Monday, March 30, 2015

Causes and Effects of Wage Growth

Over here, a huge stack of exams, sitting ungraded since… no, I can't say, it's too embarrassing.  There, a grant proposal that extensive experimentation has shown will not, in fact, write itself. And I still owe a response to all the responses and criticism to my Disgorge the Cash paper for Roosevelt. So naturally, I thought this morning would be a good time to sit down and ask what we can learn from comparing the path of labor costs in the Employment Cost Index compared with the ECEC.

The BLS explains the difference between the two measures:
The Employment Cost Index, or ECI, measures changes in employers’ cost of compensating workers, controlling for changes in the industrial-occupational composition of jobs. … The ECI is intended to indicate how the average compensation paid by employers would have changed over time if the industrial-occupational composition of employment had not changed… [It] controls for employment shifts across 2-digit industries and major occupations. The Employer Costs for Employee Compensation, or ECEC… is designed to measure the average cost of employee compensation. Accordingly, the ECEC is calculated by multiplying each job quote by its sample weight.
In other words, the ECI measures the change in average hourly compensation, controlling for shifts in the mix of industries and occupations. The ECEC simply measures the overall change in hourly compensation, including the effects of both changes in compensation for particular jobs, and changes in the mix of jobs.

Here are the two series for the full period both are available (1987-2014), both raw and adjusted for inflation ("real").

What do we learn from this?

First, the two series are closely correlated. This tells us that most of the variation in compensation is driven by changes within occupations and sectors, not by shifts in employment between occupations and sectors. This is clearly true at annual frequencies but it seems to be true over longer periods as well. For instance, let's compare the behavior of compensation in the five years since the end of the recession to the last period of strong wage growth, 1997-2004. The difference between the two periods in the average annual increase in nominal wages is almost exactly the same according to the two indexes — 2.7 points by the ECI, 2.6 points by the ECEC. In other words, slower wage growth in the recent period is entirely due to slower wages growth within particular kinds of jobs. Shifts in the composition of jobs have played no role at all.

On the face of it, the fact that almost all variation in aggregate compensation is driven by changes within employment categories, seems to favor a labor/political story of slower wage growth as opposed to a China or robots story. The most obvious versions of the latter two stories involve a disproportionate loss of high-wage jobs, whereas stories about weaker bargaining position of labor predict slower compensation growth within job categories. I wouldn't ask this one piece of evidence to carry a lot of weight in that debate. (I think it's stronger evidence against a skills-based explanation of slower wage growth.)

While the two series in general move together, the ECEC is more strongly cyclical. In other words, during periods of high unemployment and falling wages in general, there is also a shift in the composition of employment towards lower-paid occupations. And during booms, when unemployment is low and wages are rising in general, there is a shift in the direction of higher-paid job categories. [1] Insofar as wages and labor productivity are correlated, this cyclical shift between higher-wage and lower-wage sectors could help explain why employment is more stable than output. I've had the idea for a while that the Okun's law relationship -- the less than one-for-one correlation between employment and output growth -- reflects not only hiring/firing costs and overhead labor, but also shifts in the composition of employment in response to demand. In other words, in addition to employment adjustment costs at the level of individual enterprises, the Okun coefficient reflects cyclically varying degrees of "disguised unemployment" in Joan Robinson's sense. [2] This is an argument I'd like to develop properly someday, since it seems fairly obvious, potentially important and empirically tractable, and I haven't seen anyone else make it. [3] (I'm sure someone has.)

