Jan 22nd 2015

Have We Become Too Flexible?

by Aidar Turner


Adair Turner, Chairman of the Institute for New Economic Thinking and former Chairman of the UK Financial Services Authority, is Chair of the Energy Transitions Commission.

LONDON – As 2015 begins, the reality of deficient global demand and deflationary risks in the world’s major economies is starkly apparent. In the eurozone, GDP growth is slowing, and inflation has turned negative. Japan’s progress toward its 2% inflation target has stalled. Even economies experiencing more robust economic growth will miss their targets: inflation in the United States will not reach 1.5% this year, and China’s rate reached a five-year low of 1.4% last November.

In the advanced economies, low inflation reflects not just the temporary impact of falling commodity prices, but also longer-term wage stagnation. In the US, the United Kingdom, Japan, and several eurozone countries, median real (inflation-adjusted) wages remain below their 2007 levels. Indeed, in the US, real wages for the bottom quartile have not risen in three decades. And, though the US created 295,000 new jobs last December, actual cash wages fell.

The developing world is not doing much better. As the International Labor Organization’s latest Global Wage Report shows, wage gains are lagging far behind productivity growth.

Because real income growth is vital to boost consumption and prices, central bankers and politicians are now in the novel business of encouraging wage increases. Last July, Bundesbank President Jens Weidmann welcomed the fact that some German companies had raised wages above inflation. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has gone a step further, repeatedly urging companies to increase wages – and encouraging them to do so by reducing corporate tax. So far, however, jawboning has had little effect.

This failure would not have surprised the monetarist economists who observed the high inflation of the 1970s. At the time, many policymakers blamed rapid price increases on “cost push” factors, such as pressure from trade unions for excessive wage hikes. Finance ministers and central banks frequently urged wage moderation, with many countries even introducing formal policies governing wages and prices.

But these policies proved largely ineffective. Instead, it seemed increasingly clear that, as Milton Friedman put it, “inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon.” If nominal demand grows faster than real potential growth, inflation is inevitable; and nominal demand growth can be constrained only through a mix of fiscal and monetary policy. Indeed, inflation was finally crushed in the early 1980s, when central banks raised interest rates to whatever level was required to constrain nominal demand, even if it led to high transitional unemployment.

But, though central banks claimed credit for the “Great Moderation” of global inflation that followed, structural factors (which determine the intensity of cost-push effects) also played a crucial role. For starters, the entry of China’s massive labor force into the global market economy changed the power balance between capital and labor in the advanced economies. Trade unions’ membership and influence declined sharply, owing to increased global competition and, in some countries, deliberate legal reforms. Minimum wages, particularly in the US, were allowed to fall relative to median incomes.

More recently, technological advances have become an increasingly important driver of structural transformation, with information technology and job automation reducing wage rates for low-skill jobs and further eroding the political and market power of organized labor. Today’s ultra-flexible labor markets, characterized by part-time, temporary, and zero-hours contracts, are very different from those that generated cost-push inflation in the 1960s and 1970s.

The result in many countries has been stagnant real wages, increased inequality, and a potential structural bias toward deficient nominal demand. Given that wealthy people have a higher propensity to save, increased inequality tends to produce sluggish demand growth – unless, that is, the savings of the wealthy are lent to the poor.

As a result, while central bankers before the 2008 financial crisis viewed themselves as heroes in a battle against inflation, they increasingly found themselves offsetting structural deflationary pressures by setting interest rates low enough to stimulate credit booms. This led to excessive debt creation, financial crisis, and now a chronic aggregate-demand shortfall, with households, companies, and governments all seeking to reduce their debt.

But, though structural factors and debt overhangs underpin today’s inadequate demand, a purely macroeconomic response might still solve the problem. Just as determined monetary restraint 30 years ago ultimately overwhelmed cost-push pressures, an equally determined policy in the other direction could, in theory, boost nominal demand growth today.

The best way to achieve that is not through the current mix of ultra-low interest rates and quantitative easing. After all, though this approach would eventually stimulate demand, it would do so by driving up asset prices – thereby exacerbating wealth inequality – and by re-stimulating the private-credit growth that fueled the financial crisis.

But policymakers always have another option for creating nominal demand: printing money to finance their fiscal deficits. The permanent availability of this approach – what Friedman called “helicopter” money – makes deficient nominal demand one of the very few economic problems for which there is always an answer.

Nonetheless, such a purely macroeconomic approach to the battle against deflation would almost certainly not be optimal. A better strategy would also entail policies that address the structural drivers of stagnant wages and consumption.

One of those drivers is excessive labor-market flexibility. Though the easing of rules for hiring and firing workers has probably helped to boost employment in some countries, such as the UK, it may also be depressing real wages. Just as labor markets can be too rigid, they can be too flexible.

