Noah Clue

Hey you guys! You know how unemployment has been, like, real high for years now, and nobody knows why? Noah Smith has figured it out:

an economic principle often overlooked by progressives: There is sometimes a tradeoff between wages and employment levels (which is another way of saying that labor supply curves slope up and labor demand curves slope down). If economic “frictions” or the actions of policymakers hold wages up when economic forces are trying to push wages down, unemployment will often result. 

I think he learned it in an economics class!

You remember how there were these economic forces in 2007 that decided wages had to go down, but we got all these new policies to raise wages like, you know, all those wage-raising things that Bush did? Well, that’s why unemployment went up by 5 points in less than two years. 

I mean, it’s so simple when you think about it. “Labor demand curves slope down,” that’s all you need to know. We learn that the first year of micro, supply curves slope up, demand curves slope down. Demand for labor, demand for cottage cheese, doesn’t matter, they’re just the same. Why do they even bother offering courses in macro?
It’s funny, though: Wasn’t there some guy who wrote a whole book about why lower wages don’t raise employment? Maynard, or some weird name like that? Well, Noah’s never heard of him, or of his book (the General Theory of something?) but he can’t be worth bothering with, can he? after all, he didn’t even realize that demand curves slope down! Which is all you need to know.
Of course, lower wages won’t help employment if there is already an excess supply of labor. If people are already willing to work for less than the going wage, telling them they should accept less than the going wage can’t be the solution. What would we call a situation like that? How about … “involuntary unemployment”? But Noah Smith is too smart for that, he knows that could never happen. He knows that markets always clear, employment is always at the intersection of the labor supply curve and the labor demand curve, so the only way to raise employment must be to move the labor supply curve downward. It’s just Econ 101, and Econ 101 is never wrong.
Of course, if you think that wages are equal to the marginal product of labor, the demand curve for labor will only slope downward when the marginal product of labor is falling — which might not be the case when output is far from potential. But Noah Smith knows that demand curves always slope downward, so there can’t be any range of output over which the mpl is more or less constant.
But wait, what if labor markets are monopsonistic? Then the observed labor demand curve can slope upward. And monopsony in labor markets doesn’t require a company town, all it requires is that a firm’s labor costs are rising in employment. Or in other words that if a firm cuts wages moderately, it will lose some but not all of its workers. (Crazy talk, I know.) Which is the natural result of labor market models with search frictions. This is one reason why the most rigorous empirical studies of legislated wage changes show no sign of a downward sloping labor demand curve. But Noah Smith doesn’t need to trouble his beautiful mind with empirical evidence, or learn any of that silly labor economics stuff, because he knows that labor demand curves slope downward. He learned it in introductory micro!
And then there’s that little difference between labor and cottage cheese, that wages make up the large majority of producers’ variable costs. So we have to think general equilibrium here, not just partial. Prices, in the first instance, are set as a markup over marginal costs. [1] So if you reduce money wages, you don’t reduce real wages by as much, because you reduce the price level as well. That means deflation, which is … let’s see, not always super great for employment. That Maynard dude wrote something about that too, I think, and so did some other old guy, Hunter or Trapper or something. Apparently there was this crazy idea that falling wages and prices were a problem back in Ancient Rome, or maybe the 1930s (same thing). But Noah goes to a good graduate school, so he knows that no real economist bothers with dusty old stuff like that. After all it’s not like there are any lessons we could learn from the Great Depression, or the Punic Wars or whatever it was. Not when we know that labor demand curves slope down!