What's going on in the most recent year? Evidently, there has been no acceleration of wage growth for a given job, but the mix of jobs created has shifted toward higher-wage categories. This suggests that to the extent wages are rising faster, it's not a sign of labor-market pressures. (Some guy from Deutsche Bank interprets the same divergence as support for raising rates, which it's hard not to feel is deliberately dishonest.) As for which particular higher-wage job categories are growing more rapidly -- I don't know. And, what's going on in 1995? That year has by far the biggest divergence between the two series. It could well be an artifact of some kind, but if not, seems important. A large fall in the ECEC relative to the ECI could be a signature of deindustrialization. I'm not exploring the question further now (those exams…) but it would be interesting to ask analogous question with some series that extends earlier. It's likely that if we were looking at the 1970s-1980s, we would find a much larger share of variation in wage growth explained by compositional shifts.

Should we adjust for inflation? I give the "real" series here, but I am in general skeptical that there is any sense in which an ex post adjustment of money flows for inflation is more real than, say, The Real World on MTV. I am even more doubtful than usual in this case, because we are normally told to think that changes in nominal wages are the main determinant of inflation. Obviously in that case we have to think of the underlying labor-market process as determining a change in nominal wage. Still, if we do compute a "real" index, things look a little different. Real ECI rises 14 percent over the full 1987-2014 period, while real ECEC rises only 5 percent. So now we can say that about two-thirds of the increase in real wages within particular job categories over the past three decades, was offset by a shift in the composition of employment toward lower-paid job categories. (This is all in the first decade, 1987-1996, however.) This way of looking at things makes sense if we think the underlying wage-setting process, whatever it is, operates in terms of a basket of consumption goods.

This invites another question: How true is it that nominal wages move with inflation?

Conventional economics wisdom suggests we can separate wages into nominal and "real" components. This is on two not quite consistent grounds. First, we might suppose that workers and employers are implicitly negotiating contracts in terms of a fixe quantity of labor time for, on the one hand, a basket of wage goods, and on the other, a basket of produced goods (which will be traded for consumption good for the employer). This contract only incidentally happens to be stated in terms of money. The ultimate terms on which consumption goods for the workers exchange with consumption goods for the employer should not be affected by the units the trade happens to be denominated in. (In this respect the labor contract is just like any other contract.) This is the idea behind Milton Friedman's "natural rate of unemployment" hypothesis. In Friedman's story, causality runs strictly from inflation to unemployment. High inflation is not immediately recognized by workers, leading them to overestimate the basket of goods their wages will buy. So they work more hours than they would have chosen if they had correctly understood the situation. From this point of view, there's no cost to low unemployment in itself; the problem is just that unemployment will only be low if high inflation has tricked workers into supply too much labor. Needless to say, this is not the way anyone in the policy world thinks about the inflation-unemployment nexus today, even if they continue to use Friedman's natural rate language.

The alternative view is that workers and employers negotiate a money-wage, and then output prices are set as a markup over that wage. In this story, causality runs from unemployment to inflation. While Friedman thought an appropriate money-supply growth rate was the necessary and sufficient condition for stable prices, with any affect on unemployment just  collateral damage from changes in inflation, in this story keeping unemployment at an appropriate level is a requirement for stabilizing prices. This is the policy orthodoxy today.  (So while people often say that NAIRU is just another name for the natural rate of unemployment, in fact they are different concepts.) I think there are serious conceptual difficulties with the orthodox view, but we'll save those for another time. Suffice it to say that causality is supposed to run from low unemployment, to faster nominal wage growth, to higher inflation. So the question is: Is it really the case that faster nominal wage growth is associated with higher inflation?

Wage Growth and Inflation, 1947-2014

A simple scatterplot suggests a fairly tight relationship, especially at higher levels of wage growth and inflation. But if we split the postwar period at 1985, things look very different. In the first period, there's a close relationship — regressing inflation on nominal wage growth gives an R-squared of 0.81. (Although even then the coefficient is significantly less than 1.)

Wage Growth and Inflation, 1947-1985

Since 1985, though, the relationship is much looser, with an R-squared of 0.12. And even is that driven almost entirely by period of falling wages and prices in 2009; remove that and the correlation is essentially zero.