Raising minimum wages could help limit the erosion of real earnings in the bottom quartile. And tax and social-welfare systems can be used to channel income toward those most likely to spend it.

Because deflation, like inflation, is ultimately a monetary phenomenon, fiscal and monetary weapons are the most critical means to combating it. But the potential importance of structural policies should not be ignored. Weidmann and Abe are right: some cost-push pressure would be useful. But deliberate policies will be needed to stimulate it.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2015.


This article is brought to you by Project Syndicate that is a not for profit organization.

Project Syndicate brings original, engaging, and thought-provoking commentaries by esteemed leaders and thinkers from around the world to readers everywhere. By offering incisive perspectives on our changing world from those who are shaping its economics, politics, science, and culture, Project Syndicate has created an unrivalled venue for informed public debate. Please see: www.project-syndicate.org.

Should you want to support Project Syndicate you can do it by using the PayPal icon below. Your donation is paid to Project Syndicate in full after PayPal has deducted its transaction fee. Facts & Arts neither receives information about your donation nor a commission.



Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Feb 18th 2020
EXTRACT: "Beyond the usual economic and policy risks that most financial analysts worry about, a number of potentially seismic white swans are visible on the horizon this year. Any of them could trigger severe economic, financial, political, and geopolitical disturbances unlike anything since the 2008 crisis."
Feb 18th 2020
Extract: "In late 2019, Zogby Research Services (ZRS) once again had the opportunity to poll public opinion across the Middle East and North Africa about many of these issues that are of such critical concern to the region and its peoples..............One of the more intriguing results in our 2019 survey were the changes in Arab views toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Most Arabs still blame the US and Israel for the absence of peace and have little confidence that the conflict can be resolved in the near future. Maybe as a result of this despair, this issue now ranks low as an Arab priority. Also noteworthy is the fact that majorities in most Arab countries now say that normalization with Israel, which they acknowledge is already happening, may be a good thing. This development shouldn’t be overstated, however, since there is still no love for Israel. It appears, from our survey, to be born of frustration, weariness with Palestinians being victims of war, and the possibility that normalization might bring some economic benefits and could give Arabs leverage to press Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians."
Feb 15th 2020
EXTRACT: "Global dissatisfaction with democracy has increased over the past 25 years, according to our recent report. Drawing upon the HUMAN Surveys project, the report covered 154 countries, with 77 countries covered continuously for the period from 1995 to 2020. These samples were possible thanks to the combination of data from over 25 sources, 3,500 national surveys, and 4 million respondents. Not surprisingly, the gloomy headline finding – rising democratic dissatisfaction – attracted the most attention. Less widely discussed, however, is the “good news” – that a small sample of countries has bucked the trend, and have record high levels of satisfaction with their democracies."
Feb 14th 2020
EXTRACT: "This is how dictatorships begin. As the US prepares for its next presidential election in November, it is every citizen’s responsibility rationally to examine Trump’s dictatorial impulses, which reelection would only reinforce. It is not safe to assume that he won’t go too far, or that he is too much of a “mediocrity” – as Leon Trotsky called Stalin (an assessment with which many Bolsheviks agreed) – to transform his country......Vladimir Lenin, himself a ruthless Bolshevik, wrote in 1922 that, “Stalin concentrated in his hands enormous power, which he won’t be able to use responsibly,” owing to traits like rudeness, intolerance, and capriciousness. Trump has all of them in spades. The more power he concentrates in his own hands, the dimmer the long-term outlook for American democracy becomes. His reelection could mean lights out."
Feb 9th 2020
EXTRACT: "Does this mean that the dream of European unity is over? Does the exodus of a member state obliterate the vision of Victor Hugo and Václav Havel? Does Europe now fit the description of what the great American president Abraham Lincoln called a house divided against itself? Not necessarily. History is more imaginative than we are. The EU still has the option of keeping Britain close in heart and mind. We can still benefit from our absent partner, by resurrecting the partnership through our actions."
Feb 7th 2020
EXTRACT: "There, no formal change from a republican system to an autocratic system ever occurred. Rather, there was an erosion of the republican institutions, a steady creep over decades of authoritarian decision-making, and the consolidation of power within one individual – all with the name “Republic” preserved.........Will the GOP-led Senate’s endorsement of this defense clear a path for more of the manifestations – and consequences – of authoritarianism? The case of the Roman Republic’s rapid slippage into an autocratic regime masquerading as a republic shows how easily that transformation can occur."
Feb 7th 2020
EXTRACT: "So all that is why Cramer is talking about the death knell of petroleum stocks. We probably agree on almost nothing else, but when people are right, you have to give them credit. He is right."
Feb 3rd 2020
EXTRACT: "........as the citizens of the remaining 27 states have observed the destabilising impact that the referendum decision has had on British politics, they have been inoculated against the desire to secede from the EU. Outside the UK, national-populist parties have moderated their anti-EU rhetoric and nowadays profess to want to change the EU from within instead of destroying it."
