So I had a look at the FT’s coverage of the inflation report, and it brought up one of my pet peeves about the commentary on the crisis, namely, measures of economic slack.
The bank of England apparently thinks that there is around 1.5% of slack in the economy. My first pet hate is that “slack” is not adequately defined in this context. Does this mean that Carney thinks that RGDP will develop a new trend line that is only 1.5% higher than the current level and at around 2% a year? Or does this simply mean that at the current moment companies estimate that with their current personnel and facilities they could only increase production by 1.5%.
This is important because there are two types of “slack”, there is the measure of “could we do more right now”, and there is the measure “given greater demand could I deploy more employees, capital, and technology to increase supply”. I am pretty sure the BOE’s estimate is about the former, but the macroeconomically important version is the latter. In other words, the supply side constraints could be soft for a while, if technological improvements since 2008 have enabled greater production, but they just haven’t been deployed due to weak demand.
Lets take a quick look at the RGDP (constant prices):
Does this look like an economy with only 1.5% slack? Is it not possible that in the medium term we might recover nearly all of our lost productivity? Might we not find that as demand grows aggregate supply just continues to quietly grow so that the BOE’s measure remains stuck at 1.5% while GDP grows 4-5% a year for a number of years?
Stolen from an ONS publication, does this look like an economy with only 1.5% slack? Are you telling me that after 7 years of technological progress, the BOE expects slack in GDP to be exhausted before productivity per worker has even reached its 2007 high?
Are we really to expect that some (minor) institutional differences will mean that UK workers will not, over the medium term, enjoy the same advances that have allowed US productivity to grow 20% in the same period? The UK is structurally similar to the US, but the structural differences (might) mean that in the UK we get more hiring first, and productivity growth later, and in the US they get more productivity first, and then more hiring. That certainly seems more plausible to me than that the differences in our institutions mean that the UK will not benefit from the same advances of the US in the long run. In that case, the technology exists already for a 20% rise in productivity in UK workers.
The real problem here is that the BOE is giving a short term definition of slack, where it doesn’t assume anything about the future investment and employment and capital improvement programs of enterprises. It just asks about capacity utilisation right now. Which, immediately following a recession, is a sensible enough thing to do. The problem is, that here we have moved into the medium term. There has been technological progress in that time, and the fact that this is waiting in the wings means that we should not regard current utilisation as in anyway a meaningful indicator of “slack”.
I predict that productivity per worker will recover its century long trend line of 2% a year growth. In that case, “slack” in the economy is more like 15% than 1.5%. Capital spending, training workers on new technology, the rise of robotics and machine learning will do the heavy lifting over the next 3-5 years, and we can expect strong growth along side benign inflation until we approach this productivity trend line.
Articles about Housing Bubbles are ten a penny at the moment, so I thought it was about time for another salvo in my lonely war against the Bubble Obsessed. When I was lying awake last night, it occurred to me that there is not really enough thought about what constitutes “expensive” or “cheap” when it comes to housing. When talking about an item like bread, we can see that over time the price tends to fall slowly as technology and farming improves, but with occasional spikes when there is some type of supply shock which lowers supply. So it makes sense to talk about when bread is expensive by comparing it to recent history. Fashion items, on the other hand, derive part of their value from their exclusivity, so their price relative to wages stays fairly constant to target a given type of consumer.
Then there are financial assets like the stock market, which make new highs most years, because they are a claim on a fraction of a pie which is growing. Since the housing market also a claim on future earnings, via rent, it too should logically make new highs most years.
It is my contention that housing is more of a luxury good than a commodity, and thus I would expect people to have a reasonably stable preference about what fraction of their income they are prepared to spend on housing. Thus, house prices are expensive, only in so far as they grow more than the total spending (perhaps per capita) in an economy. This makes sense, if my wages grow over time, I would expect to try to move to a better house, and pay more rent. Since, on average, everyone’s wages grow over time, so must house prices. Running to stand still as it were.
The following shows the change in the house price index relative first to NGDP (=total spending), and secondly to the median wage.
