MONEY Economy

Why Your Paycheck May Not Grow With the Economy

500lb weight on top of money
Kiyoshi Togashi—Alamy

Though the job market is improving, workers might have to wait a while longer to see those big raises they've been waiting for.

You may have heard that the U.S. economy is back. The nation’s gross domestic product grew by 4.6% and 5% in the last two quarters—the strongest increase since 2003; Americans are more confident about the economy than at any time since the recession; and gasoline prices are as low as they’ve been in more than five years, amounting to a huge tax break for consumers and businesses.

No wonder employers felt strong enough to add 321,000 jobs to the economy in November, while the unemployment rate was at a post-recession low of 5.8%.

Still, many workers have not seen a pick-up in pay even as the employment climate has improved. In fact private sector wages declined by 5 cents (or by 0.2%) in December, despite the economy adding 252,000 jobs.

Total compensation, which includes benefits like medical insurance, rose 2.1% from the same period a year ago. That’s actually a slight uptick from the post-recession norm, but well below pre-2008 levels.

Which is weird. As demand for workers improves, and the unemployment rate declines, you’d expect inflation to rise and wages to increase.

One reason why wages have grown so slowly is that for much of the recovery there’s simply been a lack of demand for goods from consumers as many Americans worked to get out from the terrible effects of the housing crisis.

Since my spending is your income, more dollars saved and fewer spent mean less economic activity resulting in a weaker labor market. And since the Federal Reserve already dropped short-term interest rates to practically zero, and Washington lawmakers are reluctant or disinterested in further fiscal stimulus, marginal relief is coming from D.C.

Another explanation might have to do with the nature of compensation.

In a recent report, the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco highlighted the notion of “sticky” wages.

The argument goes: Since businesses were unable to reduce wages as much as they wanted when the economy got really bad five years ago (short of firing people), they are now not inclined to raise salaries as the economy lifts off.

If wages are rigid against a terrible economy, they’re stagnant (at least for a while) when the tide turns. “Businesses hold back wage increases and wait for inflation and productivity growth to bring wages closer to their desired levels,” says the report authors’s Mary Daly and Bart Hobijn. “Since it takes some time to fully exhaust the pool of wage cuts, growth remains low even as the economy expands and the unemployment rate declines.”

While there’s a bit of rigidity to all wages, the authors found “industries with the most downwardly rigid wage structures before the recession have seen the slowest growth during the recovery.” This means that businesses that were able to lower pay when revenues dried up have been more likely to increase wages as the good times returned.

So people in the wholesale trade business (truck drivers to sales reps) saw wages increase relative to pre-recession levels, while those in construction have to make due on less income.

What does this mean for workers?

“The rigidity of wages in a number of sectors has shaped the dynamics of unemployment and wage growth and is likely to do so until labor markets have fully returned to normal,” per Daly and Hobijn. And with still elevated levels of the long-term unemployed, high numbers of workers in part-time positions that want full-time ones, and fewer people quitting their jobs than before the recession, we’re still in not normal labor market territory.

Investors, especially older ones with larger holdings in fixed-income, should take note, too. Without higher inflation, and especially wage growth, the Federal Reserve is likely to delay raising rates.

While recent Fed meetings minutes have been interpreted as having a more hawkish tone, rates aren’t likely to rise (or rise quickly) while workers still struggle to make up lost ground.

Updated to reflect on Jan. 9 jobs report.

TIME energy

Saudi Arabia Facing Largest Deficit in Its History

map-flag-saudi-arabia
Getty Images

Oil prices have been dropping since June because of a market glut

The nearly 50 percent plunge in the price of oil during the past six months is expected to leave oil-rich Saudi Arabia with its first budget deficit since 2011 and the largest in its history.

The budget, announced on Dec. 25, will include spending during fiscal 2015 of $229.3 billion, higher than in 2014, despite revenues estimated at only $190.7 billion, lower than in the current fiscal year. That would leave a deficit of $38.6 billion.

Oil prices have been dropping since June because of a market glut, caused in part because of prodigious oil extraction in the United States from shale formations.

