A Thought Experiment On Why Wages Are So Weak
By Steven Englander, head of research and strategy at Rafiki Capital Management
I propose a microeconomic rationale for why macro wage performance is so weak, despite tight labor markets. The idea is that we are getting paid less for our job-specific knowledge because technology is making it easier to replace us without major loss of productivity with less skilled workers. The implications for markets:
- Flattish Phillips curve and low wage inflation continue for an indefinite period
- Living standards may increase because of lower price relative to wages, not higher wages relative to prices
- Monetary policy will have to get on with dealing with a low inflation economy -- this means setting aside obsessions about balance sheet reduction and setting up the facility to use fiscal policy as needed when the zero bound is approached
- It’s relatively positive for equities in innovating sectors
- Long-term bond yields will be driven by monetary policy fears, not long-term inflation worries
- Short-term policy rate moved will be capped by the sensitivity of the economy to interest rates which may not be large. Note that this cuts both ways – both tightening and easing may be ineffective.
The thought experiment
My idea is that wages are driven by how scared your boss is that you are going to leave. If replacing you, retraining your successor and waiting for him to climb the experience curve is costly, he will pay a lot to keep you from leaving. If you are a cog in a wheel, then he won’t care much.
Imagine an economy of a bus driver, a taxi driver, a cook, a translator, a baby sitter, a doctor and a foreign exchange strategist.... Conceptually you can measure average job specific content by asking the following question: if you randomly reallocated jobs among these workers how much would productivity fall? For example, if the FX strategist was given the cook’s job and the cook became a doctor and the doctor a taxi driver and so on, what would happen?
Say in Economy A, there is specific knowledge or character traits needed: a bus driver needs the specifics of driving a bus safely, a taxi driver knowledge of the street grid, the translator an excellent command of relevant languages, the baby sitter some proven degree of responsibility, the cook of recipes and technique, the doctor the body of medical knowledge, the FX strategist how to say ‘current account’ and so on. Now imagine the chaos and productivity loss, if the random reallocation occurred and none of the occupants of new jobs had the required skills.