Why does employment fall when there is a negative shock to aggregate demand? Because nominal wages are sticky. Why does employment rise when there is a positive shock to aggregate demand? Because nominal wages are sticky.
Labour and HM Treasury are arguing about whether British living standards are rising based on some measure of real wages, and I find this very annoying.
The phrase “cost of living crisis” is still stupid. Labour spent most of the last three years arguing that the government should be doing more aggressive demand stimulus. Well, guess what the effect of faster AD growth would be, Dear Eds? That’s right, an even faster rise in the “cost of living”. And because nominal wages are sticky that would mean even lower real wages… oh and hopefully, even higher employment. That is the point in doing demand stimulus.
That’s what Abenomics is trying to achieve in Japan, following bog standard New Keynesian macro policy for the ZLB. That’s what happened when FDR and Chamberlain left the gold standard in the 1930s, it raised “the cost of living.” The reason “Old New Keynesians” argue we need fiscal stimulus at the ZLB is to “create inflationary pressure” because you think you monetary policy can’t “get traction”. Yet the Two Eds are arguing UK has “too much inflationary pressure” even WITHOUT fiscal stimulus… so just what was the point of all those “too far, too fast” arguments? Why does anybody still take this garbage seriously?
And HM Treasury’s argument that we should look at real wages to see whether living standards are rising is just as stupid. Almost any available measure of real wages rose in 2009… so was that good for “hardworking people” (™ The Tory Party)? Only if you ignore the inconvenient fact that a million people discovered they were suddenly unable to work at all, whether “hard” or not.
This data is sufficient to demonstrate, in my view, that “living standards” are rising:
Now enough stupid arguments, and get people back to work.
The UK inflation rate fell to 2.0% in December 2013. (!!!) This cannot pass without comment. What does this mean for UK macro policy? I will try to be consistent here. The two most important things about inflation are that:
a) Movement of inflation can represent supply-side or demand-side factors.
b) Macro policy is forward-looking; the inflation rate is backward-looking.
First, addressing (a). UK inflation is much lower than recent BoE forecasts; the February 2013 forecast expected the CPI to rise 3.1% in the year to 2013 Q4, the outturn is 2.1%. That’s a big miss! But real GDP is also much stronger than expected, and stronger by around the same magnitude. It’s likely we’ve seen at least 2%+ RGDP growth in the year to Q4, yet that February forecast was for 1.1% RGDP growth over the same period.
So this suggests either that the BoE is very bad at modelling the short run aggregate supply curve (which determines the split between inflation and output in the short run, given AD)… or that the curve shifted. I would say that both of these are somewhat true. The sharp rise in Sterling since mid-2013 is an obvious candidate for a supply shock, though it will have equal and opposite effects on different sectors.
(An obligatory dig at liquidity trappists on Sterling: nobody really believes that a central bank which is trying but failing to “create enough inflation” would stop printing money and then watch its currency appreciate by 10% over just nine months. The UK’s “liquidity trap” is a Very Serious Theory, in the Krugmanite sense of “Very Serious”.)
Moving on to (b). Does the current inflation rate tell us anything about whether monetary policy is too tight, looking forward? No, no, no. If you don’t answer “no, no, no” to that question, then you must also argue that the 5.2% inflation rate in September 2008 or September 2011 was telling us something useful about monetary policy at the time.
Relative to anything close to my ideal macro policy (say NGDPLT with a return to the 2009/10 trend), monetary policy is of course still much too tight. Relative to the actual goals of UK monetary policy I would be fairly relaxed about the outlook. The domestic equity market (FTSE 250) is rising 25-30% y/y. Inflation expectations are stable and consistent with hitting 2% inflation. I’d guess this is consistent with a continuation of 4-5% y/y NGDP growth. Those who thought running inflation 3.2% above target was not a sufficient reason for tightening monetary policy should also be relaxed about inflation going below target… or else admit that targeting inflation should not be a goal of macro policy in the first place.
No post is complete without a graph. It is interesting that there has been something of a decoupling of UK and US inflation expectations; the decline in the TIPS spread since early 2013 has not been matched by a decline in gilt market implied RPI. This stands in contrast to what happened to 2010 and 2011.
N.B. Yes, this graph compares apples (US expected CPI) with oranges (UK expected RPI), and the discontinuity in January 2013 caused by the RPI non-reform further distorts the validity of the UK data. But both countries have a 2% inflation target. Expected UK RPI of around 3-3.5% is consistent with expected UK CPI around 2%. And where’s that NGDP futures market?
The ONS delivered a variety of Christmas presents this week in the form of the labour market data (which is very good, per Lars), and the Q3 national accounts. There is bad news and good news in the GDP revisions.
