Category Archives: Labour Market

New Zealand’s Phillips Curve 1993-2017

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. The downward-sloping Phillips curve is apparent in the graph below which plots core inflation against headline unemployment for New Zealand.

There has been also an apparent shift inwards of this relationship where lower rates of unemployment have become possible for a given level of inflation, particularly relative to the 1990s. The simple plot in the graph does not take into account other factors such as changes in import prices, inflationary expectations and capacity constraints which also have the potential to shift the Phillips Curve. These are discussed further below:

1. The price of imports. As the price of imports increase whether it is raw materials or finished products, the price of local goods become more expensive which increase the general price level. Also if a country finds that its exchange rate depreciates the price of imports rises. Oil is a very inelastic import and with a barrel of oil below $30 in 2016 there was little pressure on the CPI. Where inflation has been higher is in those countries that have withdrawn price subsidies and also had sharply falling currencies – Argentina 24% and Egypt 32%.

2. Public Expectations. 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.

Workers, who have tended to get wage rises to ‘catch up’ with previous price increases, will attempt to gain a little extra compensate them for the expected further inflation, especially if they cannot negotiate wage increases for another year. Consumers, in belief that prices will keep rising, buy now to beat the price rises, but this extra buying adds to demand pressures on prices. In a country such as New Zealand’s before the 1990’s, with the absence of competition in many sectors of the economy, this behaviour reinforces inflationary pressures. ‘Breaking the inflationary cycle’ is an important part of permanently reducing inflation. If people believe prices will remain stable, they won’t, for example, buy land and property as a speculation to protect themselves. In Japan firms and employees have become conditioned to expect a lower rate of inflation. Prime minister Shinzo Abe has called for companies to raise wages by 3% to try and kick start inflation.

3. Capacity pressures. This refers to how much ‘slack’ there is in the economy or the ability to increase total output. If capacity pressures are tight that means an economy will find it difficult to increase output so there will be more pressure on prices as goods become more scarce. Unemployment is the most used gauge to measure the slack in the economy and as the economy approached full employment the scarcity of workers should push up the price pf labour – wages. With increasing costs for the firm it is usual for them to increase their prices for the consumer and therefore increasing the CPI. However many labour markets around the world (especially Japan and the USA) have been very tight but there is little sign of inflation. This assumes that the Phillips curve (trade-off between inflation and unemployment) has become less steep. Research by Olivier Blanchard found that a drop in the unemployment rate in the US has less than a third as much power to raise inflation as it did in the mid 1970’s.

This flatter Phillips curve suggests that the cost for central banks in higher inflation of delaying interest-rate rises is rather low.

Wages in the English Premier League – Demand-Pull Inflation

You are no doubt are well aware of the staggering wages that the English Premier League player receive especially when you consider other occupations.

What ultimately the salary explosion has been driven by the huge amounts of money that is now at the disposable of some of the top clubs. In economics this refers to the concept of demand-pull inflation where the supply has not kept apace with the demand for world-class players. Below is graph showing both demand-pull and cost-push.

Volvo Ocean Race and the Multiplier Effect.

I am quite an avid watcher of the Volvo Ocean Race with the daily race updates and the excellent graphics on their website – currently they are in Auckland before setting sail for Itajaí in Brazil. Most days they have news on the current positions of the yachts and who has made gains and losses in the last 24 hours. A recent race update dealt with the economic impact that the race has had on the Spanish economy and it just happens that I am covering the multiplier with my A2 Economics class.

The Multiplier Explained

Consider a $300 million increase in business capital investment. This will set off a chain reaction of increases in expenditures. Firms who produce the capital goods that are ultimately purchased will experience an increase in their incomes. If they in turn, collectively spend about 3/5 of that additional income, then $180m will be added to the incomes of others. At this point, total income has grown by ($300m + (0.6 x $300m). The sum will continue to increase as the producers of the additional goods and services realise an increase in their incomes, of which they in turn spend 60% on even more goods and services. The increase in total income will then be ($300m + (0.6 x $300m) + (0.6 x $180m). The process can continue indefinitely. But each time, the additional rise in spending and income is a fraction of the previous addition to the circular flow.