Wage Growth and Inflation, 1986-2014

So while it was formerly true that changes in inflation were passed one for one into changes in nominal wages, and/or changes in nominal wage growth led to similar changes in inflation, neither of those things has been true for quite a while now. In recent decades, faster nominal wage growth does not translate into higher inflation.

Obviously, a few scatterplots aren't dispositive, but they are suggestive. So supposing that there has been a  delinking of wage growth and inflation, what conclusions might we draw? I can think of a couple.

On the one hand, maybe we shouldn't be so dismissive of  the naive view that inflation reduces the standard of living directly, by raising the costs of consumption goods while incomes are unchanged. There seems to be an emerging conventional wisdom in this vicinity. Here for instance is Gillian Tett in the FT, endorsing the BIS view that there's nothing wrong with falling prices as long as asset prices stay high. (Priorities.) In the view of both Keynes (in the GT; he modified it later) and Schumpeter, inflation was associated with higher nominal but lower real wages, deflation with lower nominal but higher real wages. I think this may have been true in the 19th century. It's not impossible it could be true in the future.

On the other hand. If the mission of central banks is price stability, and if there is no reliable association between changes in wage growth and changes in inflation, then it is hard to see the argument for tightening in response to falling unemployment. You really should wait for direct evidence of rising inflation. Yet central banks are as focused on unemployment as ever.

It's perhaps significant in this regard that the authorities in Europe are shifting away from the NAIRU (Non-Accelerating Inflation Rate of Unemployment) and increasingly talking about the NAWRU (Non-Accelerating Wage Rate of Unemployment). If the goal all along has been lower wage growth, then this is what you should expect: When the link between wages and inflation weakens, the response is not to find other tools for controlling inflation, but other arguments for controlling wages. This may be the real content of the "competitiveness" discourse. Elevating competitiveness over price stability as overarching goal of policy lets you keep pushing down wages even when inflation is already low.

Worth noting here: While the ECB's "surrender Dorothy" letter to the Spanish government ordered them to get rid of price indexing, their justification was not, as you might expect, that indexation contributes to inflationary spirals. Rather it was that it is "a structural obstacle to the adjustment of labour costs" and "contribute to hampering competitiveness." [4]  This is interesting. In the old days we would have said, wage indexing is bad because it won't affect real wages, it just leads to higher inflation. But apparently in the new dispensation, we say that wage indexing is bad precisely because it does affect real wages.

[1]  This might seem to contradict the previous point but it doesn't, it's just that the post-2009 recovery period includes both a negative composition shift in 2008-2009, when unemployment was high, and a positive compositional shift in 2014, which cancel each other out.

[2] From A Theory of Employment: "Except under peculiar conditions, a decline in effective demand which reduces the amount of employment offered in the general run of industries will not lead to 'unemployment' in the sense of complete idleness, but will rather drive workers into a number of occupations [such as] selling match-boxes in the Strand, cutting brushwood in the jungles, digging potatoes on allotments which are still open to them. A decline in one sort of employment leads to an increase in another sort, and at first sight it may appear that, in such a case, a decline in effective demand does not cause unemployment at all. But the matter must be more closely examined. In all those occupations which the dismissed workers take up, their productivity is less than in the occupations that they have left."

[3] The only piece I know of that makes the connection between demand and productivity variation across sectors is this excellent article by John Eatwell (which unfortunately doesn't seem to be available online), but it is focused on long run variation, not cyclical.

[4] The ECB's English is not the most felicitous, is it? The Spanish version is "contribuyen a dificultar la competitividad y el crecimiento," which also doesn't strike me as a phrase that a native speaker would write. Maybe it sounds better in the original German.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

A Most Violent Year

I just watched this movie.

