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

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.

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.

Inflation – causes and examples from the global economy.

Here is an excellent video from CNBC which includes news clips from the 1970’s and beyond. Below are some of the main points:

  • 1960 – pint of milk in the UK 3p. Today 50p
  • Cost Push Inflation – today: supply-chain bottlenecks, shipping costs rising, labour shortages
  • Demand Pull Inflation – usually associated with an economy operating near full capacity
  • Milton Friedman – inflation a monetary phenomenon and the domain central banks.
  • With the expansion of money why has there been little inflation recently? Velocity of circulation is not evident – i.e. number transactions.
  • CPI – Headline Inflation but Core Inflation is more valuables it takes out volatile components of the CPI which have no reflection on the strength of their economy – e.g. oil. Gives you a better idea of the inflation trend.
  • A little bit of inflation is good – ‘Goldilocks’ not too hot but not too cold.
  • Hyperinflation – Brazil – 1980-1995. Weimar Republic – issues 100 Trillion D Mark note.
  • !970’s – Stagflation – wage price spiral – higher interest rates 20% – trade-off was the higher unemployment rate.
  • Central Banks – focus on inflation but also avoid a deflationary environment.

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

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

Phillips CurvePart 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.

Long Run PC

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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 Markets Free?

Smith FriedmanMilton Friedman in his book “Capitalism and Freedom” suggests that the central problem of economics is how to ensure the cooperation of free individuals without compulsion. Scottish economist Adam Smith saw that, in the absence of external coercion, two parties enter into exchanges because it will be mutually beneficial for them to do so provided the transaction is bi-laterally voluntarily and informed. No exchange will take place unless both parties benefit. This seems to be the conventional definition of the free-market economy.

However the market is not as free as one would think and the power of the business strategy prevails. Marketing is a significant cost for most businesses but the majority of contemporary marketing is based not on providing information but on associating products with evocative images and themes not directly related to the product itself. Goods that cannot be ‘commodified’, such as self-esteem, love, friendship and success, for example, are associated with products that bear little or no relationship to those goods.

Marketers intensify the desire for such goods by calling into question the acceptability of the consumer, which General Motors’ research division once called “the organised creation of dissatisfaction”.

Another concentration of power is in the enormous transnational corporations through mergers and acquisitions. Over the last two decades there has been a significant rise in mergers and acquisitions as large corporations seek to outdo their rivals through the increase in size that ultimately leads to economies of scale and market power. For instance the meat packaging industry in the United States is dominated by four companies that handle the 80% of beef production that leaves small farmers with limited power in the pricing of their cattle. Independent bookshops and department stores worldwide have struggled with the size of the competition in the market and the onset of the online medium. Consumers have preferred the bigger firms as they are more efficient and can provide the product at a cheaper price. However paradoxically the consumer has used his/her freedom to restrict their freedom, since now there are fewer choices available, and they are increasingly faced with the prospect of frequenting the same few chains stores whether they like it or not.

A much more publicised view of asymmetrical power is the exchange between employer and employee. Executive pay in the last two decades has increased dramatically – in 1980 the average CEO earned 42 times that of the average worker but by 1999 it had reached 475:1 and today approximately 600:1. Union membership has declined considerably since the 1980s when is it was well over 20%. In 2012 only 11.1% of workers were members of unions.

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The above is a brief extract from an article published in this month’s econoMAX – click below to subscribe to econoMAX the online magazine of Tutor2u. Each month there are 8 articles of around 600 words on current economic issues.

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