The value of the multiplier can be found by the equation ­1 ÷ (1-MPC)
You can also use the following formula which represents a four sector economy
1 ÷ MPS+MRT+MPM

Source: CIE Revision Guide by Susan Grant

Impact of Volvo Ocean Race on Spanish Economy

PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PwC) conducted a study measuring the impact of the Volvo Ocean Race on the Region of Valencia and Spain. Some their findings are:

  • The impact in the Region of Valencia has grown to 68.6 million euros in GDP and 1,270 full-time equivalent jobs.
  • Hotels, restaurants and local business were the sectors to benefit the most.
  • Alicante received 345,602 visitors from October 11 to 22, 2017, (10.3% more than in 2014-15 and 17.6% more than in 2011-12).
  • The Volvo Ocean Race had a significant positive effect on national tax revenue, adding more than 41 million euros.
  • The media value directly linked to coverage mentioning the Alicante brand over the period of the race start exceeds 36 million euros.

The Volvo Ocean Race 2017-18 has added 96.2 million euros to the Spanish Gross Domestic Product (GDP), an increase of 7.6% over the 2014-15 edition. The race also generated the equivalent of 1,700 full time jobs in Spain, according to an economic impact study delivered by PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PwC) measuring the impact of the Volvo Ocean Race on the Region of Valencia and Spain.

The impact in the Region of Valencia grew to 68.6 million euros of GDP, a 3.3% increase on the 2014-15 edition. The sectors of activity that benefited the most were local businesses and restaurants, each by more than 10 million euros. In terms of employment, the equivalent of 1,270 full-time jobs were generated, a figure similar to the last edition.

The PwC study estimates a positive effect on tax collection in Spain of more than 41 million euros as a result of an increase in economic activity and employment generated by the Volvo Ocean Race 2017-18.

The actual value of the multiplier is not mentioned in the report but from all accounts the Volvo Ocean Race has had a very positive impact on Valencia.

Is the Natural Rate of Unemployment in the US lower than economists think?

The natural rate of unemployment is the difference between those who would like a job at the current wage rate – and those who are willing and able to take a job. In the above diagram, it is the level (Q2-Q1).

Source: economicshelp.org

The natural rate of unemployment will therefore include:
Frictional unemployment – those people in-between jobs
Structural unemployment – those people that don’t have the skills that fit the jobs that are available.

It is also referred to as the Non-Accelerating Inflation Rate of Unemployment (NAIRU) – the job market neither pushes up inflation nor holds it back.

US Labour Market – tight but little wage growth.

The recent (February 2018) US Federal Reserve Monetary Policy Report stated that the US labour market appears to be near or a little beyond full employment. In theory this should suggest major labour shortages which ultimately end in higher wages for workers. Although employers report having more difficulties finding qualified workers, hiring continues apace, and serious labour shortages would likely have brought about larger wage increases than have been evident to date. The unemployment rate appears to be below most estimates of the natural rate.

January US unemployment rate = 4.1%
Congressional Budget Office’s (CBO) current estimate of the natural rate = 4.6%

The Unemployment Gap


The unemployment rate gap is the unemployment rate minus the CBO’s estimate of the natural rate of unemployment. The shaded bars indicate periods of business recession.

The median of Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) participants’ estimates of the longer-run normal rate of unemployment and the CBO’s estimate of the natural rate of unemployment have both been revised down by about 1% over the past few years, one indication of the substantial uncertainty surrounding estimates of the “full employment” rate of unemployment.

The US Fed have suggested that with many advanced economies experiencing such low inflation that more persistent factors may be restraining price growth therefore the NRU could be lower in some countries than many economists think. Prices in many industries have been subdued due to technological changes – internet shopping which allows easy comparison – which restricts businesses ability to demand higher prices.

What could be the reasons for less wage growth?

• Employees need less compensation as the inflation rate has been low
• An increase in part-time employment
• Spare capacity in the labour market
• Employees keen on job security so put less emphasis on wage bargaining
• Increasing number of people participating in the labour force.
• Shorter working week
• Ageing and declining working age population

Although in the US there have been labour shortages in some areas of the economy, this hasn’t flowed through into the aggregate labour market. However speculation of higher inflationary pressure through higher wages has alerted markets that the US Fed may increase interest rates although they will remain reluctant to tighten too aggressively.

Source: US Federal Reserve Monetary Policy Report – February 2018.