As a result of this glut, OPEC was urged to cut production levels at its Nov. 27 meeting in Vienna in an effort to shore up prices, but wealthy members of the cartel, led by Saudi Arabia, decided to keep production at its nearly two-year-old level of 30 million barrels a day.

Saudi Oil Minister Ali al-Naimi has since explained that the OPEC strategy was to reclaim market share. Fracking has made the United States, once the cartel’s largest customer, nearly self-sufficient in oil. But fracking is expensive, and many believe it can’t be profitable if the price of oil falls much below its current level of around $60 per barrel.

Oil is the principal, if not the only, resource in Saudi Arabia, so it’s clear that the price of oil has a strong influence on how the country’s annual budget is drawn up. Different analyses, however, provide different answers to how Riyadh has forecast the commodity’s value. Four of these reports say the Saudi budget is predicated on oil averaging $55 to $63 per barrel in 2015.

One, from the Saudi investment bank Jadwa Investment, said the budget shows that the kingdom expects its oil exports to average $56 per barrel in 2015. Monica Malik, the chief economist at Abu Dhabi Commercial Bank, agrees, putting Saudi oil expectations at $55 per barrel.

The National Commercial Bank, the largest financial institution in Saudi Arabia, said the Finance Ministry expects a price of $61 per barrel. And Emad Mostaque, an oil strategist at Ecstrat, which consults for emerging markets, said the kingdom expected a price of $63 per barrel.

One particularly knowledgeable analyst is John Sfakianakis, the former chief economic adviser to the Saudi Finance Ministry. He told the London-based Arabic-language newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat that the budget is predicated on oil prices that are appreciably higher, averaging about $75 per barrel in 2015 while keeping production steady at 7 million barrels per day.

“What happened is a surprise to some extent, for amid this huge decline in the price of oil, the majority of people believed that the Saudi budget would base its projected revenues on $60 per barrel,” Sfakianakis said.

“When Saudi Arabia bases its projected oil revenues for next year on $75 per barrel, it is sending a strong message to the market that it expects oil prices to rebound next year,” Sfakianakis said.

This post originally appeared on OilPrice.com.

Read more from Oilprice.com:

TIME Economy

The Left’s Opening Gambit for 2016 Is All About Your Paycheck

Elizabeth Warren
Cliff Owen—AP Elizabeth Warren Sen. Elizabeth Warren ponders the nation's problems at a Senate Banking Committee hearing on anti-money laundering on March 7, 2013.

The unifying value for progressives in 2016? Wages, if leaders like Elizabeth Warren and Richard Trumka have anything to say about it

See correction below.

If unemployment and slow growth were the central economic issues of the last presidential election cycle, wage stagnation and inequality are shaping up to be the focal point of 2016. The U.S. is now solidly in recovery, posting 5 % GDP growth in the third quarter of last year. But growth isn’t necessarily the same as shared prosperity. Inflation-adjusted middle class incomes have actually gone down for the last decade, something even the most rabid free market advocates won’t quarrel with statistically. And working class wages have been stagnant for much longer than that. (On balance, men with only high school degrees haven’t gotten a raise since 1968.) In an economy made up of 70 % consumer spending, that’s obviously an economic problem: no spending equals no business investment equals no jobs equals no spending…you get the picture. But inequality is increasingly taking on social and cultural dimensions, evident in everything from the debate over immigration to the killings that have rocked Ferguson and New York.

Put simply, chronically flat wages are no longer just about the lifestyle divide between the 1 % and everyone else. They’ve become an issue of social justice, democracy, and stability.

The question is, who has an answer to the problem? Liberals will be taking a first crack at it this Wednesday (Jan. 7) at the AFL-CIO-sponsored summit on Raising Wages. As Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren, who’ll be giving the keynote address, told me in an exclusive interview in advance of the summit, “Things are getting better, yes, but only for some. Families are working harder, but not doing better. And they feel the game is rigged against them–and guess what–it is!”

In her speech, Warren will be talking through numbers from a database compiled by French academic Thomas Piketty (author of the best-selling Capital in the 21st Century) showing that while 90 % of the workers in the US shared 70 % of all new income between the 1930s and 1970s, things started to change in the 1980s, with the 90 % capturing essentially zero percent of all new income since then.