Feb 2nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Senators will soon decide whether to dismiss the articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump without hearing any witnesses. In making this decision, I believe they should consider words spoken at the Constitutional Convention, when the Founders decided that an impeachment process was needed to provide a “regular examination,” to quote Benjamin Franklin. A critical debate took place on July 20, 1787, which resulted in adding the impeachment clause to the U.S. Constitution. Franklin, the oldest and probably wisest delegate at the Constitutional Convention, said that when the president falls under suspicion, a “regular and peaceable inquiry” is needed."
Feb 1st 2020
EXTRACT: "Britain will be celebrating its glorious independence from the complications of international cooperation at a time when the intellectual, political, and economic hostility between China’s communist leadership and liberal democracies is becoming ever clearer. If liberal democracy is to survive, it must stand up for itself. And we should be under no illusion: open societies under the rule of law, from the Americas to Europe, Africa, and Asia, are in China’s hostile sights. The West should not aim to encircle or pen in China. But liberal democracies cannot allow it to distort international norms in its own favor."
Jan 29th 2020
EXTRACT: "Switzerland and Denmark have gone furthest into negative territory, both offering unprecedentedly low rates of -0.75%. The Swiss National Bank, which has kept its rate at this level since 2015, signalled recently that it intends to stick with this experiment and is not ruling out going even more negative. It has said that negative rates were boosting the economy and that the country’s fundamentals were not being significantly affected."
Jan 28th 2020
EXTRACT: "Electricity will dominate the future global energy system. Currently, it accounts for only 20% of final energy demand,......Without assuming any fundamental technological breakthroughs, we could certainly build by 2050 a global economy in which electricity met 65-70% of final energy demand,....."
Jan 27th 2020
EXTRACT: "With the world economy operating dangerously close to stall speed, the confluence of ever-present shocks and a sharply diminished trade cushion raises serious questions about financial markets’ increasingly optimistic view of global economic prospects."
Jan 26th 2020
EXTRACT: "Gibson’s diagnosis is supported by international attitude surveys. One found that most Americans rarely think about the future and only a few think about the distant future. When they are forced to think about it, they don’t like what they see. Another poll by the Pew Research Centre found that 44% of Americans were pessimistic about what lies ahead. But pessimism about the future isn’t just limited to the US. One international poll of over 400,000 people from 26 countries found that people in developed countries tended to think that the lives of today’s children will be worse than their own. And a 2015 international survey by YouGov found that people in developed countries were particularly pessimistic. For instance, only 4% of people in Britain thought things were improving. This contrasted with 41% of Chinese people who thought things were getting better."
Jan 24th 2020
EXTRACT: "........while over 80% of the ECB scheme buys government and other public sector bonds, a huge chunk still goes into corporate bonds and other assets. At the time of writing, the ECB holds €263 billion worth of corporate bonds – a very significant amount in relation to individual firms and the sectors in question. According to the ECB, 29% of these bonds were issued by French firms, 25% by German firms and 11% each by Spanish and Italian firms. As at September 2017, the sectors they came from included utilities (16%), infrastructure (12%), automotive (10%) and energy (7%)."
Jan 17th 2020
EXTRACT: "Thanks to cutting-edge digital technology, cars are increasingly like “smartphones on wheels”, so manufacturers need to have access to the latest patented 4G and 5G technologies essential to navigation and communications. But often the companies that hold the patents are reluctant to license them because manufacturers will not accept the high fees involved, which leads to patent disputes and licensing rows."
Jan 13th 2020
EXTRACT: "Recent polling from Pew Research demonstrates how the public’s attitudes toward the US and President Trump have witnessed sharp declines in many nations across the world. In Europe, the Americas, and the Middle East favorable attitudes toward the US went from lows during the years of George W. Bush’s presidency to highs in the early Obama years to lows, once again, in the Trump era. And in our Zogby Research Services (ZRS) polling we found, with a few exceptions, much the same trajectory across the Middle East."
Jan 13th 2020
EXTRACT: "In the absence of a declaration of war against Iran, the killing of a foreign official – by a drone strike on Iraqi territory – was possibly illegal. But such niceties do not perturb Trump. The evidence is that Trump’s decision was taken without consideration of the possible consequences. The national security system established under Dwight D. Eisenhower, designed to prevent such reckless measures, is broken to non-existent, with ever-greater power placed in the hands of the president. If that president is unstable, the entire world has a very serious problem."
Jan 9th 2020
EXTRACT: "It is possible that Trump’s reverential base won’t be sufficient to keep him in the White House past 2020. But such ardent faith is hard to oppose with rational plans to fix this or that problem. That is why it is so unsettling to hear people at the top of the US government speak about politics in terms that rightly belong in church. They are challenging the founding principles of the American Republic, and they might actually win as a result."