Oscar Isaacs plays the owner of a fuel oil company in 1981, the peak year of violent crime in New York City. Needless to say, it's an industry in which organized crime is salient, in real life and of course double in the movies. But he just wants to sell fuel oil. One way of looking at it, is it's The Sopranos from the point of view of the people they preyed on. Another way, it's the kind of movie Deirdre McCloskey used to call for, a celebration of bourgeois virtue. I don't know if McCloskey would like the results in this particular case. What's very clear here is how much bourgeois virtue depends on, or is constituted by, its dialectical relationship with the liberal order on the one hand, the rule of law; and on the other hand the personal loyalties of family and tribe. Your status as a business owner depends on your relationship to your wife, children, in-laws, on the one hand, and to the agents of the state on the other. The capitalist is always an embodied human being, never the pure personification of capital. (It's worth noting that Isaacs' key counterparties are a Hasidic clan and a grandfather-granddaughter operation.)

We also see the void at the heart of the capitalist ethic. Several times, other characters ask Isaacs why it's so important to him that his business keep growing. His answers range from "Just because" to "I don't understand the question." These exchanges reminded me of a line from Nietzsche that Bob Fitch used to describe real estate speculators:
We must not ask the money-making banker the reason for his restless activity, it is foolish. The active roll as the stone rolls, according to the stupidity of mechanics.
Isaacs' performance is quite affecting, and it's clear that his character has real human connections to his family, his employees, and his business peers. That only makes it more effective when we see how much his concrete choices come down to "the stupidity of mechanics."

The depiction of New York back in the day feels real. The dialogue is smart and the camerawork and sound are effective, in my uniformed judgement. It's a good movie, I recommend it.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

A Quick Point on Models

According to Keynes the purpose of economics is "to provide ourselves with an organised and orderly method of thinking out particular problems"; it is "a way of thinking ... in terms of models joined to the art of choosing models which are relevant to the contemporary world." (Quoted here.)

I want to amplify on that just a bit. The test of a good model is not whether it corresponds to the true underlying structure of the world, but whether it usefully captures some of the regularities in the concrete phenomena we observe. There are lots of different regularities, more or less bounded in time, space and other dimensions, so we are going to need lots of different models, depending on the questions we are asking and the setting we are asking them in. Thus the need for the "art of choosing".

I don't think this point is controversial in the abstract. But people often lose sight of it. Obvious case: Piketty and "capital". A lot of the debate between Piketty and his critics on the left has focused on whether there really is, in some sense, a physical quantity of capital, or not. I don't think we need to have this argument.

We observe "capital" as a set of money claims, whose aggregate value varies in relation to other observable monetary aggregates (like income) over time and across space. There is a component of that variation that corresponds to the behavior of a physical stock -- increasing based on identifiable inflows (investment) and decreasing based on identifiable outflows (depreciation). Insofar as we are interested in that component of the observed variation, we can describe it using models of capital as a physical stock. The remaining components (the "residual" from the point of view of a model of physical K) will require a different set of models or stories. So the question is not, is there such a thing as a physical capital stock? It's not even, is it in general useful to think about capital as a physical stock? The question is, how much of the particular variation we are interested is accounted for by the component corresponding to the evolution of a physical stock? And the answer will depend on which variation we are interested in.

For example, Piketty could say "It's true that my model, which treats K as a physical stock, does not explain much of the historical variation in capital-output ratios at decadal frequencies, like the fall and rise over the course of the 20th century. But I believe it does explain very long-frequency variation, and in particular captures important long-run possibilities for the future." (I think he has in fact said something like this, though I can't find the quote at the moment.) You don't have to agree with him -- you could dispute that his model is a good fit for even the longest-frequency historical variation, or you could argue that the shorter frequency variation is more interesting (and is what his book often seems to be about). But it would be pointless to criticize him on the grounds that there isn't "really" such a thing as a physical capital stock, or that there is no consistent way in principle to measure it. That, to me, would show a basic misunderstanding of what models are.

