How is wage inflation affected by recessions?

Wages don't always fall in slumps, it seems.

Earlier this week, I wrote that pegging benefits to wage inflation fails Macroeconomics 101, arguing that since wages rise faster than inflation except in recession, it's macroeconomically dangerous to peg benefits to them:

If benefits were to be pegged to wages rather than inflation, then some… counter-cyclicality would be scrapped. The benefits bill would shrink in recessions and increase in boom times, compared to where it would be without the change. That would mean prolonged depressions, and a magnification of the boom-and-bust cycle. Macroeconomically, its one of the worst things you could do.

I illustrated it with this graph, showing that wages were rising faster than inflation until the crash, and only then dropped below:

Overlay from Timetric

But Mindful Money's Tom Hirst points out that when you take a longer view, the effect reverses:

Renato Faccini and Christopher Hackworth of the Bank of England's Structural Economic Analysis Division produced an interesting paper in 2010 looking at how output, employment and wages behave in recessions. They conclude that the manner in which businesses have responded to the falls in output during this recession looks rather different [than previous recessions]. Real wage per hour growth has been weaker than in the early 1990s".

In previous recessions wages have remained stickier than inflation. This is due to a combination of those on low salaries losing their jobs, which pushes up the average, and the difficulty employers face in reducing the wages of their employees.

As Hirst argues, what we need to know now is whether this reversal in trend is a one-off, or if it's the "new normal". Faccini and Hackworth argue that there are a couple of reasons to believe it is so (citing labour market flexibility and cost of dismissal, and the new popularity of unconventional monetary actions like QE) – but we can't know for certain without further research.

Either way, of course, it remains the case that pegging benefits uprating to wage inflation is a terrible way to save money. Almost all the time, wages increase more than inflation, and so this proposed switch is textbook short-termism.

Employers sign up students to work at Barnard College, NYC. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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