Pickup Purchasing Power

April 24, 2016

Relatively stagnant wages and income inequality have become a frequent theme on the campaign trail.  Let’s look at what I’ll call pickup purchasing power to understand the problem.  Sorry.  No graph from the Federal Reserve on this one.

A favorite vehicle among construction workers is the F-150 pickup, a reliable vehicle with room for a toolbox and a trip to the local lumberyard for supplies.  The MSRP of a standard bed 1998 model, available to the public in September 1997, was $14,835 (Source ) In 2016, the MSRP of that same model is $26,430 (Source), a 78% increase, about 3.2% per year.  There have certainly been improvements in that truck model in the past two decades but customers can not order the model without the improvements.  The basic model is the basic model.

Let’s look now at the wages needed to buy that pickup.  In May 1997, shortly before the 1998 F-150 was released to the public, the BLS survey reported average carpenters’ wages of $30,800.  At that time, wages and salaries were about 70.5% of total compensation, or about $43,700 (BLS report).  In the decade before that, wages as a percent of total compensation had declined from 73.3% in 1988 to 70.5% in 1997.  Rising insurance costs and other direct benefits to employees were slowly eating into the net compensation of the average carpenter.

In 2015, the average wage for carpenters was $43,530.  The BLS reported that wages were now 67.7% of the total employment cost, or about $64,300.  In that 18 year period, carpenters’ wages grew 41% but total compensation grew 47%, or 2.1% per year.  The price of that pickup truck, though, grew at 3.2% per year.  That seemingly small difference of 1% per year adds up to a big difference over the years.  That’s the sense of anger that underlies the current election season.  The growth in price of that pickup is only slightly above the average post WW2 inflation rate of 3%.  It is the wages that have fallen behind.

Trump blames the politicians who have given away American jobs with badly negotiated trade agreements that disadvantage Americans.  Trump’s promise to bring those manufacturing jobs back home wins him popular appeal in those communities impacted by the decline in manufacturing.  The loss of manufacturing jobs has left a larger pool of job applicants for construction jobs.  Some of those displaced workers did not have the carpentry skills needed but some were able to work in roles supervised by an experienced carpenter.  The more the supply of job applicants the less upward pressure on wages. If – a big if – some manufacturing jobs do come back to the U.S., it will help spur more growth in carpenter’s wages.

Bernie Sanders blames the fat cats and proposes taxing all but the poorest Americans to distribute income more evenly. His remedies to promote his programs of fairness are far ranging.  Employers who are currently providing health insurance for their employees will probably welcome a 6.2% payroll tax.  On a forty year old employee making $50,000 a year, the $3100 tax is far less cost than an HMO plan. Employers who do not provide such coverage will resent the imposition of more taxes but at least it will be across the board, affecting all competitors within an industry or local market.  Sanders’ healthcare plan also relies on 10% cuts in payments to doctors and hospitals, who are projected to save at least that much in reduced billing costs.

While Trump addresses a specific demographic, a particular segment of the labor market, Sanders proposes broad remedies to a number of problems.  Trump’s appeal will be to those who want a specific fix.  Bring back jobs to our community.  We’ll figure out the rest.  Sanders’ proposals will appeal to voters who have more confidence in government as a problem solver.

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Oil Stocks

Readers who put some money to work in oil stocks (XLE, VDE for example) in late February, when I noted the historical bargain pricing, might have noticed the almost 20% increase in prices since then.  There are a number of reasons for the surge in price but the buying opportunity has faded with that surge.  Inventories are still high relative to demand.  Recent comprehensive market reports from the IEA require a subscription but last year’s report is available to those interested in a historical snapshot of the supply and demand trends throughout the world.  Until 2014, total demand had slightly exceeded supply.  A glance at the chart shows just how tightly coordinated supply and demand are in this global market. A “glut”in supply may be less than 1% of daily worldwide consumption and it is why prices can shift rather dramatically as traders try to guess both short and long term trends in demand and supply.

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