First the bad news: the impressive Q3 nominal GDP growth rate has been revised down from 6.9% (q/q annualized) to a still-respectable 5.7%. The good news is that the level of nominal GDP has been revised up for recent quarters. This moves the year-on-year growth rate up from 3.8% to 4.5% over the four quarters to 2013 Q3.
The “double-dip recession” has reappeared at the beginning of 2012, though the latter half now looks better. The revisions make 2012 look even stranger; Q4 nominal GDP was revised up to a growth rate of +5.5% (annualized) and yet real GDP growth is still recorded as falling that quarter!
Here is the data, table at quarterly rates of GDP (annualized), and chart of annual GVA growth, as usual:
Keynesians love to say that the deficit will come down with growth. This is 50% wrong, because when Keynesians talk about “growth” we know they mean real GDP growth 100% of the time. But it is nominal GDP growth which determines the course of the public finances; tax revenue follows nominal GDP and NGDP is the denominator in debt/GDP. (When we talk about “debt/GDP” it is the only time that “nominal” is implicit!)
Japan had positive real GDP growth for some of its “lost decade”; but it never had any nominal GDP growth. That is why Japan’s public sector debt/GDP went off the charts; not merely because Japan had insufficient real growth (though that is probably also true).
Keynesians are also 50% right, because under inflation targeting real GDP growth “determines” nominal GDP growth. This assumption is embedded in many macro models; we read that improving productivity will improve the public finances, which is true because higher productivity ⇒ higher real GDP growth ⇒ higher nominal GDP growth – if inflation is always held constant.
Maybe I’m beating a dead horse here, but Keynesians should be more open about the insane implications of macro models which embed the assumption of price stability. For example, such models tell us that it is roughly true that the collapse in productivity since 2007 has caused the collapse in the public finances.
It was very good to see some monetarist analysis in the UK media this week – Ed Conway reported that “Households Raid Savings At Record Rate” for Sky News, and followed this with a blog post. The “raid” is actually a switch from long to short-term deposit accounts, which started mid-2012, as Ed’s graph shows.
Though the traditional broad money aggregates are growing steadily and at “decent” rates (M4ex at 4-5% this year), this shift towards liquidity naturally has a more profound impact on the Divisia indices. I would treat this more as an indicator of current monetary conditions; Duncan Brown has a very nice post earlier this year exploring the relation between UK monetary aggregates and nominal spending in great detail.
Here, anyway, is the current state of the data, showing M4ex, household divisia and nominal spending:
I started wondering about Switzerland.
Consider what would happen if Swiss productivity falls 50% tomorrow. What would happen to the level of Swiss output? Well, we know that Switzerland is at the ZLB, and so Swiss real GDP is determined by Swiss fiscal policy… right? Therefore, absent any change in Swiss fiscal policy, Swiss real GDP would stay the same, and the 50% fall in productivity implies that Swiss workers would immediately double their number of hours worked, so they could retain the same level of real income (output). That logic is unassailable. There is no other possible way that the Swiss could keep real GDP the same except by a doubling in employment, defined in terms of hours worked.
Obviously that argument is totally bonkers. Who really believes that the level of Swiss output is unrelated to the level of Swiss productivity? Now read the argument repeated endlessly by the likes of Martin Wolf (H/T Mr. Portes), writing today on the Autumn Statement:
Unfortunately, this heartwarming performance on employment is a mirror image of the dismal performance on productivity. Ultimately, real wages have fallen because output per hour has fallen. That has softened job losses. The OBR assumes the past productivity losses, relative to the trend, will not be recouped. Yet it hopes growth of output per hour will recover to close to 2 per cent by 2015.
“output per hour has fallen. That has softened job losses.”
Falling productivity is the mirror image of rising employment… because we know that UK output is demand-determined – is determined by George Osborne’s fiscal austerity.
I don’t see why that argument is any less bonkers. Does Martin Wolf really believe that the level of UK output is unrelated to the level of productivity? That is exactly what he argues.
The OBR’s March 2011 forecast appears to be the first time they published a forecast for total hours worked. I’ve graphed below the change in the level of UK real GDP since 2011 Q1 in three different ways:
1) The OBR forecast,
2) What the current ONS data say actually happened,
3) A supply-side counterfactual derived from:
a) The expected path of UK productivity (output/hour) from the OBR forecast, and
b) The actual observed path of UK total hours worked from the current ONS data.
This simple 5-minute counterfactual implies that the productivity collapse more than explains the entire shortfall of output (vs expected) since 2011. By 2013 Q3, hours worked is 3% higher than expected, and productivity is 7% lower.
Now consider the “fiscalist” claims that the weakness of UK real GDP since 2010 is evidence that the “fiscal multiplier” is real and large. That works perfectly, but not as a demand-side argument; as a supply-side argument it fits the data extremely well.
2.198 A garden bridge for London – The government will provide a £30 million contribution to support the construction of a new Garden Bridge across the River Thames in London. This will supplement funding from Transport for London and private donations.
