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Some Further (Minor) Thoughts on the Phillips Curve

September 6, 2017 3 comments

Before I begin, let me say that if you haven’t read yesterday’s article, please do because it represents the important argument: the Phillips Curve doesn’t need rehabilitating, because it is working fine. In fact, I would argue that the Phillips Curve – relating wages to unemployment – is a remarkably accurate economic model prediction. The key chart from that article I reproduce here, but the article (which is brief) is worth reading.

Following my publication of that article, I had a few more thoughts that are worth discussing on this topic.

The first is historical. It’s incredibly frustrating to read article after article incorrectly stating what the Phillips Curve is supposed to relate. Of course one writer learns from another writer until what is incorrect becomes ‘common knowledge.’ I was fortunate in that, 30 years ago, I had excellent Economics professors at Trinity University in San Antonio, and I was reflecting on that fact when I said to myself “I wonder if Samuelson had it right?”

So I dug out my copy of Economics by Samuelson and Nordhaus (the best-selling textbook of all time, I believe, and the de rigeur Intro to Economics textbook for generations of economists). My copy is the 12th Edition, so perhaps they have corrected this since then…but on page 247, there it is – the Phillips Curve illustrated as a “tradeoff between inflation and unemployment.” Maybe that is where this error really propagated – with a Nobel Prize-winning economist making an error in his incredibly widely-read text! Interestingly, the authors don’t reference the original Phillips work, but refer to “writers in the 1960s” who made that connection, so to be fair to Samuelson and Nordhaus they were possibly already repeating an error that had been made even earlier.

My second point is artistic. In yesterday’s article, I said “The Phillips Curve…simply says that when labor is in short supply, its price goes up. In other words: labor, like everything else, is traded in the context of supply and demand,…” But students of economics will note that the Phillips Curve seems to obfuscate this relationship, because it is sloping the wrong way for a supply curve – which should slope up and to the right rather than down and to the right. This can be remedied by expressing the x-axis of the Phillips Curve differently – making it the quantity of labor demanded rather than the quantity of labor not demanded…which is what the unemployment rate is. So the plot of wage inflation as a function of the Employment Rate (as opposed to the Unemployment Rate) has the expected shape of a supply curve. More labor is supplied when the prices rise.

Again, this is nuance and not a really important point unless you want your economics to be pretty.

My third point, though, is important. One member of the bow-tied fraternity of Ph.D. economists told me through a friend that “the Phillips Curve has evolved to the relationship between Unemployment and general prices, not simply wages.” I am skeptical of any “evolution” that causes the offspring to be worse-adapted to the environment, but moreover I would argue that whoever led this “evolution” (and as I said above, it looks like it happened in the 1960s) didn’t really understand the way the economy (and in particular, business) works.

There is every reason to think that wages should be tied to available labor supply because one is the price of the other. That’s Microeconomics 101. But if unemployment is going to be a good indicator of generalized price inflation too, then it means that prices in the economy are essentially set as the price of the labor input plus a spread for profit. That is not at all how prices are set. Picture the businessperson deciding how to set prices. According to the “evolved Phillips Curve” understanding, this business owner looks at the wages he/she is paying and then sets the price of the product. But that’s crazy. A business owner considers labor as one input, as well as all of the other inputs, improvements in productivity in producing this good or service in question, competitive pressures, and the general state of the national and local economy. It would be incredible if all of these factors canceled out except for wage inflation, wouldn’t it? So in short, while I would expect that unemployment might have some explanatory power for inflation, I wouldn’t expect that explanatory power to be very strong. And, in fact, it isn’t. (But this isn’t new – it never has had any power.)

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The Phillips Curve is Working Just Fine, Thanks

September 5, 2017 2 comments

I must say that it is discouraging how often I have to write about the Phillips Curve.

The Phillips Curve is a very simple idea and a very powerful model. It simply says that when labor is in short supply, its price goes up. In other words: labor, like everything else, is traded in the context of supply and demand, and the price is sensitive to the balance of supply and demand.

