Global Economic Outlook

Below is a look at economic conditions in leading global economies. Unemployment is surprising low and with the rise in the cost of living (see inflation figures) this should put pressure on wages. The unemployment rate within the OECD area fell to 5.2% in February, the first time it has fallen below the pre-pandemic unemployment rate (which was recorded in February 2020). The unemployment rate within the OCED had peaked at 8.8% in April 2020.

Inflation, Unemployment and Interest Rates
Annual inflation within the OECD area rose to 8.8% in March 2022, its highest annual increase since 1988. Energy prices have risen by over a third during the past year, while food prices have risen by ten percent within the OECD area. Most central banks have already commenced a tightening programme with the on-going threat of inflation. The Australian Reserve Bank commenced tightening their cash rate in early May, increasing the cash rate by 25 basis points to 0.35%. It is expected that the RBNZ will increase the OCR by 50 basis points next week.

Outlook
If you look at conditions in the major economies you find the following:

  • China – limited growth potential with severe lockdowns
  • USA – higher interest rates could lead to a bust scenario
  • Euro Zone – cost of living crisis
  • Emerging markets – food crisis / famines.

With the indicators looking at recessionary conditions the best news for the global economy would be a withdrawal from Ukraine by Russian troops and an end to a zero-Covid strategy in China. These actions should reduce food and energy prices and therefore save government spending on raising benefits and subsidising food and energy. Economists are fairly optimistic that we will avoid a recession in 2022 as they still have the tools to stimulate if things get worse. However with no end in sight for the Ukraine conflict and interest rates on the rise a recession is on the cards.

Sign up to elearneconomics for multiple choice test questions (many with coloured diagrams and models) and the reasoned answers on Inflation and Unemployment. Immediate feedback and tracked results allow students to identify areas of strength and weakness vital for student-centred learning and understanding.

Plenty of jobs but no workers.

The COVID pandemic has been prevalent in the global economy for just over two years now but although there seems to be plenty of job opportunities where is the available labour? According to a recent report from the IMF there are various reasons for this:

  • Reduced labour force participation: disadvantaged groups, the low-skilled, older workers, or women with young children—have yet to fully return to the labour market.
  • The pandemic: health concerns and favourable pension plan valuations have contributed to a lot of older workers departing the labour force
  • Worker preference: workers are moving away from some low-pay jobs. A lot workers in contact -intensive, physically strenuous and less flexible jobs are moving into other areas or have left the labour force.
  • Occupational mismatch: due to COVID some industries and firms have cut back on production due a lack of demand for their products/services or can’t function in the pandemic environment. As a result in a mismatch between those that are looking for work and the requirements of the labour market.
  • Border restrictions means limited immigration: this has led to large shortages of labour especially in primary industries and other low-paid jobs
  • Changing job preferences: COVID-19 affected hospitality work in particular and although the industry maybe recovering health concerns may be discouraging workers from keeping such jobs and job seekers from taking them up, leaving many vacancies unfilled
Source: Deloitte Insights – The global labor shortage

For more on Unemployment view the key notes (accompanied by fully coloured diagrams/models) on elearneconomics that will assist students to understand concepts and terms for external examinations, assignments or topic tests.

Could war in Ukraine lead to economic crisis?

From Al Jazeera – Counting the Cost. Main discussion points:

  • Ukraine and Russia are expected to experience a severe recession this year. But the sanctions imposed on Russia and the increasing energy price can inflict inflation on other countries.
  • IMF to cut its growth forecast on the Global Economy.
  • Russia to turn to the Chinese Yuan to survive and are counties dumping the US$ as the global reserve currency?

Sign up to elearneconomics for multiple choice test questions (many with coloured diagrams and models) and the reasoned answers on Inflation and Exchange Rates. Immediate feedback and tracked results allow students to identify areas of strength and weakness vital for student-centred learning and understanding.

