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Visualizing How COVID-19 Has Impacted Global Wages



Visualizing How COVID-19 Impacted Global Wages

In the years leading up to the pandemic, annual global wage growth was fluctuating stably between 1.6%–2.2%. Now, income, working hours, and employment have all been impacted by COVID-19—but for those who have held onto their jobs, how have wages been affected?

This interactive chart from the International Labour Organization (ILO) reveals how the global pandemic has affected both nominal and real wages, as well as unemployment rates.

The date of data collection varies on a country-by-country basis, using the most recent available data. The most recent measurement of wage indices is from September 2020 in some countries and the least recent available data comes from Q2’2020. In select countries the date of unemployment rates and wage indices are different. As a point of reference, the average wage index in 2019 was 100.

Note: the ILO uses national statistics databases and only the select countries had enough recent, available data for all three elements: nominal wages, real wages, and unemployment.

Where Average Wages are Falling

Average wages in many countries either plateaued or decreased significantly during the global pandemic. Sharp declines happened across a number of European countries, as well as in South Africa and Japan, for example.

CountryUnemployment RateReal Wage IndexNominal Wage Index
🇻🇳 Vietnam (as of Q2'2020)2.7%92.494.4
🇪🇸 Spain (as of Q2'2020)15.3%92.592.3
🇲🇽 Mexico (as of August 2020)5%94.498
🇿🇦 South Africa (as of Q2'2020)23.3%95.297.4
🇰🇷 South Korea (as of August 2020)3.1%96.296.8
🇷🇺 Russia (as of August 2020)6.4%96.9100.5
🇨🇿 Czech Republic (as of Q2'2020)6.6%97.899.6
🇸🇰 Slovakia (as of Q2'2020)6.6%97.899.6
🇯🇵 Japan (as of August 2020)3%98.698.7
🇫🇮 Finland (as of August 2020)7.9%99.6100.1
🇩🇪 Germany (as of Q2'2020)4.4%99.6100.5
ℹ️ Nominal wages are the actual wages/money that a worker receives. Real wages represent the relative purchasing power of nominal wages.

Falling wages, however, do not necessarily mean that people are receiving less money, as many subsidies have been put in place to help cushion income or job loss.

In many cases where wage indices declined, employment did not. This is because different job retention schemes were put in place, wherein workers were furloughed, but were given a portion of their wages from the national government. This allowed unemployment rates to remain steady while wages tapered off.

In Europe, where wages have dropped considerably in many countries, wage subsidies have compensated for nearly 40% of wage bill loss in select countries. But while high income countries can afford to inject stimulus into their economies, most lower income countries cannot. This has come to be described as the fiscal stimulus gap.

Where Average Wages are Rising

While perhaps counterintuitive, rising average wages are in no way an inherent sign of a recovering economy or labor market. Regardless, when compared to 2019, wages have actually increased in the majority of countries, such as Brazil, Canada, United States, Italy, and the UK.

CountryUnemployment RateReal Wage IndexNominal Wage Index
🇨🇦 Canada (as of August 2020)10.6%107.6108.4
🇲🇰 North Macedonia (Unemployment: Jun '20; wage data: Aug '20) 16.7%107.6109.7
🇧🇷 Brazil (as of Q2'2020)13.3%107.3109.6
🇧🇬 Bulgaria (as of June 2020)5.9%106.9107.8
🇭🇺 Hungary (as of August 2020)4.4%106.3106.5
🇮🇹 Italy (as of Q2'2020)8.3%106.2106.2
🇫🇷 France (as of Q2'2020)7.1%105.4105.9
🇷🇸 Serbia (Unemployment: Jun '20; wage data: Aug '20)7.7%104.7106.7
🇳🇴 Norway (as of Q2'2020)4.6%104.5105.6
🇺🇸 U.S. (as of September 2020)7.9%104.3106.2
🇵🇹 Portugal (as of June 2020)7.3%103.2104.2
🇹🇭 Thailand (as of Q2'2020)2%103100.6
🇷🇴 Romania (as of August 2020)5.3%102.5105.2
🇳🇱 Netherlands (as of September 2020)4.4%102103.6
🇬🇧 UK (as of September 2020)4.8%101.5102.4
🇩🇰 Denmark (as of Q2'2020)5.3%101.4101.5
🇸🇪 Sweden (as of August 2020)8.8%100.8101.6
🇨🇱 Chile (as of August 2020)12.3%100.6103.4
🇲🇾 Malaysia (as of June 2020)4.7%100.299
ℹ️ Nominal wages are the actual wages/money that a worker receives. Real wages represent the relative purchasing power of nominal wages.