Full v Fulfilling Employment

Just going through the Natural Rate of Unemployment with my A2 class and I remembered a post I did last year. Free Exchange in The Economist had an article which looked at the change in terminology used by Janet Yellen ex-chairman of the Federal Reserve. In a statement last year she alluded to the US economy near maximum employment and that rate rises could ensue. However only 69% of American adults have a job.

Full employment has normally been the concept that has been used to describe a situation where there is no cyclical or deficient-demand unemployment, but unemployment does exist as allowances must be made for frictional unemployment and seasonal factors – also referred to as the natural rate of unemployment or Non-Accelerating Inflation Rate of Unemployment (NAIRU). If a central bank wishes to stimulate demand below this level there is the concern that inflation will increase therefore they take a guess as to what is the natural rate of unemployment – the lowest rate of unemployment where prices don’t accelerate. Maximum unemployment is the same in that it refers to the labour market being as tight as it can be without increasing prices. Natural rates in the US have varied – around 5.3% in 1950 and then peaking at 6.3% in the stagflation period before falling 4.9% in 2008 and then rising to 5.1% after the GFC, see graph below.

NRU and its causes

The NRU mainly depends on the level of frictional unemployment – defined as those who are in between jobs. This number can vary as at different times of the business cycle as there can be a delay in matching those looking for work with the vacancies themselves – a mismatch sometimes referred to as Structural Unemployment. The increase in frictional unemployment in the 1970’s and 80’s was largely due to the decline in manufacturing jobs with the advent of automation and more right wing policies (Reagan and Thatcher). Workers would stay unemployed in the hope that good high paid manufacturing jobs would reappear.

Unions can also influence the NRU with protecting workers jobs and pushing up wages so that employers find it too costly to employ more labour. However the fall in the 1990’s could be due to the advent of technology in the hiring process and the growth of part-time jobs which assisted those workers facing a career change.

Another influence on the NRU is wage growth as with the higher wages you attract more of the labour force to engage in actively looking for work.

A central bank will have to use trial and error to make a decision on how much spare capacity there is in an economy. Only when prices start to increase do they have an idea how capacity is running.

Quality not Quantity

As alluded to by The Economist the goal of full employment must consider the quality of jobs as well. With the acceleration of technology over labour, maximum employment should consider more than capacity constraints or inflationary pressure.

Rather, governments need to consider the options available to workers: not just how easily they can find jobs they want, but also how readily they can refuse jobs they do not. By lifting obstacles to job changes and giving workers a social safety net that enables them to refuse the crummiest jobs, societies can foster employment that is not just full, but fulfilling.

Sources: The Economist 28th January 2017, St Louis Federal Reserve – Natural Rate of Unemployment

Are smartphones causing a loss of productivity?

A recent article on the Bank of England blog written by Dan Nixon caught my attention as it is something that I have long been concerned about – that is the amount of time we spend on our phones / devices and its impact on people’s productivity in the workplace.

Smartphone use and the amount of notifications that we get is enormous. Research in 2015 found that on average we check our 150 times a day – roughly 6½ mins – and spend 2½ hours each day on the phone, spread across 76 sessions. From this the ‘attention economy’ emerges as a scarce and valuable resource and is seen as one of the greatest problems of our time – American philosopher William James noted, our life experience ultimately amounts to whatever we had paid attention to.

The attention economy and the workplace.

The graph below makes for interesting interpretation – productivity growth has been very weak whilst shipments on smartphones has increase by 10 fold. You would expect that the output of a worker would depend on his/her ability to focus and be able to pay attention to the task in hand. However research into observing inner states (attention) and mapping those outcomes with attention (productivity) is fraught with difficulty.

Cyberslacking – The US Chamber of Commerce Foundation finds that people typically spend one hour of their workday on social media – rising to 1.8 hours for millennials. Another survey, meanwhile, found that traffic to shopping sites surged between 2pm to 6pm on weekday afternoons. An influx of emails and phone calls, for example, is estimated to reduce workers’ IQ by 10 points – equivalent to losing a night’s sleep.

Frequent distractions – might lead to a persistently lower capacity to work, over and above the direct effects. What is the argument for this being the case?

