Corporate profits versus labor income : Risk and reward versus slow and steady

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This FRED graph shows the evolution of two sources of income in our national economy: the compensation of employees through wages and other salary compensation, and the compensation of capital through profits. Both series are adjusted for inflation and both start at the level of 100 in 1954, which is the first year that’s considered “post-war” for economic purposes. (NOTE: The economic impact of the Korean War has essentially vanished.)

Eyeballing the data leads to two major conclusions. First, corporate profits move a lot, especially in response to general business activity. Profits tend to tank during recessions (noted with gray bars), which is understandable. After all, it’s well understood that investing in a business is a risky undertaking that deserves and often acquires compensation. Employee income is much more stable, but still suffers during recessions. Second, the trends of the two series tend to track each other over several decades, reflecting the general growth of the economy. The past decade and a half seems to be different, though. Never have corporate profits outgrown employee compensation so clearly and for so long. Is it because there’s been a particularly risky climate for investment, or is something else afoot?

How this graph was created: From the release table about national income by type of income, check the two series and click on “Add to Graph.” From the “Edit Graph” panel, add a series by searching for and selecting “GDP deflator,” apply formula a/b, and finally set the index value of 100 to 1954-05. Repeat for the second line.

Suggested by Christian Zimmermann.

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