An example of good scientific practice along these lines is biologists' habit of giving genes names for what happens when gross mutations are induced in them experimentally. Names like eyeless or shaggy or buttonhead: the fly lacks eyes, grows extra hair, or has a head without segments if the gene is removed. It might seem weird to describe genes in terms of what goes wrong when they are removed, as opposed to what they do normally, but I think this practice shows good judgement about what we do and don't know. In particular, it avoids any claim about what the gene is "for." There are many many relationships between a given locus in the genome and the phenotype, and no sense in which any of them is more or less important in an absolute sense. Calling it the "eye gene" would obscure that, make it sound like this is the relationship that exists out in the world, when for all we know the variation in eye development in wild populations is driven by variation in entirely other locuses. Calling it eyeless makes it clear that it's referring to what you observe in a particular experimental context.

EDIT: I hate discussions of methodology. I should not have written this post. (I only did because I liked the gene-naming analogy.)  That said, if you, unlike me, enjoy this sort of thing, Tom Hickey wrote a long and thoughtful response to it. He mentions among others, Tony Lawson, who I would certainly want to read more of if I were going to write about this stuff.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Mark Blyth on the Creditor's Paradise

There's a lot to like in this talk by Mark Blyth, reposted in Jacobin. I will certainly be quoting him in the future on the euro system as a "creditor's paradise." But I can't help noting that the piece repeats exactly the two bits of conventional wisdom that I've been criticizing in my recent posts here on Europe. [1]

First, the uncritical adoption of the orthodox view that if Greece defaults on its debts to the euro system, it will have to leave the single currency.  Admittedly it's just a line in passing. But I really wish that Blyth would not write "default or 'Grexit'," as if they were synonyms. Given that the assumption that they have to go together is one of the strongest weapons on the side of orthodoxy, opponents of austerity should at least pause a moment and ask if they necessarily do.

Second, this:
Austerity as economic policy simply doesn’t work. ... European reforms ... simply ask everyone to become “more competitive” — and who could be against that? Until one remembers that being competitive against each other’s main trading partners in the same currency union generates a “moving average” problem of continental proportions. 
It is statistically absurd to all become more competitive. It’s like everyone trying to be above average. It sounds like a good idea until we think about the intelligence of the children in a classroom. By definition, someone has to be the “not bright” one, even in a class of geniuses.
In comments to my last post, a couple people doubted if critics of austerity really say it's impossible for all the countries in the euro to become more competitive. If you were one of the doubters, here you go: Mark Blyth says exactly that. Notice the slippage in the referent of "everyone," from all countries in the euro system, to all countries in the world. Contra Blyth, since the eurozone is not a closed trading system, it is not inherently absurd to suggest that everyone in it can become more competitive. If competitiveness is measured by the trade balance, it's not only not absurd, it's an accomplished fact.

Obviously -- but I guess it isn't obvious -- I don't personally think that the shift toward trade surpluses throughout the eurozone represents any kind of improvement in the human condition. But it does directly falsify the claim Blyth is making here. And this is a problem if the stance we are trying to criticize austerity from is a neutral technocratic one, in which disagreements are about means rather than ends.

Austerity is part of the program of reinforcing and extending the logic of the market in political and social life. Personally I find that program repugnant. But on its own terms, austerity can work just fine.

[1] One of my posts was also cross-posted at Jacobin. Everybody should read Jacobin.

Monday, March 2, 2015

What Has Happened to Trade Balances in Europe?

It has gradually entered our awareness that the Greek trade account is now balanced. Greece no longer depends on financial markets (or official transfers, or remittances from workers abroad) to finance its imports. This is obviously important for negotiations with the "institutions," or at least it ought to be.

I was wondering, how general is this shift toward a positive trade balance. In the FT last week, Martin Wolf pointed out that over the past five years, the Euro area as a whole has shifted from modest trade deficits to substantial trade surpluses, equal to 3 percent of euro-area GDP in 2013. He does not break it down by country, though. I decided to do that.

Euro area trade ratios, 2008 and 2013. The size of the dots is proportional to total 2008 trade.

