Wage growth remained strong in early 2023 — good news for workers trying to keep up with the rising cost of living, but a likely source of concern for Federal Reserve officials as they try to tamp down inflation without causing a recession.
Wages and salaries for private-sector U.S. workers were up 5.1 percent in March from a year earlier, and up 1.2 percent from December, the Labor Department said Friday. That was the same growth rate as in December, and defied forecasters’ expectations of a modest slowdown.
The Fed has been raising interest rates for more than a year in an effort to cool off the economy and bring down inflation. Wages are a big piece of that puzzle: Policymakers believe that the labor market, in which there are far more available jobs than workers to fill them, is pushing up pay at an unsustainable rate, contributing to inflation. They are trying to strike a delicate balance, raising borrowing costs enough to discourage hiring and ease pressure on pay, but not so much that companies begin laying off workers en masse.
The results of those efforts have been mixed. Inflation has come down from its highs last year, and economic growth has slowed: Data released Thursday showed that gross domestic product, adjusted for inflation, increased at just a 1.1 percent annual rate in the first quarter. Companies have begun posting fewer job openings, and previously overheated sectors of the economy, like housing and tech, have cooled dramatically.
But inflation has come down more slowly than many forecasters had expected, and many economists say that while the labor market may no longer be boiling over, it is still at an uncomfortably high simmer. Fed officials are expected to raise interest rates again at their meeting next week, but investors will be watching closely for signals about what policymakers will do for the rest of 2023.
Wage growth is a delicate issue for the Fed. Faster pay gains have helped workers, particularly those at the bottom of the earnings ladder, keep up with rapidly rising prices. And most economists, inside and outside the Fed, say wage growth has not been a dominant cause of the recent bout of high inflation.
But Fed officials worry that if companies need to keep raising pay, they will also need to keep raising prices. That could make it hard for inflation to return to the central bank’s target of 2 percent per year, even as the pandemic-era disruptions that caused the initial pop of inflation recede.