One reason for higher average wages is something called the compositional effect. The compositional effect is what occurs when wages are not actually increasing, but the makeup of employment changes. For example, the loss and subsequent absence of many lower paying jobs from the labor market due to COVID-19 can skew the average wage upwards.

Brazil is a prime example of the compositional effect. As both nominal and real wages increase, so does unemployment. Brazil’s current unemployment rate is 13.3%, while wages have skyrocketed to a real wage index of 107.3 during the first half of 2020.

The loss of these lower paying jobs has been extremely widespread, most negatively impacting informal workers, self-employed vendors, and migrant workers. Some policymakers have seen this as an opportunity to call for universal basic income. Even with job retention schemes to keep unemployment steady, many people are earning far less income and may never return to normal working hours in their current positions.

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Just 20 Stocks Have Driven S&P 500 Returns So Far in 2023

From Apple to NVIDIA, megacap stocks are fueling S&P 500 returns. The majority of these firms are also investing heavily in AI.



Just 20 Stocks Have Driven Most of S&P 500 Returns

Just 20 firms—mainly AI-related stocks—are propping up the S&P 500 and driving it into positive territory, signaling growing risk in the market.

The above graphic from Truman Du shows which stocks are making up the vast majority of S&P 500 returns amid AI market euphoria and broader market headwinds.

Big Tech Stock Rally

Tech and AI stocks have soared as ChatGPT became a household name in 2023.

The below table shows data from last month, highlighting that just a small collection of companies drove most of the action on the U.S. benchmark index.

Company RankNameContribution to S&P 500 ReturnAverage Weight
3NVIDIA 1.00%1.62%
7Alphabet (Class A Shares)0.34%1.72%
8Alphabet (Class C Shares)0.31%1.53%
10Advanced Micro Devices0.16%0.39%
11General Electric0.10%0.28%
15Walt Disney0.08%0.55%
16Booking Holdings0.07%0.28%
17Exxon Mobil0.06%1.37%
Top 20 Companies7.05%29.17%
S&P 500*7.55%100.00%

*Based on the Vanguard S&P 500 ETF as of April 11, 2023. Source: Vanguard S&P500 ETF, Bloomberg.

Microsoft invested $10 billion into OpenAI, the creators of ChatGPT. It has also integrated generative AI into its search engine Bing. This large language model is designed specifically to make search capabilities faster, generate text, and perform other automations.

Also of interest is NVIDIA, which is the most valuable chipmaker in America. It sells $10,000 chips called A100s that allow machine learning models to run. These models perform multiple tasks simultaneously to develop neural networks and train AI systems, including OpenAI’s ChatGPT. Companies that are developing AI-related services, such as chatbots or image generation, may use up to thousands of these chips.

Despite being the world’s most valuable company and a key driver of returns, Apple is an outlier among tech giants with no major projects announced in AI (so far).

Implications of Market Divergence

The problem with the strong gains seen in a few select AI-related stocks is that it clouds wider stock market performance.

Without the AI-led rally, the S&P 500 would be returning -1.4%. as of May 17, 2023.

This form of steep divergence, known as market breadth, often signals higher risk in the market.

When more companies experience positive returns it is less risky than a small handful seeing the majority of the gains. Today market breadth is very narrow, and these companies make up over 29% of the entire index’s market capitalization.

How long AI-related firms mask the broader performance of the S&P 500 remains to be seen. A growing number of market pressures, from higher interest rates to banking uncertainty could add further challenges.

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