The first thing to note is how amazingly stable both these measures are over time. Particularly house prices/median wages. It was basically flat for decades. On the housing/nominal spending measure, US housing has never been cheaper! The difference in trajectory is a measure of the fact that median wages have not risen in line with total spending due to declining labour share over the period. It is interesting that prices relative to median wages really did show a marked increase in the 2000s, but that is all but fully unwound, and I look forward to watching house prices going flat relative to median wages for many more decades.
I tried to recreate the same graph for the UK, but FRED seems to only have rental income. However, that is interesting in its own right, so lets look at rental prices vs NGDP and vs the median wage in the UK:
This data goes over a much shorter period than the US data above. However, its pretty clear that the cost of renting has been in a reasonably long term decline throughout the nineties. I look forward to watching the cost of renting resume its decade long decline.
Its also interesting that the crash has actually made housing more expensive since it caused wages to fall much faster than house prices. A salutory warning to the Bundesbank and Swedish who seem determined to make the case that you should try to put a lid on house prices by raising rates.
Anyway, the main point is clear – forget the media’s obsession. Housing is cheap by the most important measure – its cost relative to median wages.
Also, if you are a BOE Hawk determined to raise rates to put the break on the housing market, then have another look at the evidence. And then don’t.
PS:If someone can find the data for UK house prices in a handy format somewhere, I will redo the US graph for the UK.
I haven’t read this book, but judging from the blog reviews, it seems that is central point is that if the return on capital is higher than economic growth, then the owners of capital should become richer over time.
However, it seems that there are certain problems with this thesis. Firstly, an economy has an optimal capital stock, and thus can carry only a finite amount of wealth into the future. Attempts to save beyond this simply drive the return on capital negative. In the long run then, the capital stock approaches the optimal, and the return on savings should approach zero. Given the epic lack of capital in EM, we are still some 50-100 years from that, at least. On the other hand, we can comfort ourselves with the thought that even if Piketty is correct now, he won’t be correct forever.
If we think that the inequality in capital ownership is a problem, there is a simple solution. Simply have world governments buy up large quantities of the capital stock, say half of the stock and bond markets over a few decades. By reducing the supply of capital, savers, and by extension the wealthy, would have to compete for a smaller and smaller share of the optimal capital stock.
In the short term, this will drive up the price, but in the long run it limits the supply of available savings vehicles, and exposes the wealthy to inflation by giving them the choice between holding cash, or buying capital at such prices that returns are bound to be negative.
Of course, it seems that this would not be a politically acceptable move. For one thing, people seem to believe in the divine right of savers to reasonable returns. Of course, no one seems to equate the very wealthy with `hard working’ savers, but economically they are largely identical. To make it politically acceptable, the government would have to provide bonds at a reasonable rate of return. This could be managed, simply start selling bonds directly to savers at some limit such that no one person can own more than, say $500,000. This is not very different from the UK’s pensioner bonds.
Driving down inequality by having the government buy up the capital stock. Its just the modern repackaging of Marxist ideas, but the difference is that we could do it now, without the terrible side effects. Just buy ETF’s and the government can be a silent partner in the world’s stock and bond markets. No interference in workings of capitalism, just lots more capital.
Ever since I first read “I pencil”, I have been somewhat in awe of market economies. The ability of price signals to transmit demand along supply chains containing millions of individuals is akin to magic. The market appears almost limitless in its ability to reshape the contours of labour and capital in order to produce goods that we never even knew that we wanted. It is the ultimate democracy: every £ of spending is one vote, directing research and development, production, and marketing.
Just as, in the case of a pencil, it is impossible to derive precise causal links between buying a pencil and the production forecasts of saw-makers, so it is not possible to see how our consumption drives the research and development which produces new products. Nevertheless, the link is real.
Thus, when you buy clothes, you are voting for the development of new clothes. When you buy clothes based on how they look rather than how they last, you are driving research into sartorial elegance over the production of hard wearing fabrics. As consumers, we hold ultimate responsibility for the make up of the market. If we stopped demanding the latest fashions, we could instead direct that energy and talent into Medical research, or ending poverty. I, for one, have every faith that the market can make huge strides towards improving some of our most intractable social problems. All it takes is demand. Sadly, often those most affected are those with no voice. If you are poor, your problems are invisible to the Market. So who will speak on their behalf?