Funny enough, that’s around that time that the laissez faire economic policies advocated by President Reagan, and later, President Clinton’s administration, took off. Former Treasury Secretary Bob Rubin was the one who lobbied Clinton to roll back the Depression-era Glass-Steagall banking regulation that many (like Warren) believe was a key factor in the financial crisis (which, in and of itself, greatly exacerbated inequality, particularly for African American and Latino families). He and other Clinton advisors like Larry Summers also crafted changes in tax policy that allowed for the growth of stock options as the main form of corporate compensation, a trend that Piketty, Nobel laureate and former Clinton advisor Joseph Stiglitz and many other economists believe has been a reason for growing inequality. I asked Warren if she blamed such Rubinesque policies for our current wage stagnation problem. “I’d lay it right at the feet of trickle down economics, yes. We’ve tried that experiment for 35 years and it hasn’t worked.”

Which will be an interesting challenge for Hillary Clinton, the presumed Democratic front-runner for 2016, and those in her orbit to overcome. Neera Tanden, the policy director for Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign, now head of the left wing think tank Center for American Progress, will also be speaking at the AFL-CIO summit and, next week, CAP will be debuting a brand new report on what can be done about wage stagnation. The report was spearheaded by none other than Larry Summers. When I mention to Tanden that many people might not associate Summers with “inclusive growth,” she insists that the document is “quite progressive” and that “he’s been right there with it.” This echoes what I’ve heard from other economic insiders about Summers shift away from his historic (some might say infamous) work in financial alchemy and toward more populist concerns like worker wages.

If this conversion has in fact taken place it could be described as either Biblical, or, given current public sentiment around Wall Street, opportunistic. CAP’s report will focus on what the US can learn from other developed countries like Australia, Canada, and Sweden, which have managed to keep worker wages relatively high in the face of globalization and technological disruption. It’s worth noting that they also have much more sensibly managed financial systems than the US.

One thing that all the VIP summit participants, including AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka, seem to agree on: the US is the outlier in developed economies in viewing workers as “costs” rather than “assets to be invested,” as Trumka puts it. It’s a philosophy that underscores America’s focus on the rights and profits of investors to the exclusion of everyone and everything else. It’s a mythology that will be under fire in 2016, as workers, business people, and politicians alike are beginning to question the viability of a system that encourages inequality-bolstering share buybacks rather than real economy investment, and a chase for quarterly profits over what’s best for the economy–and society—at large. On that note, Trumka will be announcing some big policy steps to put the wage issue front and center in the 2016 election conversation. “We want to establish raising wages as the key, unifying progressive value,” he says. “We want wages to be what ties all the pieces of economic and social justice together.” Sounds like a rallying cry to me.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the date of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.

MONEY stocks

Why Main Street’s Gain Is Wall Street’s Pain

150106_HO_Lede
Carlo Allegri—Reuters via Corbis Trader Joseph Mastrolia works on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange while wearing 2015 novelty glasses on New Year's Eve, the last trading day of the year, in New York December 31, 2014.

Monday's 331-point drop in the Dow shows that the tables have turned on Wall Street.

Up until now, the bull market seemed to defy the everyday experience of many Americans: As Main Street households struggled through a recovery that repeatedly fell short of expectations, investors on Wall Street rejoiced.

That’s because the economy was growing fast enough to justify higher share prices, but not so fast that inflation was viewed as a real threat.

This year, though, the script seems to be flipped.

As Main Street Americans finally begin to see the economy improving, it’s the stock market that’s falling short, as evidenced by Monday’s 331-point drop in the Dow.

Monday’s dive was driven by two major economic trends that on the surface should be a boon for U.S. consumers. First, oil prices continued their sudden and surprising slide, driving prices at the pump down with them.

Brent Crude Oil Spot Price Chart

Brent Crude Oil Spot Price data by YCharts

At the same time, the U.S. dollar is now at a nine-year high against the struggling euro. That bolsters the purchasing power of Americans traveling abroad and U.S. consumers purchasing imported goods.

^DXY Chart

^DXY data by YCharts

Thanks to both trends, auto sales last year reached their highest level since before the global financial crisis.

Yet none of this is moving the dial on stock prices so far in 2015.