These aren’t the supply-side reforms we were looking for,
What’s the appropriate name for progressives complaining about the “wrong sort of growth”… sado-Keynesians? ”Economic recovery is based on repeating the sins of the past” … ”We’re back in the old growth model” etc, etc. Some things are said best by Paul Krugman:
PAUL KRUGMAN: Everybody wants economics to be a morality play. Everybody wants it to be a tale of sin and excess, and then the punishment for sin.
And this notion that we had a bubble, we had runaway stuff, we had bankers run wild, therefore, the economy must suffer a sustained slump, and anything you do to mitigate that is somehow enabling the sin and we will pay for it, that’s …
PAUL SOLMAN: Even though there were sins?
PAUL KRUGMAN: Even though there were sins. But economics is not a morality play. There is nothing about the fact that bankers made bad loans in 2005 that says that ordinary workers should be out of work in the year 2013.
This is what Resolution’s Matthew Whittaker had to say about inflation in a piece for the Independent earlier this month, titled “Why the Bank of England should target wages as well as unemployment“:
Nothing at all. There is no mention of the word “inflation”, nor of the “CPI”, nor even “prices” in a piece purportedly about UK macroeconomic policy – about UK monetary policy. I’m sure Matthew is a good guy, and I’m not trying to pick on him specifically, but that is a beautiful illustration of how I see centre-left/progressive economists addressing UK inflation over the last five years. The motto is “Don’t mention the
Yet at the same time the centre-left political movement has been obsessing about inflation – that is literally what the “cost of living crisis” means. Yes, you can come up with a different translation of that phrase, but the CPI really is how we measure “the cost of living”. It is going up, and that is a “crisis”. In fact it is even worse: progressives love to exaggerate the extent to which the “cost of living” has risen, by deflating nominal wages by the RPI (rather than the CPI) to show just how badly real wages are suffering.
This is all both depressing and frustrating to watch. I’d roughly agree with Mr. Whittaker’s eventual conclusion, that targeting nominal wages (or nominal incomes) is a good idea. But he gets there from talking first about real wages, and then median wages (which is almost as bad), without use of the word “nominal”, so it is not totally clear he even wants a nominal target, but let’s assume he does. And so does Mr. Whittaker want the Bank to continue targeting the CPI… and unemployment… and add nominal wages as well? Really? All of those things at once?
I have a relatively simple narrative about what the BoE has been doing for the last five years: roughly what they’ve always done, keeping the “risks to inflation broadly balanced”… around the 2% target. I construct that narrative based on what the MPC have been saying for the last five years, month after month after month. What that means in practice is that the Bank steer a course for nominal demand (NGDP) which is sufficient to keep the CPI on target.
And so the Bank defend their policy stance based on those damn CPI numbers. Is that wrong? Why should it be – hitting the CPI is their legal mandate! How can anybody possibly argue that UK macro policy was too tight ex post, at the same as attacking the government because “the CPI is too damn high”. That would be utterly ludicrous… and it is the critique of Coalition macro repeated endlessly for the last three years.
There are more complicated narratives too. Maybe that unexpected shocks to nominal demand have resulted somehow more in lower measured productivity and output, less in lower prices/inflation. OK, maybe that is a bit true, and I hope it is a bit true. But if that is even a little bit true, then inflation targeting is the worst possible monetary policy you can have, and you need to be openly screaming about that fact. ”Inflation targeting is not working“, you might write.
Instead the best and brightest on the centre-left have been producing critiques of UK macro policy along the lines of:
a) Monetary policy is not a panacea. (Well, thanks so much. Jens Weidmann totally agrees with you.)
b) We need more infrastructure spending. (Brilliant. And what about macro policy?)
c) No really, we need more infrastructure spending. (Yeah, but that’s not a macro policy, is it?)
d) I insist there is a big output gap because X, Y, Z. (Fantastic! The Bank are still targeting the CPI.)
e) Infrastructure spending? (Please stop.)
f) How about we target a real variable like unemployment? (Yeah, the 1970s were brilliant.)
All of that serves only to duck the real question… the nominal question. The nominal question appears to me to be remarkably simple:
What is more important: (1) output/consumer price stability, or (2) nominal wage/income stability?
If you want “price stability” then you can’t have nominal income stability. We’ve tried that. Productivity shocks are horrible, and inflation-targeting seems to make them much worse. And if you want nominal wage/income stability then you can’t have “price stability”. We need to be open about that, with the politicians and the public; “price stability” was a good idea which failed. Can we do better?
Now, please, get off the fence and decide what you really, really want.
Egon Spengler: There’s something very important I forgot to tell you.
Peter Venkman: What?
Spengler: Don’t cross the streams.
Spengler: It would be bad.
Venkman: I’m fuzzy on the whole good/bad thing. What do you mean, “bad”?