Somewhere along the line, people decided that what Phillips really meant was that low unemployment caused consumer price inflation. It turns out that doesn’t really work (see chart, source BLS, showing unemployment versus CPI since 1997).

Accordingly, since the Phillips Curve is “broken,” lots of work has been done to resurrect it by “augmenting” it with expectations. This also does not work, although if you add enough variables to any model you will eventually get a decent fit.

And so here we are, with Federal Reserve officials and blue-chip economists alike bemoaning that the Fed has “only one model, and it’s broken,” when it never really worked in the first place. (Incidentally, the monetary model that relates money and velocity (via interest rates) to the price level works quite well, but apparently they haven’t gotten around to rediscovering monetarism at the Fed).

But the problem is not in our stars, but in ourselves. There is nothing wrong with the Phillips Curve. The title of William Phillips’ original paper is “The Relation between Unemployment and the Rate of Change of Money Wage Rates in the United Kingdom, 1861-1957.” Note that there is nothing in that title about consumer inflation! Here is the actual Phillips Curve in the US over the last 20 years, relating the Unemployment Rate to wages 9 months later.

The trendline here is a simple power function and actually resembles the shape of Phillips’ original curve. The R-squared of 0.91, I think, sufficiently rehabilitates Phillips. Don’t you?

I haven’t done anything tricky here. The Atlanta Fed Wage Growth Tracker is a relevant measure of wages which tracks the change in the wages of continuously-employed persons, and so avoids composition effects such as the fact that when unemployment drops, lower-quality workers (who earn lower wages) are the last to be hired. The 9-month lag is a reasonable response time for employers to respond to labor conditions when they are changing rapidly such as in 2009…but even with no lag, the R-squared is still 0.73 or so, despite the rapid changes in the Unemployment Rate in 2008-09.

So let Phillips rest in peace with his considerable contribution in place. Blame the lack of inflation on someone else.

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The IMF Tries to Cause Japanese Unemployment

August 15, 2016 2 comments

It is rare that I write early on a Monday morning, but today there is this. A story on Bloomberg highlighted the pressure that the IMF is putting on Japan to institute an “incomes policy” designed to nudge (and force, if necessary) companies to increase wages. IMF mission chief for Japan told reporters a couple of weeks ago that “we need policies to support wage increases in Japan;” the Bloomberg article also names a former IMF chief economist and the current president of the Peterson Institute for International Economics as proposing an immediate boost of salaries of 5-10% for unionized workers.

It is truly appalling that global economic policymakers are essentially illiterate when it comes to economic history. The IMF suggestion to institute wage hikes as part of triggering inflation is not a question of misunderstanding macroeconomic models (although it manages to do this as well, since wages follow prices and thus increasing wages won’t cause inflation unless other conditions obtain). At some level, it is a question of ignorance of history. After the stock market crash in 1929, President Hoover persuaded major industrial firms (such as GM, U.S. Steel, and the like) to hold wages constant or raise them. Since prices were falling generally, this had the effect of raising the real cost of production, which of course worsened the subsequent Depression. According to one analysis, this single decision caused GDP loss in the Great Depression to be triple what it otherwise would have been if wages were allowed to adjust (because, again, wages follow prices and are the main mechanism by which a surplus or shortage of labor is cleared). It wasn’t just Hoover, of course: later, FDR established the National Recovery Administration to administer codes of “fair competition” for every industry that established minimum wages and prices. The NRA was struck down in large part by the Supreme Court, but the notion of arresting deflation by adjusting wages was quickly reintroduced in the National Labor Relations Act of 1935.

There is wide agreement, although I am sure it is not universal, that preventing markets from adjusting is a big part of what made the Great Depression so Great. And this isn’t theory…it’s history. There is no excuse, other than ignorance, for policymakers to whiff on this one.