Some analysts think this could be a recurring trend throughout this year. “Expect a good year on Main Street but a more challenging environment for Wall Street,” says James Paulsen, chief investment strategist for Wells Capital Management.

Why?

Before, lukewarm news on the economic front bolstered the hope that the Federal Reserve would keep interest rates near zero for the foreseeable future. Now, some investors worry that the forces causing oil prices to fall and the dollar to rise — the weak global economy abroad — may be too much for the Fed to tackle even if rates stay low throughout this year.

Moreover, falling oil prices and the strengthening dollar may be giving the market false hope about low inflation.

“Some have argued that lower oil prices give the Fed more room to maneuver. This is a mistake,” says David Kelley, chief global strategist for J.P. Morgan Funds.

While it is true that lower energy prices are reducing inflation in the near term, “falling oil prices are also a big boost for consumers,” Kelly said. “Even if gasoline prices were gradually to move up to $2.75 a gallon by the end of this year from $2.39 at the end of last year, consumers would spend roughly $90 billion less on gasoline in 2015 than they did in the 12 months ended in June 2014.”

Not only is this a financial boost, “it is also a psychological positive with sharp increases seen in consumer confidence readings in the last few weeks,” Kelly said. “This should power an increase in consumer demand which should, in turn, boost prices in other areas.”

TIME energy

Top Five Factors Affecting Oil Prices in 2015

The big question is when they will rise, and by how much

As we ring in the New Year, let’s take stock of where we are at with the oil markets. 2014 proved to be a momentous one for the oil markets, having seen prices cut in half in just six months.

The big question is what oil prices will do in 2015. Oil prices are unsustainably low right now – many high-cost oil producers and oil-producing regions are currently operating in the red. That may work in the short-term, but over the medium and long-term, companies will be forced out of the market, precipitating a price rise. The big question is when they will rise, and by how much.

So, what does that mean for oil prices in 2015? It is anybody’s guess, but here are the top five variables that will determine the trajectory of oil prices over the next 12 months, in no particular order.

1. China’s Economy. China is the second largest consumer of oil in the world and surpassed the United States as the largest importer of liquid fuels in late 2013. More importantly for oil prices is how much China’s consumption will increase in the coming years. According to the EIA, China is expected burn through 3 million more barrels per day in 2020 compared to 2012, accounting for about one-quarter of global demand growth over that timeframe. Although there is much uncertainty, China just wrapped up a disappointing fourth quarter, capping off its slowest annual growth in over a quarter century. It is not at all obvious that China will be able to halt its sliding growth rate, but the trajectory of China’s economy will significantly impact oil prices in 2015.

2. American shale. By the end of 2014, the U.S. was producing more than 9 million barrels of oil per day, an 80 percent increase from 2007. That output went a long way to creating a glut of oil, which helped send oil prices to the dumps in 2014. Having collectively shot themselves in the foot, the big question is how affected U.S. drillers will be by sub-$60 WTI. Rig counts continue to fall, spending is being slashed, but output has so far been stable. Whether the industry can maintain output given today’s prices or production begins to fall will have an enormous impact on international supplies, and as a result, prices.

3. Elasticity of Demand. The cure for low prices is low prices. That cliché can be applied to both the supply and demand side of the equation. Will oil selling at fire sale prices spur renewed demand? In some countries where oil is more regulated, low prices may not trickle down to the retail level. Countries like Indonesia are scrapping subsidies, which will be a boon to state coffers but will diminish the benefits to consumers. However, in the U.S., gasoline prices are now below $2.40 per gallon, more than 35 percent down from mid-2014. That has led to an uptick in gasoline consumption. In the waning days of 2014, the U.S. consumed gasoline at the highest daily rate since 2007. Low prices could spark higher demand, which in turn could send oil prices back up.

4. OPEC’s Next Move. OPEC deserves a lot of credit (or blame) for the remarkable downturn in oil prices last year. While many pundits have declared OPEC irrelevant after their decision to leave output unchanged, the mere fact that oil prices crashed after the cartel’s November meeting demonstrates just how influential they are over price swings. For now OPEC – or, more accurately, Saudi Arabia – has stood firm in its insistence not to cut production quotas. Whether that remains true through 2015 is up in the air.

