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America's biggest companies keep sounding the alarm on an overlooked fear that could crush profits

red warning lights signal siren

  • Companies in the S&P 500 raised similar concerns over a major market headwind during first-quarter earnings calls.
  • Goldman Sachs followed the calls and compiled multiple examples of rising corporate fear around the swelling pressure point.

If you've forgotten to keep an eye on wage inflation, you can hardly be blamed.

After all, the market has dealt with any number of other pressure points in recent months, including: the 10-year Treasury yield's climb above the crucial 3% threshold, the prospect of a global trade war, escalating nuclear tensions in the Middle East, and good, old-fashioned high valuations.

But as you've been distracted by that maelstrom of headwinds, Corporate America has stayed focus on wage growth. And they showed as much during first-quarter conference calls.

A wide range of companies admitted to being worried about having to pay more for labor — something that's obviously great for workers, but troublesome for corporations trying to grow their bottom line.

Before we get into specific examples, it's important to take a step back and assess the conditions informing this situation.

US unemployment slipped to 3.9% in April, a level the Federal Reserve says indicates the economy is operating beyond full employment. Conventional thinking suggests that higher wages should result from such tight labor conditions, but the effect hasn't yet been fully felt.

As a result, many economists (and companies) are predicting a spike higher once wage growth is shaken from its currently dormant state. This will, in turn, put pressure on corporate margins, and hurt profitability for companies unable to lower other costs.

Goldman Sachs followed hundreds of conference calls and found wage concerns to be among the most commonly cited worries for corporations. The following are select excerpts from the firm's quarterly Beige Book report, which compiles "anecdotal evidence of fundamental and thematic trends" among S&P 500 companies.

Halliburton (HAL) — "Given the level of activity today, there will likely be wage inflation and additional pricing will be necessary for cost recovery."

Automatic Data Processing (ADP) — "The underlying inflationary trends with labor costs accelerating a little bit are on an upward trajectory."

Fifth Third Bancorp (FITB) — "The number one thing that we’re hearing from our clients is really still the tax law changes, along with rising labor cost."

Colgate-Palmolive (CL) — "We do foresee modest inflation given GDP growth, increasing wages and rising commodity costs."

Starbucks (SBUX) — "New store profitability in the U.S. remains very strong with year one ROIs of approximately 60%, down somewhat from the expectation we shared at our most recent investor day, primarily due to rising labor costs in urban markets."

Darden Restaurants (DRI) — "We continued to see elevated wage inflation of approximately 4% that was only partially offset by the favorability we picked up from pricing leverage and productivity improvements."

SEE ALSO: Holding money in cash hasn't been this attractive since the financial crisis — here's why that's a terrible sign for markets

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Full "The Business Insider: The Money Game" article




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