Monday, May 4, 2009

Krugman: Absolute Wage Levels Matter Too

Economists usually talk about relative prices. If wages and prices all double in an economy, then an individual's consumption choices will not change. But this view of relative prices ignores the impact of fixed costs, particularly of debt. If wages and prices fall commensurate levels, the purchasing power of an individual should be unchanged - unless that individual wracked up excessive levels of debt when wages and prices were higher. In that case, the individual will need to devote a greater percentage of his income to servicing that debt than he did when his wages were higher. The collateral he used to secure the debt - say a house in the case of a mortgage - might be worth less than the value of the loan with general deflation across the economy, so he cannot sell what he owns to get out from under the debt. This is debt deflation.

Paul Krugman reminds us of the veritable economic horrors of debt deflation and the implicit importance of nominal wages in his latest column. From the New York Times:
And soon we may be facing the paradox of wages: workers at any one company can help save their jobs by accepting lower wages, but when employers across the economy cut wages at the same time, the result is higher unemployment.

Here’s how the paradox works. Suppose that workers at the XYZ Corporation accept a pay cut. That lets XYZ management cut prices, making its products more competitive. Sales rise, and more workers can keep their jobs. So you might think that wage cuts raise employment — which they do at the level of the individual employer.

But if everyone takes a pay cut, nobody gains a competitive advantage. So there’s no benefit to the economy from lower wages. Meanwhile, the fall in wages can worsen the economy’s problems on other fronts.

In particular, falling wages, and hence falling incomes, worsen the problem of excessive debt: your monthly mortgage payments don’t go down with your paycheck. America came into this crisis with household debt as a percentage of income at its highest level since the 1930s. Families are trying to work that debt down by saving more than they have in a decade — but as wages fall, they’re chasing a moving target. And the rising burden of debt will put downward pressure on consumer spending, keeping the economy depressed.

Things get even worse if businesses and consumers expect wages to fall further in the future. John Maynard Keynes put it clearly, more than 70 years ago: “The effect of an expectation that wages are going to sag by, say, 2 percent in the coming year will be roughly equivalent to the effect of a rise of 2 percent in the amount of interest payable for the same period.” And a rise in the effective interest rate is the last thing this economy needs.
Just a reminder that as bad as the 1970s were, if we face a choice between stagflation and a deflationary spiral, it's really no choice at all.

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