Here, from Eurostat, are the export-import ratios for the euro countries in 2008 and 2013. Values greater than one on the horizontal axis represent a trade surplus in 2008; only a few northern European countries fall in that group. Meanwhile, in seven countries imports exceeded exports by 10 percent or more. By 2013, the large majority of the euro area is in surplus, while not a single country has an excess of imports over exports of more than 5 percent. The distance above the diagonal line indicates the improvement from 2008 to 2013; this is positive for every euro-area country except Austria, Finland and Luxembourg, and the biggest improvements are in the countries with the worst ratios in 2008. The surplus countries, apart from Finland, more or less maintained their surpluses; but the deficit countries all more or less eliminated their deficits.

So does this mean that austerity works? Yes and no. It is certainly true that Europe's deficit countries have all achieved positive trade balances in the past few years, even including countries like Greece whose trade deficits long predated the euro. On the other hand, it's also almost certainly true that this has more to do with the falls in domestic demand rather than any increase in competitiveness.

This is shown in the second figure, which gives the ratio of 2013 imports to 2008 exports on the vertical axis, and 2013 exports to 2008 imports on the horizontal axis. (This is in nominal euros.) Here a point on the diagonal line equals and equal growth rate of imports and exports. Most countries are clustered around 15% growth in imports and exports; these are the countries that had balanced trade or surpluses in 2008, and whose trade ratios have not changed much in the past five years. Only one country, Estonia, has export growth substantially above the European average. But all the former deficit countries have import growth much lower than average. (As indicated by their position to the left of the main cluster.) It's evident from this diagram that the move toward balanced trade in the deficit countries is about throttling back imports, not boosting exports. This suggests that it has more to do with slow income growth than with lower costs.
Again, the sizes of the dots are proportional to 2008 trade volumes.

Still, the fact remains, trade deficits have almost been eliminated in the euro area. Liberal critics of the European establishment often say "not every country in Europe can be a net exporter" as if that were a truism. But it's not even true, not in principle and evidently not in practice. It turns out it is quite possible for every country in the euro to run a trade surplus.

The next question is, with whom has the euro area's trade balanced improved? Europe outside the euro, to begin with. The country with the biggest single increase in net imports from the euro zone is, surprisingly, Switzerland, whose deficit with the euro area has increased by close to 60 billion. Switzerland's annual trade deficit with the euro area is now 75 billion, about a quarter of the area's overall trade surplus. Norway and Turkey have increased their deficits by about 15 billion each. The rest of the increase in net exports are accounted for by increased surpluses with Africa (26 billion), the US (27 billion), and Latin America (35 billion, about half to Brazil), and a decreased deficit with Asia (135 billion, including a 55 billion smaller deficit with China, 30 billion smaller with Japan and 20 billion with Korea). Net exports to Australia have also increased by 10 billion.

Why do I bring this up? One, I haven't seen it discussed much and it is interesting.

But more importantly, the lesson of the Europe-wide shift toward trade surpluses is that austerity can succeed on its own terms. I think there's a tendency for liberal critics of austerity to assume that the people on the other side are just confused, or blinkered by ideology, and that there's something incoherent or self-contradictory about competitiveness as a Europe-wide organizing principle. There's a hope, I think, that economic logic will eventually compel policymakers to do what's right for everyone. Personally, I don't think that the masters of the euro care too much about the outcome of the struggle for competitiveness; it's the struggle itself -- and the constraints it imposes on public and private choices -- that matters. But insofar as the test of the success of austerity is the trade balance, I suspect austerity can succeed indefinitely.

UPDATE: In comments Kostas Kalaveras points to a report from the European Commission that includes a similar breakdown of changes in trade balances across the euro area. There's some useful data in there but the interpretation is that almost all the adjustment has been structural rather than cyclical. This is based on estimates of declining potential output in the periphery that I think are insane. But it's interesting to see how official Europe thinks about this stuff.