BY Peter Coy
Want ads for truck drivers to haul crude oil in Texas are touting salaries as high as $150,000 a year. Some nurses are getting $25,000 signing bonuses. The U.S. unemployment rate just fell to 3.9 percent, one tick away from its lowest since the 1960s. And on May 8 the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported there are 6.5 million unfilled jobs in the U.S., the most on record. Some employers say they’re feeling the squeeze. “Rising labor costs remain the primary contributing factor to our margin erosion,” Chatham Lodging Trust, a company in West Palm Beach, Fla., that owns more than 130 hotels either by itself or in joint ventures, said on May 1.
Is the U.S. economy overheating? Yes and no. There are plenty of inflationary bottlenecks, and not only in the labor market. Backlogs of orders are the highest since 2004, according to the Institute for Supply Management. Transportation costs have jumped in part because of driver shortages. Strong U.S. oil and gas production has helped push up the prices of essential inputs such as steel pipe and specialty sands used in fracking.
On the other hand, the bottlenecks aren’t yet causing high inflation across the economy, which would require the Federal Reserve to speed up its interest rate hikes. The U.S. central bank passed up the opportunity to raise the federal funds rate at its May 1-2 meeting while noting that the rate of inflation has “moved close” to the bank’s 2 percent target. “In my judgment, the Fed is ready to accelerate [rate hikes] if they need to, but they’re not getting ahead, which I think is appropriate,” says Josh Wright, chief economist at ICIMS Inc., which makes software to find and hire talent.
Some of the factors driving up the U.S. inflation rate—in particular, the jump in crude oil prices to about $70 a barrel from less than $50 a year ago—have external causes and don’t reflect overheating in the domestic economy. Rising commodity prices caused in part by new steel tariffs cost General Motors Co. and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV at least $200 million each in the first quarter. Tariffs have also helped drive lumber prices to a record. Other external factors are the high price of imported alumina for aluminum smelters and the weather-related runup in prices of vanilla from Madagascar and cocoa from Ivory Coast and Ghana.
The U.S. economy performed below capacity for so long that it can be hard for managers to remember how to operate without lots of spare resources. Half of the surveyed members of the National Federation of Independent Business say there are “few or no” qualified workers for job openings. Yet on May 8 the NFIB reported that in April the net percentage of small-business owners who reported improved earnings trends was the highest in the survey’s history. “There is no question that small business is booming,” William Dunkelberg, NFIB’s chief economist, said in a statement. (Big companies are, too: First-quarter earnings for companies in the S&P 500 are expected to be 24 percent higher than a year earlier, Bloomberg calculated on May 9.)
Sectors with strong pay growth generally confront special circumstances. Those truck drivers being offered as much as $150,000? They’re being hired by oil producers in the Permian Basin who are desperate to get their crude to market. Hospitals, whose median expenditures for contract labor rose 19 percent in the past year, face their own special problems, according to John Morrow, a managing director of Franklin Trust Ratings who analyzes hospitals. People whose skills are in high demand and work under temporary contract rather than salary can take full advantage of shortages for their talents, according to Morrow. “This is a level of skill that requires advanced-level training that involves medicine, technology, and science, and all of those things are costly,” he says.
An important sign that rising costs remain manageable is that most companies haven’t passed them along to customers. Walmart Inc., the nation’s largest private employer, raised starting wages to $11 an hour in January and announced annual bonuses of as much as $1,000. But it’s cutting prices to remain competitive with Amazon.com Inc. and low-cost supermarket chains Aldi Inc. and Lidl US LLC. The same goes for packaged-goods companies. General Mills Inc. has acknowledged that attempts to hike prices for its Progresso soup and Yoplait yogurt ultimately hurt sales by driving shoppers to other brands. In freight transportation, BNSF Railway Co.has picked up market share from Union Pacific Corp.by underpricing it.
“We have to be a little bit cautious in inferring that wage growth is going to be a major constraint for business,” says Gregory Daco, head of U.S. macroeconomics for Oxford Economics Ltd. While some economists warn that rising inflation is a “late-cycle” phenomenon—i.e., a precursor of recession—“we don’t have clear evidence that we’re at the end rather than the middle of the cycle,” says Michael Englund, chief economist of Action Economics LLC in Boulder, Colo.
A key statistic to watch is unit labor costs, which are wages adjusted for productivity. They rose at an annual rate of 2.7 percent in the first quarter. But over the past year as a whole, the increase was only 1.1 percent. As long as companies’ unit labor costs don’t rise faster than the prices they charge, tight labor markets won’t be a problem.
The Fed’s preferred measure of inflation, the price index for personal consumption expenditures, is going to look high for a few months because a brief dip in prices for clothing, hotel rooms, airline fares, and other items has ended, says Ian Shepherdson, chief economist of Pantheon Macroeconomics. That might influence the Fed, he says. There’s a risk that Fed rate setters could react too quickly to signs of overheating. “As inflation climbs, so too will the risk of recession, because at some point policymakers will feel impelled to respond,” Ellen Zentner, chief U.S. economist of Morgan Stanley, wrote in a note to clients on May 2. —With Katia Dmitrieva, Tatiana Darie, Craig Giammona, and Jamie Butters