Economists debating the impact of a minimum wage on inequality, inflation and the jobless rate are about to get a ton of new evidence from Mexico.
The country is boosting its minimum wage 20% starting Jan. 1, to 123.22 pesos per day, or $6.50. (The minimum is higher in northern border territories; there it rises 5%, to $9.75 a day.)
That latest increase is seven times faster than inflation, and it comes on top of a 16% jump this year.
The leftist government of President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador is using the wage as a tool to fight poverty and inequality. This is a stark break from Mexico’s recent policies, when increases to the minimum salary barely topped inflation to help exporters to the U.S. keep costs down.
Before Lopez Obrador took office, Mexico’s minimum wage was the second lowest among more than 30 countries in a study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development as a proportion of what an average worker made. Only the U.S. was lower. Mexico’s new daily minimum still amounts to less than $1 an hour.
Economists are split on whether increases in the minimum wage hurt job creation.
Harvard University’s Gregory Mankiw, who used to chair the U.S. Council of Economic Advisors, has argued that it reduces job opportunities for unskilled workers. Nobel laureate economist Paul Krugman says there’s no evidence that raising the minimum wage costs jobs.
The wage increase comes as policymakers are debating how to reduce social disparities amid mass protests in several Latin American countries.
So how is Mexico’s experiment going?
Despite the warnings of Mexico’s central bank, the 16% increase to the minimum salary this year hasn’t stoked inflation -- at least not yet. The inflation rate has fallen to about 3% from 4.8% a year ago. Core inflation, which aims to track underlying price trends by excluding the most volatile goods such as food and energy, hardly budged during 2019.
Some economists also point to strong consumer demand as a benefit of workers’ higher spending power.
Banxico board member Gerardo Esquivel, an appointee of Lopez Obrador and a dovish member of the famously hawkish central bank, celebrated the additional wage increase, saying it was “fair and necessary.”
Some other economists have warned that the cumulative effect of two double-digit increases will influence prices far more in 2020 and will force the central bank to slow its series of interest rate cuts.
“We’re starting to see some effect of high minimum wage increases on inflation in the form of higher core inflation, and that will make the central bank more prudent,” said Ernesto Revilla, head of Latin America economics at Citigroup Inc. in New York. “It will make Banxico go slowly in the easing cycle.”
In addition, Mexico created 30% fewer formal jobs through November compared to last year. The central bank had said in an August note that the wage hike at the start of the year contributed to that job creation slowdown.
Banxico, which is forecast to cut its key interest rate by a quarter point on Thursday, didn’t reply to a request for comment on the impact of this week’s increase on jobs and prices.
Mexican salaries are rising across the board which, along with higher remittances, will allow consumer spending to grow faster than the rest of the economy next year, according to Bank of America’s Carlos Capistran.
The latest minimum wage adjustment is “very good for the country, very good for businesses and especially good for workers,” Gustavo de Hoyos, who heads Coparmex, one of Mexico’s largest business chambers, said in a video posted on his Twitter account. This is the “biggest increase in real terms since 1988.”
Mexico’s minimum wage is soaring so rapidly that it now will cover a much larger number of workers, amplifying its impact.
This year’s minimum wage hike only boosted about 1% of salaries in the formal economy. Next year, that figure may reach 10%, as more workers are earning less than the new income floor, according to Jose Luis de la Cruz, director of the Industrial Development and Economic Growth Institute in Mexico City
“The positive impacts, as well as the challenges for inflation and for companies, will be greater,” he said.