5. Geopolitical flashpoints. In the not too distant past, a small supply disruption would send oil prices skyward. In early 2014, for example, violence in Libya blocked oil exports, contributing to a rise in oil prices. In Iraq, ISIS overran parts of the country and oil prices shot up on fears of supply outages. But since then, geopolitical flashpoints have had much less of an effect on the price of crude. During the last few weeks of 2014, violence flared up again in Libya. But after a brief increase in prices, the markets shrugged off the event. Nevertheless, history has demonstrated time and again that geopolitical crises are some of the most powerful short-term movers of oil prices.

This post originally appeared on OilPrice.com.

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TIME food and drink

Nearly 46 Million Americans Received Starbucks Gift Cards This Holiday

Starbucks coffee
Bloomberg—Getty Images Starbucks coffee

Coffee giant says 1 in 7 Americans received one of its cards

While much of the frenzy around the holidays invokes images of Wal-Mart door busters and Amazon warehouses, Starbucks is proving itself to be one of the kings of the season.

The coffee giant has announced that one out of every seven Americans received one of its gift cards this holiday season. That’s up from one in eight Americans in 2013. Doing a little math (based on the U.S. Census Bureau’s population clock of about 320 million Americans), that implies that nearly 46 million received Starbucks gift cards in 2014 versus about 40 million in the year-earlier period.

It isn’t exactly a surprise that Starbucks would do so well when it comes to generating gift card sales during the key retail shopping season. A National Retail Federation survey recently reported that one in five had planned to pick up coffee shop gift cards this holiday season, one of the most popular choices for gift cards.

A Starbucks spokeswoman told Fortune that nearly 2.5 million Starbucks cards were activated on Christmas Eve alone, implying the coffee company benefits greatly from those looking to scoop up a last-minute gift. And more than $1.1 billion were loaded on the company’s cards in the U.S. and Canada throughout the most recent holiday season. To add some perspective, Starbucks generated $16.4 billion in revenue globally in the most recent fiscal year.

Gift cards are a popular strategy employed by retailers to generate more traffic to their stores, and Starbucks is particularly good at incorporating those dollars into its loyalty program. The value of a gift card can be uploaded and combined with a java lover’s Starbucks card, which offers broader rewards and discounts, as well as promotions (including the recently announced “Starbucks for Life” promotion).

This article originally appeared on Fortune.com

TIME Economy

Euro Falls to a 9-Year Low on Greek Fears

Euro Money Greece
Getty Images

The euro fell to its lowest level against the dollar in nine years Monday, driven by fears of political turmoil in Greece and hopes for more monetary stimulus from the European Central Bank.

By lunchtime in Europe, the single currency had fallen to $1.1914 and has now fallen over 2c against the dollar since the start of the year.

It had already lurched lower on Friday, the first trading session of 2015, on the back of comments by ECB President Mario Draghi in an interview with a German newspaper saying that the risks of it undershooting its inflation target had increased. That added to speculation that the ECB will announce a bigger program of bond-buying, or so-called quantitative easing, at its first policy meeting of the year on Jan. 22.

The ECB is keen to play up that fact that its policy is getting easier even as the Federal Reserve prepares to tighten monetary policy in the U.S.. That outlook will keep the euro cheap on foreign exchange markets, helping the area to boost growth through the export channel.

Hopes for QE, coupled with pessimism over the Eurozone’s growth outlook, have already driven bond yields to unprecedented lows. Yields on German bonds are negative all the way out to 2019, while even Italy’s 10-year bonds yield only 1.79%.

The other factor weighing on the euro is the fear that the radical left-wing Syriza party will win Greece’s parliamentary elections at the end of January, starting a process that may lead to Greece leaving the Eurozone. The German magazine Der Spiegel reported at the weekend that Chancellor Angela Merkel was confident that the Eurozone could cope with a Greek exit.

That confidence is far from being universally shared by financial markets. Marc Ostwald, a strategist with ADM ISI in London, called a Greek exit “the ultimate example bar none of why the Euro project is doomed to failure if no progress on moving to some form of fiscal transfer union is made.”