Deflation can be bad, but it doesn’t need to come with massive unemployment. In Japan, it has not: the unemployment rate is 3.1%, the lowest it has been since 1995. But push wages higher artificially, and Japan can have the massive unemployment as well. Thanks, IMF.

August: More Esther, Less Mester

The last two weeks of July felt a lot like August typically does. Thin, lethargic trading; somewhat gappy but directionless. Ten-year Treasury note futures held a 1-point range except for a few minutes last Thursday. The S&P oscillated (and it really looks like a simple oscillation) between 2160 and 2175 for the most part (chart source Bloomberg):

dull

In thinking about what August holds, I’ll say this. What the stock market (and bond market) has had going for it is momentum. What these markets have had going against them is value. When value and momentum meet, the result is indeterminate. It often depends on whether carry is penalizing the longs, or penalizing the shorts. For the last few years, with very low financing rates across a wide variety of assets, carry has fairly favored the longs. In 2016, that advantage is lessening as short rates come up and long rates have declined. The chart below shows the spread between 10-year Treasury rates and 3-month LIBOR (a reasonable proxy for short-term funding rates) which gives you some idea of how the carry accruing to a financed long position has deteriorated.

carry

So now, dwelling on the last few weeks’ directionless trading, I think it’s fair to say that the markets’ value conditions haven’t much changed, but momentum generally has surely ebbed. In a situation where carry covers fewer trading sins, the markets surely are on more tenuous ground now than they have been for a bit. This doesn’t mean that we will see the bottom fall out in August, of course.

But add this to the consideration: markets completely ignored the Fed announcement yesterday, despite the fact that most observers thought the inserted language that “near-term risks to the economic outlook have diminished” made this a surprisingly hawkish statement. (For what it’s worth, I can’t imagine that any reasonable assessment of the change in risks from before the Brexit vote to after the Brexit vote could conclude anything else). Now, I certainly don’t think that this Fed, with its very dovish leadership, is going to tighten imminently even though prices and wages (see chart below of the Atlanta Fed Wage Tracker and the Cleveland Fed’s Median CPI, source Bloomberg) are so obviously trending higher that even the forecasting-impaired Federal Reserve can surely see it. But that’s not the point. The point is that the Fed cannot afford to be ignored.

wagesandprices

Accordingly, something else that I expect to see in August is more-hawkish Fed speakers. Kansas City Fed President Esther George dissented in favor of a rate hike at this meeting. So in August, I think we will hear more Esther and less Mester (Cleveland Fed President Loretta Mester famously mused about helicopter money a couple of weeks ago). The FOMC doesn’t want to crash the stock and bond markets. But it wants to be noticed.

The problem is that in thin August markets – there’s no escaping that, I am afraid – it might not take much, with ebbing momentum in these markets, to cause some decent retracements.

Categories: Federal Reserve, Trading, Wages

Inflation with Deflationary Overtones?

The Employment report was weak, with jobs coming in below consensus with a downward revision to prior months. It wasn’t abysmally weak, and not enough to change the a priori trajectory of the Fed. If the number had been 125k below expectations or 125k above it, then it may have had implications for the FOMC. But this is a number that has big swings and is revised multiple times. Getting 160k rather than 200k isn’t cause for celebration, but neither is it cause for panic. So whatever the Fed was getting ready to do didn’t change because of this number.

To be sure, no one knows what the Fed was planning to do, so this mainly has implications for the day’s volatility…which is to say that the market quickly went to sleep for the day.

Now, interestingly the Average Hourly Earnings number ticked higher to 2.5%, continuing the post-crisis upswing. At 2.5%, hourly earnings growth is slightly higher than median inflation and thus potentially “supportive of the inflation dynamic” from the standpoint of the Committee. Yes, wages follow inflation but not in the Fed models – so, while I don’t think this has any implications for future inflation it will eventually have implications for Fed policy. But this is a dovish Fed, and 2.5% earnings growth is not going to scare another tightening out of them…unless they were already planning to tighten.

