wage rises in 2021, so it wasn’t that long ago – but this was mostly cancelled out by monstruous inflation in 2022/23. Collectively even if we’re getting pay rises in earnest, there is still some way to go to get back ahead of the price increases we’ve all felt.

There is a longer-term story here though and the ONS’s own figures illustrate this. In the graph below, you can see real pay growth vs CPIH inflation.

Source: ONS, 14 May 2024

When the blue and orange lines are higher than the zero-axis line, this means real pay was growing. The post-2008 drop off is clear, and there has been no consistent reversal since despite a couple of spikes.

This is confirmed by research from from the Trade Union Congress (TUC), whose recent figures suggest real pay hasn’t really moved in about 16 years. The TUC says the average worker in the UK would be £200 a week better off if pay had grown at the same as its pre-financial crisis rate.

What is going on here? And why are real-terms wage increases (i.e. people becoming better off) treated like a bad thing by the Bank of England and other vested interests?

Read more by Mouthy Money editor Edmund Greaves

Why we all got poorer

The reason why the news of strong wage growth is being touted as bad news is because it is evidence of a ‘wage price spiral’.

In effect, wages are rising due to a labour shortages and workers being more assertive in the face of soaring costs.

But productivity (i.e. how much the average worker makes) isn’t increasing at the same time. So we’re being paid more but not producing more as a result.

Economists treat this kind of wage increase as ‘inflationary’ because it means the economy isn’t actually growing, there’s just more money sloshing around inside it.

This means the Bank of England, which watches all of this very closely, is likely to maintain its bank rate higher as a result. The bank is worried that if we’re getting more pay rises then we’ll just spend it and this will perpetuate more price rises.

But maybe…just maybe…the reason that people are getting proper pay rises now is because we’ve had enough of below inflation pay settlements and have finally found our collective voices. We’re tired of the erosion of our living standards and now we have the power to say enough is enough.

The 2010s were a decade marked by below-inflation pay rises. This was a core pillar of austerity government and a deliberate policy decision our leaders made.

The idea was this – in the post-GFC world government and big business couldn’t afford to hand out pay rises that matched inflation, and needed to control costs because, well, they were pretty broke.

This led to a novel idea whereby instead of saying to workers “no you can’t have a pay rise this year” you gave them a pay rise, but you give them an under-inflation pay rise. For example, if inflation was 3% – you’d give your employee 1.5%. It’s something and enough to quieten any immediate discontent.

But it is in effect a cost-cutting measure as over time it will reduce the business/government salary bill as income from goods and services (or taxes!) rises.

It is a way of softening the blow while also making the balance sheet look better.

It is a boiling frog strategy.

This idea was the lovechild of behavioural economists, illustrated in the book Nudge (published in 2009) and the ‘Nudge Unit’ which was created by the Coalition Government in 2010.

It became a widespread tactic used by Government entities and businesses all over the UK to slash their wage bills.

It was so effective the economy had basically become addicted to it, as the ONS wage data shows all too clearly. This attitude reached its perverse peak in 2022 when Bank of England Governor went to the press to beg workers not to ask for pay rises.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine was days away at this point, and the ensuing energy crisis turbocharged the inflation crunch. But that crunch was ultimately the product of the Bank of England, in cahoots with the Government, printing money into oblivion to pay for the pandemic.

And this leads us to today, where the labour market is tight, workers are getting actual pay increases and the economic ‘theory’ for getting away with meagre pay rises appears dead in the water.

It is bad news, but only if you’re a bean counter who doesn’t care about the human cost of eroding people’s earning, a business owner seeing your profits curtailed, or a government finding it harder to limit costs. Sound familiar?

At this point, if higher wages means higher rates then so be it. The era of (effectively) zero rates should never return as an idea anyway because it promoted irresponsible borrowing and an unhealthily debt-fuelled economy. It caused the inflation that has had to be confronted.

Higher rates will enforce financial discipline on business, government and households, and that is ultimately not a bad thing.

Photo by Robert Bye on Unsplash

Edmund Greaves


Edmund Greaves is editor of Mouthy Money. Formerly deputy editor of Moneywise magazine, he has worked in journalism for over a decade in politics, travel and now money.

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