US Economy – potential for wage-price spiral

In the past expansionary monetary policy (low interest rates) would have acted as a catalyst to the real danger of a wage price spiral in which rising wages and prices become self-reinforcing, pushing inflation up. This was very apparent in the winter of 1974 in the US when inflation reached 12% and 15% by 1980. Is there the threat of another wage price spiral? Current employment conditions are very much in the favour of the employee. According to The Economist some combination of the following needs to happen to avoid inflation:

  • Rather than raising their prices firms absorb higher wages and have lower profits thereby not raising inflation.
  • The increase in real wages is matched by productivity growth – more demand is matched by more supply.
  • Workers return to the labour market therefore increasing supply and reducing the pressure on wages

Below is a very detailed look at the threat of a wage-price spiral in rhe US. Good discussion of labour market data and the impact of COVID on inflation. Is this inflation period is transitory or a more permanent fixture? Well worth a look

Theory behind the wage-price spiral

As from previous posts, the Phillips Curve analysed data for money wages against the rate of unemployment over the period 1862-1958. Money wages and prices were seen to be strongly correlated, mainly because the former are the most significant costs of production. Hence the resulting curve purported to provide a “trade-off’ between inflation and unemployment – i.e. the government could ‘select’ its desired position on the curve. During the 1970’s higher rates of inflation than previously were associated with any given level of unemployment. It was generally considered that the whole curve had shifted right – i.e. to achieve full employment a higher rate of inflation than previously had to be accepted.

Milton Friedman’s expectations-augmented Phillips Curve denies the existence of any long-run trade off between inflation and unemployment. In short, attempts to reduce unemployment below its natural rate by fiscal reflation will succeed only at the cost of generating a wage-price spiral, as wages are quickly cancelled out by increases in prices.

Each time the government reflates the economy, a period of accelerating inflation will follow a temporary fall in unemployment as workers anticipate a future rise in inflation in their pay demands, and unemployment returns to its natural rate.

The process can be seen in the diagram below – a movement from A to B to C to D to E

Friedman thus concludes that the long-run Phillips Curve (LRPC) is vertical (at the natural rate of unemployment), and the following propositions emerge:

1. At the natural rate of unemployment, the rate of inflation will be constant (but not necessarily zero).

2. The rate of unemployment can only be maintained below its natural rate at the cost of accelerating inflation. (Reflation is doomed to failure).

3. Reduction in the rate of inflation requires deflation in the economy – i.e. unemployment must rise (in the short term at least) above its natural rate.

Some economists go still further, and argue that the natural rate has increased over time and that the LRPC slopes upwards to the right. If inflation is persistently higher in one country that elsewhere, the resulting loss of competitiveness reduces sales and destroys capacity. Hence inflation is seen to be a cause of higher inflation.

Rational expectations theorists deny Friedman’s view that reflation reduces unemployment even in the short-run. Since economic agents on average correctly predicted that the outcome of reflation will be higher inflation, higher money wages have no effect upon employment and the result of relations simply a movement up the LRPC to a higher level of inflation.

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