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Don’t abandon the Phillips Curve

I have done numerous blog posts on the Phillips Curve some of which have discussed the missing trade-off between inflation and unemployment. Recent data from the US suggest that reducing rates of unemployment have not activated higher levels of inflation. US Fed Chair Janet Yellen has suggest that the level of unemployment is below the natural rate of unemployment (the lowest rate of unemployment where prices don’t accelerate) and that prices should soon rise. However inflation in the US is only 1.5% (target 2%) so does the Phillips Curve still apply? The Economist looked at another instance where this theory has failed.

2019 – after the financial crisis unemployment exceeded 10% and the excess supply of labour should have had significant downward pressure on prices. However prices were at 1.3% just below what they are today. Some economist explained this situation by an increase in the natural rate of unemployment (NRU) – 6.5% was a figure quoted by some economists. But today with unemployment now at 4.3% and inflation at 1.5% this theory does not seem to stack up. The Fed estimates that the NRU is between 4.7% and 5.8%.

Reasons not to abandon the Phillips Curve

1. The effects of unemployment on inflation can be distorted by one off events such as:
* the rapid decline in oil prices in late 2014
* the price of mobile data – firms have been offering limitless data which has also been   given a higher weighing in the inflation calculation. Mobile phone deals have shaved 0.2% off the inflation rate

2. It is possible with such low unemployment that inflation will eventually increase. This happened in the late 1960’s with unemployment under 4%, inflation rose from 1.4% in November 1965 to 3.2% a year later. By 1969 inflation was at 5%.

3. Self-fulfilling inflationary expectations could explain the low inflation rate. In recent years more attention has been paid to the psychological effects which rising prices have on people’s behaviour. The various groups which make up the economy, acting in their own self-interest, will actually cause inflation to rise faster than otherwise would be the case if they believe rising prices are set to continue.

Source: The Economist – 17th June 2017

The theory of the Phillips Curve and the NAIRU

Bill Phillips (a New Zealander) discovered a stable relationship between the rate of inflation (of wages, to be precise) and unemployment in Britain from the 1850’s to 1960’s. Higher inflation, it seemed, went with lower unemployment. To economists and policymakers this presented a tempting trade-off: lower unemployment could be bought at the price of a bit more inflation. However, Milton Friedman and Edmund Phelps (who both later picked up Nobel prizes, partly for this work), pointed out that the trade-off was only temporary. In his version, Friedman coined the idea of the “natural” rate of unemployment – the rate that the economy would come up with if left to itself. Now economists are likelier to refer to the NAIRU (non-accelerating inflation rate of unemployment), the rate at which inflation remains constant. The theory is explained below:

NAIRUSuppose that at first unemployment is at the NAIRU, u* in the graph below, and inflation is at p0. Policymakers want to reduce unemployment, so they loosen monetary policy: that stimulates spending, so that unemployment goes down, to u1. Inflation rises to p1, along the initial short-run Phillips curve, PC1. But that raises inflationary expectations, so that workers demand higher wage increases and real wages rise again. Firms shed labour, returning unemployment to u*, but with a higher inflation rate, p1. The new short-run trade-off is worse, with higher inflation for any level of unemployment (PC2). In the long run the Phillips curve is vertical (LRPC).

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