Stagflation – 1970’s v Today

The Financial Times had a good piece about the current state of the global economy and the likeness of the stagflation of the 1970’s. Using that article and other sources I have attempted to differentiate between what was happening then and the current situation with the war in the Ukraine. With oil still having an impact in an economy today this could be the catalyst needed for more greener technologies but this is not going to help in the short-term. Therefore, for global oil prices to stabilise there needs to be an increase in the output of OPEC countries and the likes of Venezuela which could add 400,000 bpd to oil output – the US has been in talks with President Maduro. However, there is a dilemma here in that you may reduce oil prices by getting Venezuela to increase production but you are also assisting an authoritarian regime that is closely linked with Russia.

Source: War brings echoes of the 1970s oil shock. FT 12th March 2022

Sign up to elearneconomics for multiple choice test questions (many with coloured diagrams and models) and the reasoned answers on Inflation. Immediate feedback and tracked results allow students to identify areas of strength and weakness vital for student-centred learning and understanding.

Economic Theory v Economic Reality

Invariably I get the question in class “Does this economic theory actually happen in the real world?” We then proceed to discuss upward sloping demand curves, trickle down theory, the GFC and the fact that few economists saw it coming and how Japan ran a massive stimulus programme but inflation was stagnant.

Most theories in economics rest on the premise that people, companies, and markets behave according to the abstract, two-dimensional illustrations of an introductory economics textbook, even though the assumptions behind those diagrams virtually never hold true in the real world. To understand economics you have to understand human nature.

Below is a table that I found in James Kwak’s book “Economism”. It takes theories found in most introductory economics textbooks and suggests what actually might happen to these theories in the real world.

For more on secondary school economics courses view the key notes (accompanied by fully coloured diagrams/models) on elearneconomics that will assist students to understand concepts and terms for external examinations, assignments or topic tests.

Global Stagflation and the threat to democracy.

In my economics classes this week one cannot get away from what is happening in Ukraine and the impact of that geopolitics will have on the global economy. Already I wrote a blog post on Russian interest rates and the collapse of the rouble but what are the challenges ahead for the global economy?

Before the invasion central banks worldwide were tightening monetary policy (interest rates) to reduce the increasing inflation pressure in their economy’s. The price of oil has increased to over US$105 adding to the inflationary problem as policy makers still have to deal with the slow recovery from the COVID pandemic. However the US Federal Reserve (US Central Bank) and the European Central Bank (ECB) have indicated that they intend to continue with their tightening policy of 25 basis points (0.25%) increase in interest rates this month but may have to be less aggressive in their future tightening. Their major concern now is that the war in Ukraine has increased the chances of a period of stagflation – stagnation and inflation at the same time. Therefore it is important that central banks are more sensitive to tightening their monetary policy as adding the Ukrainian crisis (with higher oil and food prices) to the present supply chain issues would increase the chances of stagflation and a significant downturn in the global economy.

Stagflation
In economic textbooks there are two main cause of inflation – Demand Pull and Cost Push (see graph below).

Source: Eleareconomics

The inflation that New Zealand is mainly experiencing is of a cost push nature especially when you look at the recent CPI figure of 5.9%. The major driver of this inflation is:

  • 30.5% rise in the cost of petrol
  • 15.7% rise in the associated cost in buying a new dwelling.
  • 4.1% increase in the food group

What you notice from the graph is that when the AS curve shifts left not only does inflation increase but also output and employment decrease. The last major stagflationary period was during the oil crisis years of 1973 (oil price up 400%) and 1979 (up 200%) – see video below from the Philadelphia Fed.

But when will these cost pressures ease in New Zealand? With a 5.9% inflation rate employees will put significant pressure on employers for wage increases and this is when there is already a very tight labour market (3.2% unemployment).

Final thought
2022 is going to be a very difficult year for the economy with both demand and supply issues:
Demand: higher inflation will mean a tightening of interest rates which will reduce spending and increase the debt burden.
Supply: higher energy costs, supply chain problems, increase in material costs and availability of parts for industry.