1. There’s habit formation – what we do is designed by smartphone apps which make us be as addictive as possible – to ‘hijack the mind’, as Tristan Harris puts it. The psychological mechanism at play here – “intermittent variable rewards” – is the same as the one that gets people hooked on slot machines.

2. The more choice of notifications we have the more time we will spend scanning them looking for instant gratification. Cal Newport goes so far as saying that media like email, far from enhancing our productivity, serve to ultimately deskill the labour force.

Algorithms and attention
Ultimately what we look at is determined by algorithms – so the more technology the less we make the decisions ourselves and our suggested we buy certain goods or services because of out previous behaviours. There has been a lot of talk about artificial intelligence and machines that will be capable of an increasingly wide set of tasks. But most agree on the need to cultivate our distinctively human skills in order to differentiate ourselves from machines. And the human ability to empathise – central to the work of social workers, performers and nurses, among others

But is technology all bad?

IT does help business for the following reasons:

  • Speeds up communication
  • Allows documents to be shared remotely
  • Easier to find information own the Internet.

From the above productivity surged in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s as email, databases and the Internet have had a significant effect on the productivity of business processes.

Is the cause of weak productivity distraction?

Distraction is not the whole story with regard to weak productivity. Industries such as manufacturing and construction have had disappointing productivity rates but this can hardly be due to workers being on their smartphones. As pointed out by The Economist ‘Free Exchange’ productivity is also a consequence of the movement of workers from industries with relatively high rates of growth to more stagnant ones. For instance in the US productivity half of total employment growth since 2000 has been in low productivity areas such as education and health care.

Final thought

According to Dan Nixon constant notifications results in workers becoming less empathetic which is a serious side-effect in an economy where human connections with customers are cast as a defense against automation. Distraction also appears to reduce happiness which ultimately impact on worker productivity. Must end this post now – better check my email accounts, twitter, Facebook and Linkedin.

 

Sources: 

Dan Nixon – Bank Underground blog

Free Exchange – The Economist.

 

A2 Economics – Introducing Unemployment with UB40

I recently started teaching the Unemployment topic to my Year 13 A2 class and remembered that one of the first albums I bought was UB40 Signing Off – released in 1980 (see right). The front cover and reverse has been made to look like the UB40 unemployment benefit attendance card from which the band took their name. Their UK top-ten hit “One In Ten” was an attack on Thatcherism and is mistakenly cited as referring to the number of unemployed in the UK at that time. It is in fact a song about government statistics in general, and how politicians use them to de-humanise problems. Useful way to introduce the subject especially if the class like reggae. I found it useful to have two windows open and play the video along side the lyrics. Click here for the lyrics of the song and here to see UB40 perform on Top of the Pops in 1981.  I was surprise at how many of the class knew of the band.

Zero sum game – Tax cuts v Higher interest rates.

The recent tax cuts in the US by the Trump administration are estimated to create above 4% growth each year according to Gary Cohn – Director of the National Economic Council. If the US does achieve this level of growth, tax reform is said to have little impact as long-term growth – studies have estimated that the tax bill will have an impact of between 0.4% – 0.9% on GDP.

Textbooks that cover supply-side policies tend to suggest that lower taxes on labour income should raise its supply whilst lower taxes on capital income should increase saving and investment which should then increase labour productivity and competitiveness in the market place. But there is the income and substitution effect to consider. With tax cuts people’s income increase therefore there is the chance that the substitution and income effects come into play.

Substitution effect – if wages are higher workers may forgo some of their leisure time and work longer hours. SS1 on the graph

Income effect – if wages are higher workers may reduce some of their working hours as the demand for leisure time goes up – SS2 on the graph

Most textbooks favour the substitution effect with tax cuts although research shows that neither labour-force participation nor hours worked move in response to tax changes. However reported labour income does rise in response to income tax cuts, thanks largely to less tax avoidance. Furthermore savings rates have changed little with tax cuts in fact they have decreased in the US over the past 40 years. Savings rates are important for investment purposes although the current administration believes that this shortfall will be filled by overseas investors.

Oligopolists to benefit

With the lack of competition in US industry – especially in the banking sector – it is the these companies (many whom are oligopolists) and their shareholders who will reap the benefits of tax cuts. Research has shown that a cut in corporate tax of 10% would raise long-run output output by 0.15%. National Income would raise less with much of the addition to GDP going overseas.

