First Take: Watch wage growth, not job gains – USA TODAY
Wall Street concentrated on the number of jobs created in 2014. In 2015, investors should keep a close eye on wages.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported Friday that the economy added 321,000 jobs in November, and that the unemployment rate was unchanged at 5.8%. That’s good news, especially for anyone who is looking for a job. A strong jobs market also gives consumers the confidence to buy big-ticket items, like cars and homes.
Now that the labor market is tightening, however, employees may even feel confident enough to ask for a raise beyond the piddling 1% or 2% or so that many companies have been offering. So far this year, average hourly earnings have risen 2.1%. Why is that important?
• More money in consumers’ hands means that they can afford to buy new things, from a restaurant meal to clothes and electronics. That spurs demand, which means companies will hire new workers and build new factories — part of a virtuous circle that keeps the economy humming. Corporate profits are near all-time highs, as is the amount of cash sitting on their balance sheets, so most can afford shelling out a bit more to their workers.
• Increased wages could put a temporary damper on earnings, but increased demand should offset that.
The danger is a wage-price spiral. When prices increase in a tight labor market, employees can ask for — and get — higher wages. Ultimately, that can become a far less virtuous cycle and result in soaring inflation.
For investors, a sharp rise in wages would mean that the Federal Reserve would be likely to push up interest rates to cool off the economy and prevent a wage-price spiral. Whether the Fed can do that in time is an open question.
Stock investors shouldn’t panic, at least not yet. Any initial rise in short-term rates isn’t likely to wreck the stock market: Wall Street usually sees the first few rate hikes as confirmation that the economy is robust. And the Fed will need to hike rates several times to get them back up to a normal level — somewhere between 3% and 4%.
Savers will cheer higher rates, which are currently close to zero.
But bond investors could see losses as rates rise: Bond prices fall when interest rates rise. If the Fed doesn’t act quickly enough, inflation fears could batter bond prices even more.
If you’re worried about inflation, you might consider small investments in Treasury Inflation Protected Securities, or TIPS. The one drawback: These bonds’ prices are tied to the consumer price index, and oil prices are a major component of the CPI.