Add to this the war in Ukraine and we are in for a rocky ride. However the possible suffering is necessary if it nullifies the threat on global democracy.

For more on Stagflation view the key notes (accompanied by fully coloured diagrams/models) on elearneconomics that will assist students to understand concepts and terms for external examinations, assignments or topic tests.

OCR – LSAP – FLP = New Zealand’s Monetary Policy Toolkit

Below is a useful flow diagram from the ANZ bank which adds Large Scale Asset Purchases (LSAP) and Funding for Lending Programme (FLP) to the Official Cash Rate (OCR – Base Rate)

LSAP – this is the buying of up $100 billion of government bonds – quantitative easing
FLP – this gives banks cheap lending based on the Official Cash Rate – could be about $28 billion based on take up
OCR – wholesale interest rate currently at 0.75%. Commercial banks borrow at 0.5% above OCR and can save at the Reserve Bank of New Zealand (RBNZ) at 1% below OCR.

With FLP and more LSAP this will mean lower lending rates and deposit rates. This should provide more stimulus in the economy and allay fears of future funding constraints making banks more confident about lending. Add to this a third stimulus – an OCR of 0.75%. Although there is currently a tightening policy the rate is probably still stimulatory. The flow chart shows the impact that these three stimulus policies have on a variety of variables including – exchange rates – inflation -unemployment – consumer spending – investment – GDP. Very useful for a class discussion on the monetary policy mechanism.

For more on Monetary Policy view the key notes (accompanied by fully coloured diagrams/models) on elearneconomics that will assist students to understand concepts and terms for external examinations, assignments or topic tests.

How tight is the New Zealand labour market?

The New Zealand unemployment rate of 3.2% doesn’t reflect how tight the labour market is – there were 93,000 people unemployed in the December quarter in seasonally adjusted terms. In setting the Official Cash Rate (OCR) the RBNZ consider the labour market and look at a number of indicators. The figure below shows the range of indicators and how they have been performing since 2000.

Note:
Yellow (inner) circle = worst outcome since 2000,
Orange (outer) circle = best outcome since 2000,
Dark blue = current outcomes,
Light blue = 2019 Q4, when the RBNZ saw employment as “at or slightly above” maximum sustainable employment.

Looking at the number of average hours worked the lockdown has seen employers reduce hours of work rather than laying off workers which puts them in a good position for when the country changes alert levels. With COVID restrictions easing unemployment could have further to fall (forecast 3%) and this can only serve to increase the wage negotiating power of the employee. As well as the fact that labour will be more scarce, the level of inflation is on the way up and employees will want to maintain their purchasing power. These factors will most likely lead to higher wages. While there is no shortage of downside risks on the demand side of things as interest rates rise (globally) and the housing market cools, there’s also no quick fix on the labour supply front. It’s also worth bearing in mind that the labour market tends to lag activity by quite some months.

Source: ANZ Bank New Zealand Weekly Data Wrap – 5th November 2021

New Zealand increases minimum wage to $21.20 but will it have an impact?

From 1st April this year the minimum wage in New Zealand will increase from $20 to $21.20 as the Labour government stay true to their election pledge of commitment to supporting employees. Currently inflation at its highest level for 30 years at 5.9% and unemployment is at a record low of 3.2%. In theory the minimum wage increase should see consumers spending more of their income and thereby supporting businesses. However the living wage, the rate at which someone would need to afford the necessities of life and participate as an active citizen, increased to $22.75.

Theory behind the minimum wage
On the graph above a minimum wage of W1 means that the level of employment has fallen but those prepared to work but are involuntary unemployed has increased. However the people still employed are better off as they are paid more for the same work; their gain is exactly balanced by their employers’ loss. The jobs that someone would have been willing to do at less than the wage of We and for which some company would have been willing to pay more than We.

