What the Stats Tell Us

New York's stock markets are the world capital of guessology. But, as the markets' traders latch onto statistics to give substance to their guesses, they often tell us interesting things about our society.

This week there were plenty of important statistics to grab. Economic growth leaped upward. But inflation remains low despite added consumer demand. Joblessness, already remarkably low, has trended even lower. And average pay for those jobs? It rose during the first quarter of 1997, but slightly less than the 4 percent rate at the end of 1996.

Still, pay raises were moving along at close to twice the rise in the cost of consumer goods. And that's good news for all those families and individuals trying to do any or all of the following: save for a house downpayment; pay off credit card, car loan, or mortgage debt; invest for retirement; save for the kids' tuitions; or just buy a new couch.

So how come we can have faster growth, more people employed, rising pay, and not yet see that upward blip in inflation Alan Greenspan fears? Two reasons: (1) A less known index, the "employment cost index," rose about 25 percent more slowly in the first three months of 1997 than it did in the last quarter of 1996. That index shows the cost to a company of your wage or salary plus benefits. And, though average wages rose nicely, the cost of benefits barely inched upward, thanks to factors such as better control of health care costs. (2) Productivity, the amount of goods or services produced per worker per hour, continues to strengthen.

All these statistics, like the markets that reflect them, fluctuate from month to month. But the general trend is favorable. One underlying reason is often overlooked. The much-critiqued boomer generation has reached the point where its job skills produce higher productivity, and its priorities have gradually shifted from initial household purchases to saving for long-term goals.

On the spiritual, moral side that shift in goals is reflected in the current flood of interest in volunteerism, family, church, and civility. Wonderful, even if unindexed, trends.

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