Oh and hey, there’s another difference between labor and cottage cheese! (Who’d have thought?) Wages are also a source of demand. Pop quiz for Noah Smith: Which is a more important component of final demand, consumption out of wages, or net exports? Yeah, that would be door number one. So maybe, just maybe, whatever competitive advantage lower wages yield in lower unit labor costs might be offset by lower consumption demand by wage-earners? And that’s assuming that changes in wages are fully passed through into the relative price of tradables, and that trade flows are price-elastic. [2] But hey, you know what happens when you assume: it makes you an … economist. Now, if it were the case that wages were an important source of final demand, and if output is demand-constrained, then lowering wages might not raise demand for labor, even if labor markets were fully competitive and if changes in nominal wages translated one for one into changes in real wages. But that’s unpossible! because, as we all know, the demand curve for labor slopes down.
Well, but demand doesn’t matter, since Noah knows — he learned it in school — the economy is always at full employment. If we observe fewer people working, it can’t be because aggregate demand has fallen, it can only be because an artificially high price of labor has led to substitution away from labor to other factors of production. It couldn’t possibly be the case that when unemployment is high, capital is underutilized as well too, could it? Because that would mean that the wage share and the profit share were both too high, which is like saying that x>y and y>x. So no, we couldn’t possibly observe anything like this:
Because we know — it’s economics 101 — that high unemployment can only ever be the result of substitution away from labor because of changes in relative prices, not a lower level of output for the economy as a whole. Altho, gosh, it sure looks like capacity utilization falls in recessions just like employment does, which would suggest that cyclical unemployment has nothing to do with the relative price of labor.
So, ok, we can forget Keynes and all that old nonsense. And let’s ignore the effect of nominal wage changes on prices. And put out of our mind any question about whether the marginal product of labor is really declining over current levels of output, or about imperfect competition in labor markets. And we’ll ignore the role of wages as a source of demand. And we’ll unlearn any information we might have accidentally picked up about the empirical relationship between wages and employment, or about the Great Depression. And we’ll stick our fingers in our ears if anyone suggests that unemployment today is associated with demand constraints on output rather than substitution away from labor. And then we can be as smart as Noah Smith! And we’ll know how to fix unemployment:
In Germany, labor unions often negotiate wage cuts in order to preserve long-term employment levels. I think we should look at doing something similar.
You guys, wage concessions! Has anybody in the US labor movement ever thought of that? I bet it will work great! It’s pretty ballsy of Noah Smith to stand up against Big Labor, but someone’s got to, right? I mean, unions represent almost 7 percent of the private workforce. If someone is holding wages above the level that Economic Forces want them to be at, who else could it be?
Hey, I wonder if any other countries are getting advice from smart economists like Noah Smith, and are fixing all their problems by cutting wages? You know, I think there are some. How about Latvia? The authorities there were all, like, wages are going down. And guess what? While in the US unemployment has gone from 5% in 2007 to over 8% today, in Latvia it went from 5% to … 14%? Well, who cares about some little Baltic country, let’s talk about the UK. They got real wages down by 2.7 percent last years (2.1 percent nominal growth less 4.8 percent inflation.) And hey, look at employment — it’s skyrocketing continuing to fall, and now the lowest it’s been since 2003.
You know what? I’m beginning to think that “labor demand curves slope down” might not be the best way to think about unemployment. Maybe it is helpful to know something about macroeconomics, after all.