Does the theory of the minimum wage apply in reality?
In reality the theory of the minimum wage explained above is not as simple as it is made out to be. From records in the USA there is no obvious relationship between the minimum wage and unemployment: adjusted for inflation, the federal minimum wage was highest from 1967 through 1969, when the unemployment rate was below 4%. One study (whose authors won the Nobel Prize in Economics) in 1994 by David Card and Alan Krueger evaluated an increase in New Jersey’s minimum wage by comparing fast-food restaurants on both sides of the New Jersey – Pennsylvania border. They concluded, “contrary to the central prediction of the textbook model … we find no evidence that the rise in New Jersey’s minimum wage reduced employment at fast-food restaurants in the state.”

The idea that a higher minimum wage might not increase unemployment goes against the the theory in textbooks as if labour becomes more expensive firms will take on less employees. But there are several reason why this might not be the case:

  • The standard model states that firms will replace labour with machines if wages increase, but what happens if labour saving technologies are not available at a reasonable cost.
  • Some employers may not be able to maintain their business with fewer workers especially in service based industries. Therefore, some companies can’t lay off employees if the minimum wage is increased.
  • Small firms are traditionally labour intensive and can’t afford large capital investment. Therefore the minimum wage doesn’t have the impact of laying off workers.
  • If employers have significant market power that the theory of the supply and demand for labour doesn’t exist, then they can reduce the wage level by hiring fewer workers (only those willing to work for low pay), just as a monopolist can boost prices by cutting production (think of an oil cartel, for example). A minimum wage forces them to pay more, which eliminates the incentive to minimize their workforce.
  • Even though a higher minimum wage will raise labour costs many companies can recoup cost increases in the form of higher prices; because most of their customers are not poor, the net effect is to transfer money from higher-income to lower-income families. In addition, companies that pay more often benefit from higher employee productivity, offsetting the growth in labor costs.
  • Higher wages boost productivity as they motivate people to work harder, they attract higher-skilled workers, and they reduce employee turnover, lowering hiring and training costs, among other things. If fewer people quit their jobs, that also reduces the number of people who are out of work at any one time because they’re looking for something better. A higher minimum wage motivates more people to enter the labor force, raising both employment and output.
  • Higher pay increases workers’ buying power. Because poor people spend a relatively large proportion of their income, a higher minimum wage can boost overall economic activity and stimulate economic growth, creating more jobs.

All the above add a range of variables that are not considered in the simple supply and demand model for labour. It maybe useful as a starting point in discussing the minimum wage but has its limitations in the more complex real world.

Source: Economism by James Kwak

New Zealand’s inflation rate will put pressure on wages

With 5.9% inflation and 3.2% unemployment there is the prospect of significant wage pressure with employees seeing a reduction in the real value of their wages and the increased scarcity of labour. The major driver of inflation is the 30.5% rise in the cost of petrol and a 15.7% rise in the associated cost in buying a new dwelling. The average wage is shown by the Labour Cost Index (LCI) and although this has been mainly hovering above the inflation rate (CPI) since 2011, the last year has seen a significant increase in prices which has not been matched by a subsequent increase in the average wage. Workers therefore are suffering from a reduction in real wages (nominal wages – inflation rate).

With this reduction in purchasing power from inflation and such low levels of unemployment employees have more bargaining power to command higher wages from their employers. This could result in workers moving between jobs where there is higher wages to keep up with inflation.

The situation is problematic for employers because they could experience a productivity loss from workers moving between jobs, as new workers take some time to adapt to their new roles. This would lead to employers incurring higher training costs.

Where company’s or sectors have union power this could have a damaging impact on a business as workers demand higher wages and threaten to strike if wage negotiations don’t come to fruition in their favour. Furthermore, with increasing the cost of living workers savings are losing value to inflation and reducing their ability to save. What is certain is growing tensions between employers and employees as they both try to lessen their losses introduced by inflation.

Source: BERL – Feb 2022

New Zealand inflation hits 5.9%. Potential for wage price spiral?

Consumer prices in New Zealand rose 5.9% annually in the December quarter.
Core inflation measures rose to 5.4% annually. Core inflation excludes certain items that are known for their volatility — namely, food and energy. With this figures it seems that ‘transitory’ inflation is not as relevant and inflation does have some momentum. There is a lot inflation coming in from abroad with Tradable inflation at 6.9%.