Wages are actually a bit higher than that. Back in April I highlighted the Atlanta Fed’s Wage Growth Tracker and summarized how this measures is better than Hourly Earnings. I hadn’t been aware of this index previously but I follow it now. It stands at 3.2%. The difference between average hourly earnings and the Atlanta Fed Wage Tracker is summarized below (Source: Bloomberg). Again, though: I don’t think we have seen anything today which will change the Fed’s collective opinion about the need for different monetary policy.

wages

Earlier this week, I promised that I would revisit the question of how we can have both deflation and inflation, and how these concepts are confused. I first posted an article summarizing this point in January 2014, and in re-reading it I think it is good enough to pretty much cut-and-paste with only mild edits. So here it is:

How Inflation and Deflation Can Peacefully Coexist

In the discussion about whether the economy is exhibiting “inflationary tendencies” or “deflationary tendencies,” I find that many, many observers grow confused by the fact that we measure prices in dollars, which are themselves subject to changes in relative value due to supply and demand.

It helps to forget about dollars as the unit of measure. Just because it says “One Dollar” does not mean that it is an ever-fixed mark. With apologies to Shakespeare, dollars are not the star to every wandering bark, whose worth’s unknown although its dollar price be taken.[1]  There are two ways to look at the “inflation/deflation” debate. Depending on which one you are referring to, deflationary tendencies are not inconsistent with price inflation, and price inflation is not inconsistent with deflationary tendencies.

One is the question of dollar price; and here we are mainly concerned with the supply of dollars and the number of times they are spent, compared to the amount of stuff there is to buy. More dollars chasing the same goods and services imply higher prices. Of course, this is just another way of stating the monetarist equation: P ≡ MV/Q. This is an identity and true by definition. Moreover, it is true in practice: rapid money growth over some moderate length of time always corresponds with rapid deterioration in the purchasing power of the money unit – in other words, inflation. At least, we have no examples of (a) extremely high money growth without high inflation, or (b) extremely high inflation without high money growth.

But this is not the same discussion as saying that “the aging demographic [or debt implosion in a recession] means we will have deflation,” as many economists will have it. Deflation, in that sense, can still happen: if you have fewer workers making the same amount of GDP, then goods (and services) prices will fall relative to wages, which would be deflation the way we typically mean it if the overall price level was otherwise unchanged. However, if the money supply increases by a factor of 10, then nominal prices will increase no matter what else is going on. It may be, though, that in this case wages will increase slightly more than prices, so that there will be “deflation” in the unitless sense.

So, these are not inconsistent statements: (a) there will be increasing inflation next year, and (b) large amounts of private debt and demographic “waves” around the world are a deflationary force. The resolution to the seeming inconsistency is that (b) causes downward pressure on certain prices relative to other prices or, if you ignore the unit of exchange, it causes downward pressure in the ratio of one good that can be exchanged for another. Yet at the same time (a) implies that the overall increase in output in goods and services will be outstripped by the number of dollars spent on them, driving prices higher.

So you should cheer for the “good” sort of deflation. At least, you should cheer for it if you are still earning wages. But do not confuse that concept with the notion that prices in dollar terms will fall. That is wholly different, and unless central banks screw up pretty badly it is not going to happen. Indeed, despite all of the so-called “deflationary tendencies” – most of which I agree are important – I believe prices are going to rise in dollar terms and in fact they are going to rise at increasing rates (higher inflation) over the next few years.[2]

P.S. Don’t forget to buy my book! What’s Wrong with Money: The Biggest Bubble of All. Thanks!

[1] See Sonnet 116, in case you missed out on a liberal arts education and don’t get the reference!

[2] I kept this sentence…it was true in January 2014, as median inflation moved from 2.06% in Dec 2013 to 2.4% today, but I also believe this to be still true. Only the next leg will probably be faster.

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