[1] Or equal to marginal costs if you like; the point is the same.

[2] I’ve presented some evidence on whether trade flows are responsive to relative costs in practice in these posts.

The Capitalist Wants an Exit, Facebook Edition

In today’s FT, John Gapper reads the Facebook prospectus. [1] And he doesn’t like what he sees:

There is still time to cancel its IPO and the filing provides plenty of reasons why it ought to… It begs a question if a company trying to raise capital from investors cannot think of anything to do with the money. Yet this is Facebook’s predicament – as it admitted in its filing on Wednesday, its cash flow and credit “will be sufficient to meet our operational needs for the foreseeable future”. … So what are its plans for the additional $5bn it may raise from an IPO? It intends to put the cash into US government bonds and savings accounts…

Gapper, looking at the IPO from the perspective of what it does for Facebook the enterprise, understandably thinks this is nuts. Why incur the costs of an IPO and the ongoing requirements of a public listing, if you have so little need for the cash that you are literally just planning to leave it in a savings account. But of  course, the purpose of the IPO has nothing to do with Facebook the enterprise.

Given that it doesn’t need capital…, why the IPO? … Facebook’s motivation is clear: to gratify its venture capital investors and employees. This is not a cynical statement; it is a quote from Mr Zuckerberg’s letter to new shareholders. “We’re going public for our employees and our investors,” he writes. “We made a commitment to them when we gave them equity that we’d work hard to make it worth a lot and make it liquid, and this IPO is fulfilling our commitment.”

In terms of Silicon Valley’s logic, it makes sense… For the company itself, however, the logic is far less obvious. As a corporate entity, Facebook could clearly thrive without seeking new shareholders, whose main purpose is to allow the insiders to get rich and eventually exit.

 As I’ve written before, the function of the stock market in modern capitalism is to get money out of corporations, not put money into them. The social problem they are solving is not society’s need to allocate scarce savings to the most promising investments, but wealth-owners desire to free their fortunes from particular firm or industry and keep them as claims on the social product as a whole.

[1] It’s been said before, but can I just point out how unbearably stupid is the FT’s policy of actively discouraging people from excerpting their articles?

Davies on the Disorder in Europe

My friend Jen writes about informal labor markets in South Africa. She was telling me the other day about street vendors who make their living buying packs of a dozen pairs of socks and selling them pair by pair. In that same spirit of finding a niche in the very last step of the distribution network, I thought I would pass on some material from a talk I attended last week by Sir Howard Davies. It’s below the fold, with occasional comments from me in brackets. A lot may seem familiar, but enough was new to me — and Davies is high enough up in this world; he’d had dinner the night before with Charles Dallara — that I think it’s worthwhile to put down my notes in full.

There are six and half questions to ask about the Euro system. Is the crisis over? Why did anyone think it would work? Why did it take so long to fall apart? Are the responses to date sufficient? What more is needed? Why even bother? And the half question, what’s it all mean for the UK?

To question 1, no surprise, the answer is No.  “The ECB has been making really good policy for a country that doesn’t exist.” The fundamental problem of pan-European banks with no pan-European regulator or lender of last resort is no closer to being resolved; “some sticking-plaster has been applied,” that’s all.

On question 2, there were three reasons:

Some people said, “Yes, you will need a fiscal authority, but it will happen.” Europe policy in general has developed through a process of leap forward, then retrofit. And after all, it says right in the treaty “Ever closer union.”

Other people thought the stability and growth pact would ensure appropriate policy.

A third group of people, including Davies, believed something like, “Yes, these economies are very different, with different labor market institutions and so on, but without the option of devaluation they will be forced to converge.” Periodic devaluations had allowed southern European countries to avoid structural reform, but now everyone would have to behave like the Germans.

Well, all these views were wrong. Why? Three reasons:

– Maastricht turned out to be the high point of enthusiasm for federalism. Every single vote on additional federalism has said, No.

– The SGP turned out to be both too tight, in that it didn’t leave enough space for countercyclical fiscal policy, and too loose, in that it had no enforcement mechanism. [So it sounds like Davies would be on board with John Quiggin’s “hard Keynesianism.”]

– Lower interest rates were not used for fiscal consolidation. [This seems wrong to me, at least for Italy and Spain.] And there was no convergence to German levels of productivity.

On question 3, the first answer was that the first decade of the euro was, in Mervyn King’s unfelicitous coinage, NICE — Non-Inflationary with Consistent Expansion. And the ECB, while prohibited from buying government bonds directly, bought them in secondary markets at equal rates, meaning there was no pressure for fiscal discipline on member states. [Again, I’m resistant to this story, except for Greece and maybe Portugal.] Davies recalls talking to a Morgan Stanley bond dude, explaining how he marketed Greek debt: “A Greek bond is just like a German bund, except with an extra three points of interest.” There was a real market failure here, says Davies, and the banks that ended up holding this stuff (all European, by the way, American institutions have successfully elimianted almost all their exposure) deserve their haircuts.