Domestic inflation was also strong with non-tradable inflation at 5.3%. Some of the main movers in the CPI:

  • Construction costs up by 15.7%annually – major supply chain issues here
  • Petrol prices up by 30.5% annually – reflects rises in oil prices globally and a weak NZ dollar making imports more expensive.
  • Food – annual change in food prices was 4.1% although the quarterly change was -0.1%
  • 40% of CPI is made up of imports and with inflationary pressure prevalent in the global economy this has led to higher import prices.

Higher inflation in a tight labour market – wage price spiral.
With a tight labour market comes pressure on wages and if they increase and are not accompanied by an increase in output/worker, companies have two choices. Either they absorb the higher costs or they put their prices up. Then with higher prices there is pressure on wages again as employees try to maintain their purchasing power which in turn could lead to a wage-price spiral.

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.

Source: ANZ Research December 2021 Quarter CPI Review

COVID-19 and the Universal Basic Income debate.

Here Martin Sandbu of the FT  discusses the UBI as part of his Free Lunch on Film – taking unorthodox economic ideas that he likes and putting them to the test. He looks at both sides of the UBI argument with examples from Alaska and Finland where results showed that there was little reduction in working hours when people received the UBI. Good discussion and well presented.

Why has the UBI become such a popular talking point?

  • The coronavirus pandemic has seen wage subsidies – a no-strings attached regular cash transfers to just about everyone in the economy.
  • The automation of a lot of jobs has left people very concerned about redundancy.
  • The modern economy can’t be expected to provide jobs for everyone
  • The UBI is easy to administer and it avoids paternalism of social-welfare programmes that tell people what they can and can’t do with the money they receive from the government.

Concerns

  • Potentially drives up wages and employees will compare their wages with the UBI.
  • Easier for people to take risks with their job knowing there is the UBI to fall back on.
  • It takes away the incentive to work and lowers GDP
  • UBI – not cheap to administer and would likely cost 13% of GDP in the US

Positives

  • In the Canadian province of Manitoba where the UBI was trialled, working hours for men dropped by just 1%.
  • The UBI would make it easier for people to think twice about taking unrewarding jobs which is a good consequence.
  • In the developing world direct-cash grant programs are used very effectively – Columbian economist Chris Blattman.
  • In New Jersey young people with UBI were more likely to stay in education

If the U.B.I. comes to be seen as a kind of insurance against a radically changing job market, rather than simply as a handout, the politics around it will change. When this happens, it’s easy to imagine a basic income going overnight from completely improbable to totally necessary. 

James Surowiecki – New Yorker – 20th June 2016

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.

Baffling unemployment figures in New Zealand

The New Zealand economy Q3 2021 labour market data published today was simply bizarre and cannot be maintained. Below is a summary of the data:

Unemployment rate is now at a 14-year low of 3.4% which is well below the NAIRU which is estimated to be around 4.5%. Consequently the labour cost index has increased annually by 2.5% which is well above the 2% considered consistent with the Reserve Bank of New Zealand (RBNZ) meeting its inflation target of between 1% – 3%. With inflation already at 4.9% you can be reasonably certain that the RBNZ will be tightening the OCR (interest rate) on the 24th November.

Despite having over a third of the country in lockdown for half the survey period annual employment growth increased to 4.2% from 1.6%. The increase was driven by full time positions – 2.3%. Why is this the case?

  • Businesses are afraid of losing staff when COVID restrictions are lifted
  • Demand for labour in growth industries cancels out those jobs lost in affected sectors
  • The wage subsidy is keeping people in jobs
  • The government is taking on a lot of staff – contact tracing and health sector.
  • Construction industry is booming

Some key questions to be asked:

How long will the COVID workforce be maintained?
What impact will the removal of the wage subsidy have (1.27 million jobs are covered by it)?

