A Thought Experiment On Why Wages Are So Weak

So wages have grown slower in high paying industries, faster in low paying industries and the net is the mediocre observed wage growth. What isn’t consistent is Atlanta Fed wage evidence that suggests the quit rate is back to normal for this time of the cycle and the wage premium for quitters is as high as it was in the early 2000s. The other side is that the Atlanta Fed data shows the gap between increases of skilled and unskilled workers as having narrowed.

Macro/market implications

The problem for central banks is that we know little of what triggers such shifts in labor market power, how long they last and what ends them. As long as these shifts persist, the Phillips Curve will look flatter in  two-dimensional Unemployment Rate/Wage Inflation space. A well-specified wage equation that account for such structural changes would have a steeper inflation/unemployment trade off than one without the term but capturing the effects we discuss above is not so easy.

The type of technological progress would imply lower price pressures because the wage weakness would be transmitted in part into prices. (Full disclosure, you have to believe that there is an unmeasured component of actual productivity change here, although it may show up as quality-adjusted labor productivity, rather than standard output per-worker or worker-hour).

These disinflationary pressures may be hard to fight. Combine this with investment that is not overly responsive to interest rates and you have a situation where getting the inflation that you want may be impossible without risking undesirable levels of asset price inflation. It sounds as if the Fed is already there. There is nothing inevitable about this outcome, but it emerges easily if the disinflationary pressures are strong enough and the interest rate responsiveness is low enough.

One policy response is to live with it. Ultra-low inflation countries such as Japan and Switzerland have done just fine by many measures and the zero bound becomes an issue in a recession, not during an extended recovery. By ignoring it you have some ability to rein in asset market exuberance, but you are compromising on inflation and possibly activity targets.

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