[It would be interesting to explore the idea that an unsustainable current account deficit is precisely one that can only be financed with an interest rate premium.]

Question 4, the adequacy of the response. “The problem is that they are focused on the last crisis and the next crisis, but not on the current crisis.” By which he means that they are putting in place rules that would have helped if they’d already been in place years ago, while ignoring the ways in which “responsible” fiscal policy will exacerbate the current downturn. The problem right now is that austerity just makes the growth picture worse, and that the European “rescue capacity” is too small.

Question 5, what more is needed. In the short run, a better firewall is needed to prevent contagion from the worst-hit countries and institutions. In the longer run, Europe needs (a) some system for Europe-wide public borrowing (one idea would be for debt up to, but not above, the SGP levels to be backed by the community as a whole); and (b) a pan-European bank regulator and lender of last resort. But the Germans won’t go for it.

Which brings us to Question 6. Wouldn’t some countries be better off leaving? Greece’s departure is probably inevitable, he said. But it poses major challenges — even if you had an agreed-on procedure for converting Greek euros to the new Greek currency, which euros are the Greek ones? “If the coin says Greece, no problem. Greek government bonds, ok, those are Greek. And if you are living in Greece and have an account in a Greek bank, then that is probably a Greek euro. But, I have a boat in Greece and an account at Barclay’s in Athens. Are those Greek euros? I hope not. How about someone living in Athens but with a bank account in London, is that a Greek euro?” And beyond those technical problems, there are even worse political problems, that should make exit the last possible resort. Because, who will benefit from the failure of the euro, politically? In France, the fascists — Marie le Pen based her whole campaign around it. “In Greece, it would be the anarchists and the communists, they’re the only ones who have been against the euro.” [OH NOES the anarchists.] The communists in Hungary, Sinn Fein in Ireland, etc. “Only in the UK can you say that the Euro-skeptics are not mad people.”

Nonetheless, Greek exit is probably unavoidable. “My hunch is that Greece will not make it,” because they lack social capital. The Irish are stoic, they will accept lower pay and higher taxes. They say, ah well, we had a good few years but it had to end. Not the Greeks, they won’t pay taxes. [There was a shaggy-dog story in here about local officials in Spain and Greece competing to see who can waste more EU money.] Gas costs $6 a gallon in Greece because it’s almost the only thing the government can reliably tax. “Latvia could make austerity work because they’d been in the USSR for 50 years, they were used to unpleasant and dramatic things happening. The population would accept incredible privation.” The Greek population, sadly, will not.

And on the last half question: If the solution is “more Europe,” that will be a big problem for the UK. Cameron is a Euro-skeptic; it’s not just because he’s responding to popular opinion, but nonetheless popular opinion is heading that way. The UK is going to face increasing pressure to detach itself from the EU.

And a few other observations, from the Q&A:

“You can’t imagine Italy having an unelected government for long, but they are urgently engaged in some necessary reforms that would otherwise be impossible.”

There has never been a referendum in favor of the euro.

German wages have not gone up, German property values have not gone up, why should ordinary Germans feel like they are the beneficiaries of the euro and want to do more to save it? [Sounds like an argument for Thomas Jørgensen’s “Drink finer wines, drive nicer cars, and party harder!” platform.]

Most likely, Greece will have a disorderly exit, and that will concentrate the minds of European policymakers to take the necessary steps to prevent a repeat. Avoiding future defaults will require some kind of collective guarantee of Euro-area bonds, but Germans won’t accept that until it’s clear that the altenrative is catastrophe. So, “Greece may have to perform this service.”

The alternative is for Greece to do what Latvia did, structural reforms, get rid of anti-competitive policies. The problem is, you don’t have a full technocratic government in Greece, you still have elected officials with real power. [And that, I think, is what it all comes down to.]