With this added pressure on inflation will the RBNZ raise the OCR by 50 basis points?

Source: BNZ ‘Maximum unsustainable employment’ 3rd November 2021

AS Revision – Tariffs and Protectionism

Just completed a 3 day CIE AS Revision Course.  I talked about Tariffs and Protectionism which is in Unit 4 of the AS course and how it can be a popular ‘Discuss’ question in the essay paper (Paper 2). However you will be expected to know this at A2 level also. Remember the following reasons for barriers to trade:

Why Protectionism?
a) Safeguard home country employment
b) Correct balance of payments disequilibria
c) Prevent labour exploitation in developing countries (or other political – not economic – goals)
d) Prevent Dumping
e) Safeguard infant industries

Below is useful mindmap that I use for revision of the topic.

Source: CIE A Level Revision – Susan Grant

A2 Economics – Wage Price Spiral and the Long Run Phillips Curve

Part of the CIE A2 macro syllabus focuses on the wage price spiral which relates to the Phillips Curve. Here are some excellent notes that I picked up from Russell Tillson in my early days teaching at Epsom College. 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.

Are we heading into Stagflation?

There is concern that the current mix of expansionary monetary (near 0% interest rates) and fiscal (lower taxes and increasing government spending with COVID-19) policies will excessively stimulate aggregate demand and lead to inflationary overheating. Add to this negative supply shocks and you have an increase in production costs. This combination could lead to a 1970’s stagflation – rising inflation and unemployment – see graph below. Since the days of stagflation in the US and UK in the 1970’s inflation has been the number one target for central bankers. The main cause of inflation during this period was the price of oil –

  • 1973 – 400%↑ – supply-side– Yom Kippur War oil embargo
  • 1979 – 200%↑ – supply-side – Iran Iraq War
Source: The Economist

US President Jimmy Carter’s attempts to follow Keynes’s formula and spend his way out of trouble were going nowhere and the newly appointed Paul Volcker (US Fed Governor in the 1970’s) saw inflation as the worst of all economic evils. Below is an extract of an interview from the PBS series “Commanding Heights”

“It came to be considered part of Keynesian doctrine that a little bit of inflation is a good thing. And of course what happens then, you get a little bit of inflation, then you need a little more, because it peps up the economy. People get used to it, and it loses its effectiveness. Like an antibiotic, you need a new one; you need a new one. Well, I certainly thought that inflation was a dragon that was eating at our innards, so the need was to slay that dragon.”

The policy of the time was Keynesian – inject more money into the system in order to get the economy moving again. This was also the case in the UK in the early 1970’s but Jim Callaghan’s (Labour PM in the UK ousted by Thatcher in 1979) speech in 1976 had reluctantly recognised that this policy had run its course and a monetarist doctrine was about to become prevalent. Below is an extract from the speech.

“We used to think that you could spend your way out of a recession and increase employment by cutting taxes and boosting government spending. I tell you in all candour that that option no longer exists, and in so far as it ever did exist, it only worked on each occasion since the war by injecting a bigger dose of inflation into the economy, followed by a higher level of unemployment. That is the history of the last twenty years”

With this paranoia about inflation central bankers began to implement a monetary policy targeting inflation in the medium term. In NZ the Reserve Bank Act 1989 established “price stability” as the main objective of the RBNZ. “Price stability” is defined in the PTA (Policy Target Agreement) as keeping inflation between 1 to 3% (originally 0-2%) – measured by the percentage change in CPI. Around the world central banks were adopting a more independent approach to policy implementation and with targeting inflation a new prevailing attitude seemed to be like an osmosis and suggesting that low prices = macro-economic stability as well. Also, raising interest rates is an unpopular political move and governments could now blame the central bank for this contractionary measure.

So are we now concerned that we will be entering another period of stagflation? Like the 1970’s we do have a supply-side issue (although not oil based) and expansionary demand side. The following are concerns:

Growth – Supply bottlenecks have led to growth slowdown in the US, China, Europe and the other major economies. Furthermore the Delta variant is increasing production costs as well as impacting the labour supply and ultimately reducing output growth. There is also the problem of moral hazard in that generous unemployment benefits are reducing the incentive to find work.

