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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I was wrong about Help to Buy - but I'm still glad it's gone

As a mortgage journalist in 2013, I was deeply sceptical of the guarantee scheme. 

If you just read the headlines about Help to Buy, you could be under the impression that Theresa May has just axed an important scheme for first-time buyers. If you're on the left, you might conclude that she is on a mission to make life worse for ordinary working people. If you just enjoy blue-on-blue action, it's a swipe at the Chancellor she sacked, George Osborne.

Except it's none of those things. Help to Buy mortgage guarantee scheme is a policy that actually worked pretty well - despite the concerns of financial journalists including me - and has served its purpose.

When Osborne first announced Help to Buy in 2013, it was controversial. Mortgage journalists, such as I was at the time, were still mopping up news from the financial crisis. We were still writing up reports about the toxic loan books that had brought the banks crashing down. The idea of the Government promising to bail out mortgage borrowers seemed the height of recklessness.

But the Government always intended Help to Buy mortgage guarantee to act as a stimulus, not a long-term solution. From the beginning, it had an end date - 31 December 2016. The idea was to encourage big banks to start lending again.

So far, the record of Help to Buy has been pretty good. A first-time buyer in 2013 with a 5 per cent deposit had 56 mortgage products to choose from - not much when you consider some of those products would have been ridiculously expensive or would come with many strings attached. By 2016, according to Moneyfacts, first-time buyers had 271 products to choose from, nearly a five-fold increase

Over the same period, financial regulators have introduced much tougher mortgage affordability rules. First-time buyers can be expected to be interrogated about their income, their little luxuries and how they would cope if interest rates rose (contrary to our expectations in 2013, the Bank of England base rate has actually fallen). 

A criticism that still rings true, however, is that the mortgage guarantee scheme only helps boost demand for properties, while doing nothing about the lack of housing supply. Unlike its sister scheme, the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, there is no incentive for property companies to build more homes. According to FullFact, there were just 112,000 homes being built in England and Wales in 2010. By 2015, that had increased, but only to a mere 149,000.

This lack of supply helps to prop up house prices - one of the factors making it so difficult to get on the housing ladder in the first place. In July, the average house price in England was £233,000. This means a first-time buyer with a 5 per cent deposit of £11,650 would still need to be earning nearly £50,000 to meet most mortgage affordability criteria. In other words, the Help to Buy mortgage guarantee is targeted squarely at the middle class.

The Government plans to maintain the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, which is restricted to new builds, and the Help to Buy ISA, which rewards savers at a time of low interest rates. As for Help to Buy mortgage guarantee, the scheme may be dead, but so long as high street banks are offering 95 per cent mortgages, its effects are still with us.