High Inflation and the Supply Side

A fantastic new paper from Dave Reifschneider, William L. Wascher, David Wilcox – all economists at the Federal Reserve – tries to put some numbers on something economists have been worried about for a while: hysteresis, or the gradual contraction of labor supply due to deficient demand. (John Cassidy has a good rundown). The upshot is that hysteresis over the past five years may halve growth potential. This is (or at least should be) the most urgent, if not important, issue for policymakers.

The standard story will tell you this is, keeping structural constraints constant, an irreversible trend. As price level increases with a higher aggregate demand, the cost of production rises contracting aggregate supply. This is almost certainly a fairy tale. Consider why workers exit the labor force. After a point, the monetary and psychological cost of searching for a job exceeds the expected benefit –  ∫(chance of being hired at a given wage rate * wage rate) over all wage differentials. Assuming the costs remain constant, the best way to expand the labor force is to increase the opportunity cost of remaining outside: that is either increase the chance of being hired or the nominal wage rate.

A naive analysis would suggest monetary policy can’t do much in the way of the former, and that the nominal above should be replaced with real. (To some extent, this would be correct, the best thing we can do right now is offer reemployment credits and a payroll tax holiday). Indeed, the opportunity cost of a certain wage rate shouldn’t really be measured in the dollars I could earn, but the purchasing power thereof. However, those who exit the labor force have some form of support system: savings, welfare, and help from friends among others. It would not be unreasonable to assume that except for the most basic needs (catastrophic healthcare, charity, and certain welfare programs) none of this support is, unlike the wage rate, inflation protected. The nominal wage rate is the price level * real wage rate. By definition, increasing the real wage rate increases the cost of remaining out of the labor force. But clearly increasing the price level does as well.

There’s another, possibly deeper, reason: the money illusion (not the blog). People think in nominal terms. If you don’t believe this consider the fact that people across the world are simultaneously worried about both inflation and wage stagnation, even though my raise is your inflation. Increasing the nominal wage rate would give workers the perception that they are actually earning more in real terms. That’s all that matters as far as the decision to reenter the labor force goes. Anyone who believes in nominal wage rigidities for behavioral reasons (and, seriously, why wouldn’t you) should accept this as a natural extension of that irrationality.

And directly capitalizing on this, monetary policy can increase the chance that a given worker is hired. I touched on this earlier, but in brief downward wage rigidities are an important concern at all times, not just during a recession:

Firms that want to expand employment don’t have perfect information about the quality of potential workers. There’s the chance they may be way better than expected, in which case raising relevant wages to keep the worker is quite easy. But what if they’re not as productive as the firm wished? Heaps of empirical evidence shows that firms just don’t like cutting nominal wages. Inflation, then, is an insurance policy against imperfect information. Conversely, a firm that is downsizing because of changing (microeconomic) demand can choose to inflate away a workers’ wage rather than laying off employees en masse.  This is more relevant to the poor and casually employed where large-scale employers face more informational uncertainty.

These two effects – both derivative of higher inflation – are self-reinforcing. As the chance of being hired increases, the stock of free labor will fall increasing real wages further. As these together increase aggregate supply and aggregate demand at the same time, real wages will increase without a substantial increase in the price level (above that which is dictated by a expansionary central bank). This encourages more entry into the labor force, and the process fulfills itself until a wage-price spiral forces the central bank to increase interest rates. And farewell to the liquidity trap.

In the short run – and only in the short run – there is a risk of overshooting. That is, in the period where all savers adjust to a higher inflation rate, those who left the labor force for life cycle reasons may feel compelled to return as their savings are eroded. However this is, to a large extent, stemmed because most seniors at risk rely primarily on Social Security, which is inflation protected. More importantly  this – like anything else – requires a judgement call on behalf of policymakers about the composition of labor force exit – between retirees and discouraged workers. It would be smart to use the employment to working population rate, rather than U3 unemployment, as a key indicator of labor market health. 

This gets to the final point. If we’re going to stick to the current, state-contingent forward guidance, it makes little sense to consider the unemployment rate at all – doing so presumes knowledge of the natural rate of unemployment, which may have changed. Rather, the central bank should determine a rate of inflation with which it is comfortable – even something stupidly low like 2% – and focus. This doesn’t make monetary policy “easier” or “tighter” per se, only more accurate. For example, a concern some economists (see this interview with Barclay’s Michael Gapen) have with a lower unemployment threshold, signaling a longer period of low interest rates, is that if the natural rate of unemployment has increased, then the economy will overheat before the threshold is reached, forcing the Fed to increase interest rates and compromising its credibility:

That said, we emphasize that the benefit of this action is linked to the assumption that NAIRU is within the FOMC’s central tendency. Our own view is that NAIRU is higher, which would imply higher potential inflationary costs from lowering the unemployment threshold and a worse cost-benefit trade-off. San Francisco Fed President Williams has made similar arguments, saying that uncertainty around any NAIRU estimate is high and that policymakers may be better served by keeping the 6.5% threshold in place and conducting policy in a more discretionary manner once the threshold has been reached. Other center-leaning FOMC participants may also share this view and we read staff conclusions in this regard as providing justification for a lower unemployment rate threshold, but that view need not be binding on policymakers.

That’s curious, because it seems like they cite NAIRU either without realizing what it is and what it means, or without realizing that the Evans Rule has a clause for inflation and is constructed disjunctively. If the unemployment rate falls below the NAIRU, and inflation doesn’t pick up, THEN IT’S NOT THE NAIRU. If unemployment falls below the NAIRU, and inflation does pick up, the Fed has every right to increase the interest rate given the Evans Rule without compromising credibility.

If the Fed believes in any natural rate of unemployment – and, clearly, it does – the dual threshold of unemployment and inflation is completely tautological, as one implies the other. This presumes that the theory behind NAIRU holds. And if it doesn’t, having an unemployment threshold is completely useless because what the Fed really wants – for any given inflation rate – is maximum employment. 

Consider the uncertainty the unemployment threshold creates in financial markets. For one, it adds one more variable to be monitored whose interpretation by the central bank must be monitored. But there’s already so much talk that this threshold will be lowered that markets have no idea how to read the Fed’s reaction function. 

If the NAIRU is 0% and the Fed increases rates before we get there, then policy will be unnecessarily contractionary. If the NAIRU is 15% then by definition the Evans Rule will require an increase in rates until inflation falls to the target. All we know for certain is that inflation is well below target today, and so monetary policy is insufficiently aggressive. 

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2 comments
  1. drwerewolf said:

    “what the Fed really wants – for any given inflation rate – is maximum employment”

    What’s depressing is that I get the sense that too many of the actual people at the actual Fed do *not* want this. What they want, like Serious People everywhere, is to make sure that the rich hold on to their real standard of living. They fear that if unemployment gets even within shouting distance of the NAIRU, then one bad shock to the economy could send us back to an inflationary spiral that could materially harm the privileges of the rich. So it’s important to keep unemployment elevated.

    I offer this purely as an empirical hypothesis, by the way. It will, I submit, predict actual behavior of the Fed “hawks” far better than adherence to any economic model: They will continue to favor policies that are likely to keep unemployment elevated even when there are no stirrings of inflation, and they will continue to forward whatever theory can be deployed in support of that position at any given moment.

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