Thus we come at last to the point. When you make a charitable donation, you are voting for a solution to that problem. So vote for an End to Cancer, or an End to Homelessness, or for the Elimination of Poverty. Vote to end Child Trafficking, or the Sexual Exploitation of Vulnerable Women. Together, we can reshape our economy, and build a better world. All it takes is a little charity.
Charitable giving in the UK by adults is currently less than 0.5% of GDP.
Abenomics is having a huge effect on output compared, which is somewhat masked by demographic decline in the working population.
So when will the ECB realise that QE is an effective policy tool which increases output during a depression, and get on with saving the EZ?
…since labor costs are a large fraction of a firm’s total costs of production, rising wages and compensation should put pressure on firms to pass these higher costs on as higher prices. We have several reasons to doubt the accuracy of this view. First, if a wage increase is brought about by increased labor productivity, it will not create inflationary pressure.3 Second, a wage increase will not create inflationary pressure if it leads to a squeeze in profits because a firm cannot pass along cost increases. No firm inherits the right to simply “mark-up” the prices of its output as a constant proportion above its costs; competitive market pressures strongly influence the pricing decisions of firms. Finally, causation could work in the opposite direction: An increase in aggregate demand may permit firms to raise the price of their products, and the resulting increase in profits would lead workers to demand higher wages in future negotiations.
And just in case you missed their meaning…
It turns out that the vast majority of the published evidence suggests that there is little reason to believe that wage inflation causes price inflation. In fact, it is more often found that price inflation causes wage inflation. Our recent research, which updates and expands on the current literature, also provides little support for the view that wage gains cause inflation. Moreover, wage inflation does a very poor job of predicting price inflation throughout the 1990s, while money growth and productivity growth sometimes do a better job. The policy conclusion to be drawn is that wage inflation, whether measured using labor compensation, wages, or unit-labor-costs growth, is not a reliable predictor of inflationary pressures.
So if the hawks could all stop clamouring that a tighter labour market means the start of a wage-price spiral of death, that would be great, and dare I say it, rational.
There seems to be a certain segment of the economic commentariat who believe that whatever the reason, tightening is the answer. The latest reason to tighten is that there is evidence that the labour market is tightening. Wage growth in the US is staging a modest recovery.
However, this does not imply that the CPI is going to rise. Lets have a quick look at average hourly compensation vs inflation since 2000.
We can see that inflation and wage growth typically track each other fairly closely. This correlation is likely spurious, an artefact of the fact that productivity growth and population growth have similar magnitudes. I am more interested in the effect of total compensation on inflation. Since the argument goes that wage growth leads to inflation, lets note first that wage growth is still far below historical norms.
Inflation is generated when demand outstrips supply. Labour market tightening means that workers have better bargaining positions, and then can bargain for better wages. Wage growth is coming, and wage growth means rising AD, but inflation comes only when AD outstrips AS. There are two reasons that that this might not happen at once:
(1) Productivity growth. It is a feature of recessions generally that Capex falls because companies do not invest in productivity enhancements in an environment of weak demand. Technological progress marches on regardless, and the result is that there is a steady stream of available but unbuilt productivity enhancements that a company could invest in. Thus we should expect that productivity growth could stage a catch up. This is supported by the general observation that RGDP has grown on the same trendline for decades, and it would be a remarkable coincidence if trend growth had a secular change exactly at a time that happened to have a financial crises.
(2) Corporate Profit Margins. CPI measures consumer prices, which is not quite the same thing as monetary inflation. This is punishing on the way down, when consumer prices do not fall in line with the changing money demand, but can be beneficial on the way up. For example, a decline in corporate profit margins as a tighter labour market allows workers to capture more of their marginal product can give you rising demand without rising consumer prices.
The economy is complicated, and no one can predict what will happen with perfect certainty, but you should not give undue credence to those who tell you that rising wage growth is certain to generate inflationary pressure. As in the late nineties, wage growth can be large while inflation is low for years at a time. We have two plausible stories that can support the hypothesis that this is a likely outcome, it is certainly where I would place my chips.