Demand Side – Excessive fiscal stimulus for an economy that already appears to be recovering faster than expected and it is assumed that the US Federal Reserve and other central banks will start to unwind their unconventional monetary policies. Combined with some fiscal drag next year (when deficits may be lower), this supposedly will reduce the risks of overheating and keep inflation at bay.

Supply Side – Again Delta is impacting many global supply chains, ports and logistical systems. Shortages of semi-conductors impacts the car industry as well as electronic goods thus increasing in inflation. Will the global supply side be positively influenced by better use of technological innovation in artificial intelligence and the return to normality on global supply distribution networks. Also will demand pressure eventuate especially when the threat of unemployment is ever present.

Although there are negative price shocks which could deter potential growth, expansionary fiscal and monetary policy could still increase the inflation rate. The resulting wage-price spiral could lead to astagflationary environment worse than the 1970s – when the debt-to-GDP ratios were lower than they are now. That is why the risk of a stagflationary debt crisis will continue to loom over the medium term.

Source: The Stagflation Threat Is Real – Nouriel Roubini – Project Syndicate 30th August 2021

US minimum wage increase – does it mean more job losses?

Covering the labour market with my A2 Economics class and remembered this post from earlier in the year. President Biden is pushing the US congress to gradually increase the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $15 by 2025. The Economist video below talks about what economists have traditionally said – ‘increasing the minimum wage will mean that there will be job losses’. In most economics textbooks the labour market is shown with a simple graph of the supply of labour and the demand for labour and where they intersect the wage that employees receive for their service and the amount employed.

The minimum wage distorts the market equilibrium as there is now a wage floor – a level which the wage cannot fall below. If the minimum wage is below the equilibrium wage then there is no impact as the market will ensure that is reaches equilibrium. However a minimum wage above the equilibrium means that companies will hire fewer workers and therefore result in more unemployment. On the graph below a minimum wage of W1 means that the level of employment has fallen but those prepared to work but are involuntary unemployed has increased. However the people still employed are better off as they are paid more for the same work; their gain is exactly balanced by their employers’ loss. The jobs that someone would have been willing to do at less than the wage of We and for which some company would have been willing to pay more than We. Those jobs are now gone, as well as the goods and services they would have produced.

Real Impact of the Minimum Wage.

In reality the theory of the minimum wage explained above is not as simple as it is made out to be. From records in the USA there is no obvious relationship between the minimum wage and unemployment: adjusted for inflation, the federal minimum wage was highest from 1967 through 1969, when the unemployment rate was below 4%. One study in 1994 by David Card and Alan Krueger evaluated an increase in New Jersey’s minimum wage by comparing fast-food restaurants on both sides of the New Jersey – Pennsylvania border. They concluded, “contrary to the central prediction of the textbook model … we find no evidence that the rise in New Jersey’s minimum wage reduced employment at fast-food restaurants in the state.”

The idea that a higher minimum wage might not increase unemployment goes against the the theory in textbooks as if labour becomes more expensive firms will take on less employees. But there are several reason why this might not be the case:

  • The standard model states that firms will replace labour with machines if wages increase, but what happens if labour saving technologies are not available at a reasonable cost.
  • Some employers may not be able to maintain their business with fewer workers especially in service based industries. Therefore, some companies can’t lay off employees if the minimum wage is increased.
  • Small firms are traditionally labour intensive and can’t afford large capital investment. Therefore the minimum wage doesn’t have the impact of laying off workers.
  • If employers have significant market power that the theory of the supply and demand for labour doesn’t exist, then they can reduce the wage level by hiring fewer workers (only those willing to work for low pay), just as a monopolist can boost prices by cutting production (think of an oil cartel, for example, see graph Monopsony Labour Market). A minimum wage forces them to pay more, which eliminates the incentive to minimize their workforce.
  • Even though a higher minimum wage will raise labour costs many companies can recoup cost increases in the form of higher prices; because most of their customers are not poor, the net effect is to transfer money from higher-income to lower-income families. In addition, companies that pay more often benefit from higher employee productivity, offsetting the growth in labor costs.
  • Higher wages boost productivity as they motivate people to work harder, they attract higher-skilled workers, and they reduce employee turnover, lowering hiring and training costs, among other things. If fewer people quit their jobs, that also reduces the number of people who are out of work at any one time because they’re looking for something better. A higher minimum wage motivates more people to enter the labor force, raising both employment and output.
  • Higher pay increases workers’ buying power. Because poor people spend a relatively large proportion of their income, a higher minimum wage can boost overall economic activity and stimulate economic growth, creating more jobs.
Monopsony Labour Market

All the above add a range of variables that are not considered in the simple supply and demand model for labour. It maybe useful as a starting point in discussing the minimum wage but has its limitations in the more complex real world

Source: Economism by James Kwak

What is New Zealand’s NAIRU?

New Zealand’s unemployment rate has fallen 4.0% and with positive growth forecasts it will no doubt fall further. This low rate has meant that labour bargaining power has increased and the Labour Cost Index has risen to 2.2% and private sector average hourly earnings were up an annual 4.5%.

In the June quarter this year the participation rate was at 70.5%  one of the highest in the world – this shows how fully employed the NZ economy is. Many other countries have achieved falls in their unemployment rates, after the initial shock of COVID19, but only as swathes of people gave up looking for a job. So how tight is the labour market? The RBNZ judged an unemployment rate of around 4.5% as being consistent with the notion of maximum sustainable employment without causing a rise in inflation. Economists refer to this as the NAIRU (non-accelerating inflation rate of unemployment), the rate of unemployment at which inflation remains constant.

The lack of workers from overseas has impacted these figures and a relaxing of border restrictions might ease labour constraints. However it can work the other way with labour leaving New Zealand and therefore a net loss of people. But at the moment the falling unemployment figures are very problematic and inflationary and the Reserve Bank Reserve Bank’s Monetary Policy Committee need to think about when and how it returns New Zealand to a more neutral interest rate – neither expansionary nor contractionary. The current OCR (interest rates) rate is 0.25% but the RBNZ has estimated that the neutral rate is between 1.5% and 4.5% which seems to suggest that it is still very expansionary. Therefore with unemployment set to fall and further inflationary pressure should see the RBNZ increase the OCR.

Source: BNZ Economy Watch – 4th August 2021

COVID-19 and a fairer economy

FT European Economics Commentary Martin Sandbu believes the COVID-19 pandemic is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to rebuild better economies that work for everyone. Sandbu author of ‘The Economics of Belonging’ – see previous post – talks here about the polarisation of rich societies since 1980. The main points of interest that he raises are below. Worth a look.

  • 1980 – large number of jobs available in factories start to disappear.
  • Globalisation – not the main cause of unemployment but technology has taken a lot of the manual and clerical jobs (structural unemployment) and retail has gone online.
  • Tax systems have not redistributed income – unions have been in decline.
  • Rural areas worst effected – good jobs more prevalent in cities so rural areas suffer.
  • Low paid service jobs have been impacted by COVID-19. Also as they involve contact with others there is more exposure to the disease.
  • Pandemic catalyst for change. History tells us – US Great Depression = New Deal, 2nd WW = postwar welfare state.
  • Technology change is with us so the need to find new ways of working. Do we have a Universal Basic Income (UBI)?
  • Lower burden of employing workers – less income tax, payroll tax and generally make it cheaper to hire people in to better jobs. Make up the shortfall in revenue elsewhere.
  • With the significant increase in inequality – introduction of a wealth tax. Also a tax on carbon emissions and redistribute to help the worse off.
  • Greater need to overcome regional inequality within countries
  • Need to the political will to make economies work better for everyone.