What about higher interest rates?

Although tax cuts (increase in demand) do help out especially when there is a lot of spare capacity in the economy this is hardly the case at the moment. The US has limited spare capacity and the Federal Reserve fearing inflation have been more contractionary in their actions by recently increased interest rates which cancels out the stimulatory tax cuts.

Tax cuts and inequality

Although the republican rhetoric has been that tax cuts will benefit all they haven’t mentioned the distributional consequences. The cuts will reduce the tax burden of the top 0.2% by an average of $278,000 by 2017. This is in contrast to the bottom 20% of earners will get an extra $10 dollar by 2017.

Economic Theory v Economic Reality

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.

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.

 

Does CEO pay equal their marginal revenue product?

One reason for the increasing inequality in society is the stagnant wages for the lower and middle income groups – in the USA the top 0.1% have as much wealth as the bottom 90%. Labour compensation at the very top has increased dramatically since the 1970’s.

1970’s – the top 0.1% took home less than 3% of all income
2010 – the top 0.1% took home more than 10% of all income

In the USA the top CEO’s average compensation has grown since the late 1970’s by over 900% to around $15 million a year. In contrast the lower income groups have gone up by only 10%. However when you look at hedge fund and private equity fund managers the salaries are astounding. In 2014 which was seen as not a great year for the industry 25 fund managers made at least $175 million each, and 3 made more than $1 billion.

Are CEO’s worth every cent?

In theory the demand for labour is determined by their marginal revenue product – that is the value of revenue generating by employing an additional worker. Labour markets are imperfect and a monopsony occurs in the labour market when there is a single or dominant buyer of labour. The buyer therefore is able to determine the price at which is paid for services. The monopsonist will hire workers where:

Marginal Cost of labour (MCL) = Marginal Revenue product of labour (MRPL)

Therefore it will use labour up to level of Eq which is where MCL=MRPL. In order to entice workers to supply this amount of labour, the firm need pay only the wage Wq. (Remember that ACL is the supply of labour). You can see, therefore, that a profit-maximising monopsonist will use less labour, and pay a lower wage, than a firm operating under perfect competition.

So if Goldman Sach’s CEO, Lloyd Blankfein, made $24 million in 2014, that’s because he is worth $24 million to his company. In short, you make what you deserve based on your skills, effort, and productivity, in this fairest of all possible worlds.

However this theory has little to do with how the world actually works. The idea that good CEO’s are entitled to enormous rewards is based on the belief that success or failure of the company depends on one person. According to historian Nancy Koehn, business is a team sport: not only is it impossible to quantify a single leader’s marginal revenue product; it is hard even to describe it clearly. Ultimately a CEO can appoint friends and place them on the compensation committee which recommends the CEO salary. The committee invariably proposes to pay at least as much as the median comparable company, because no board wants to admit that its company has a below-average leader. CEO’s do have key performance indicators (KPI’s) but the CEO can encourage the committee to select metrics that will be easy to satisfy. John Kenneth Galbraith describes CEO pay very succinctly – “The salary of the chief executive of a large corporation is not a market reward for achievement. It is frequently in the nature of a warm personal gesture by the individual to himself.”

Luck plays an important role in CEO’s pay. Heads of oil companies were paid more when profits increased, even when the profits were not due to their decision making but simply by a rise in the price of oil. On the contrary it is argued that some boards actually do a good job in firing under-performing leaders and that in the end, high compensation is simply the result of the market for talent – supply and demand. The financial sector tend to use the marginal revenue product of labour theory in their awarding of compensation for CEO’s. Bonuses of traders and investment bankers’ are based on the profitability of their own deals but because bonuses can never be negative, individual employees can generate enormous payouts on bets that turn out well while sticking shareholders with the losses on bets that go bad. Furthermore even if bankers do make money by buying low and selling high in the securities markets there is no value generation as there is no tangible output that anyone can consume.

In aristocratic societies such as 18th century France or 19th century Russia, wealthy noblemen who owed their riches to the accident of birth had to worry about the prospect of violent rebellion by the have-nots. By contrast in the US today the wealthy are protected by the widespread belief that their extraordinary incomes – and the inequality that they generate – are simply the product of inescapable economic necessity.

Source: Economism by James Kwak