The euro’s decline is only side of a general rally in the dollar. The dollar index, which measures the greenback’s strength against a basked of major world currencies (although, importantly, not China’s), is also at a nine-year high, after rising over 12% last year.

This article originally appeared on Fortune.com

TIME Economy

Minimum-Wage Increases Go Into Effect Across the Country

The wage hikes in several states and D.C. are expected to affect 3.1 million people

Roughly 3.1 million workers across the United States woke up to a little New Year’s Day present on Thursday, January 1, when increases in the minimum wage took effect in 20 states and the District of Columbia.

The recent bumps brought the total number of states with a minimum wage above the federal wage floor to 29, the New York Times reports. The federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour.

Some of the increases are relatively tiny—a few cents—while some, of a dollar or more, could have a more significant impact on the economy. Minimum wage hikes in more states are set to take effect later in the year, according to the NYT.

The minimum wage hike is expected to impact 3.1 million of the 3.3 million Americans who earn the minimum wage.

[NYT]

MONEY Economy

Economy Delivers a Last-Minute Gift to Wall Street

141223_INV_Party_1
Getty Images/Purestock

The U.S. economy isn't exactly partying like 1999, but it came pretty close in the third quarter, growing faster than it has since 2003.

It’s time to stop describing this economic recovery as being “tepid.”

A new report from the Commerce Department Tuesday morning revealed that the U.S. economy had grown at an annual rate of 5% in the third quarter. Not only does that represents a major jump from earlier estimates of 3.9% growth, it marks the economy’s best performance in 11 years. And it’s the second straight quarter in which U.S. gross domestic product grew at or near the historically high mark of 5%.

Wall Street reacted as you’d expect, pushing the Dow Jones industrial average up another 60 points in early morning trading Tuesday to above the 18,000 mark. In just the past week, the so-called Santa Claus rally has now lifted the benchmark Dow up nearly 1000 points.

Most of that rally, however, centered on the bad news surrounding the global economy, as the slowdown overseas is putting a lid on inflation and allowing the Federal Reserve to keep interest rates near zero for some time.

Today’s bump, though, was all about the surprising health of the U.S. economy in general and American consumers in particular.

Earlier reports showed that consumer spending, which represents more than two thirds of total economic activity in the country, had grown a decent 2.2%. But today’s new report updated that figure to 3.2%. “The boost to personal consumption was much stronger than we had expected,” noted Michael Gapen, chief U.S. economist for Barclays Research.

This would imply that the improved job market and rising net worth due to improvements in the stock and housing markets are finally being felt by American households—just in time for the holidays.

TIME Economy

U.S. Economy Notches its Best Performance in Over a Decade

Dow Rises Over 400 Points Day After Fed Signals No Rise In Interest Rates
Andrew Burton—Getty Images Traders work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange in Nwe York City on Dec. 18, 2014.

The improved reading was a result of an increase in personal consumption

The U.S. economy’s third-quarter performance is the strongest the nation has recorded in more than 10 years, as consumers continue to spend more as they feel emboldened by a stronger job market, a stronger housing market and rising stocks.

Gross domestic product for the third-quarter leapt a better-than-expected 5% according to the Commerce Department’s “third” estimate. That growth exceeded the prior quarter’s 4.6% increase. It also was the greatest advance since the third quarter of 2003, according to Bloomberg.

Economists had projected a 4.3% jump in GDP for the latest reading of the economy, according to a poll conducted by Bloomberg. And no economist polled by Bloomberg had expected a revision as high as the Commerce Department reported: the consensus range was between 4% to 4.5%.

The improved reading was a result of an increase in personal consumption that was more than the Commerce Department had initially reported, as well as greater federal, state and local government spending, an increase in exports and residential fixed investment. Imports, however, decreased.

There had been some indications the economy was performing well even before the Commerce Department report. Retail sales leapt a better-than-expected 0.7% in November, the strongest growth the Commerce Department has reported since March of this year. Fortune earlier this week reported that U.S. shoppers spent a record $42 billion on Saturday and Sunday, the final weekend before Christmas and signaling Americans are perhaps more willing to open up their wallets as they enjoy savings from lower prices at the pump and feel emboldened by a stronger stock market and improves in housing and employment.

This article originally appeared on Fortune.com

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