Wednesday, May 4, 2011

New Keynesian Economics Misses the Point, for Now

Copyright, The New York Times Company

Our labor market has long-term problems that are not addressed by Keynesian economic theory. New Keynesian economics is built on the assumption that employers charge too much for the products that their employees make and are too slow to cut their prices when demand falls. With prices too high, customers are discouraged from buying, especially during recessions, and there is not enough demand to maintain employment.

When the financial crisis hit in 2008, the New Keynesian “sticky price” story had some plausibility because economic conditions were, in fact, deflationary (although I have my doubts about other aspects of their theory). That is, the demand for safe assets surged in 2008, which means that those assets had to become expensive or, equivalently, goods had to get cheaper in order to clear the market.

Normally the Federal Reserve could expand the money supply to satisfy the extra demand for safe assets, so consumer prices wouldn’t have to fall to maintain employment. But the financial crisis was severe enough that the Fed’s best efforts would not be enough.

At the time, New Keynesian fears seem to have been realized: consumer prices had to fall to maintain employment, but too few employers were willing or able to make the price cuts quickly enough. The result was going to be a severe recession that could be partly cured, in the short term, by fiscal stimulus or, in the longer term, as more companies had the time needed to cut their prices.

The red line in the chart below shows the consumer price index that, according to New Keynesian theory, was needed to maintain employment. I have rescaled the index to be based in December 2007, when the recession began: a value of 96 means consumer prices were 4 percent below what they were in December 2007.

In theory, the index of consumer prices had to fall eight percent below their peak (of almost 104) in the summer of 2008 to maintain employment. (I measure all consumer prices here, not merely the “core” price index that excludes fuel and many other items, because the excluded items provide jobs, too.)

The blue line shows actual consumer prices. We readily see the “downward pressure” on consumer prices at the end of 2008, because, in fact, prices stopped rising and actually fell a couple of percent.

But New Keynesians say that with the eight percent drop needed to maintain employment, the blue line needed to fall as much as the red, and a drop that large would take more time. In the meantime, employment would be low and employers would enjoy cheap labor for a while, as so many unemployed people were desperate to work.

But the availability of cheap labor would eventually give employers room to cut their prices – in theory the blue and red series would converge and employment would eventually return to previous levels.

Early on, I thought the New Keynesian theory was wrong because I didn’t see that employers perceived labor to be cheap. Federal law had increased minimum wages three times in and around the recession. A number of other public policies made labor more expensive. My fellow blogger Nancy Folbre has written that American labor looks increasingly expensive compared with potential workers abroad.

The price chart above shows little or no tendency for the blue series to converge with the red one, because, contrary to the theory, high unemployment rates have not caused employers to perceive labor as cheap.

The low employment rates we have today are too persistent to be blamed on price adjustment lags (I have similar reservations about another business-cycle theory: “job search” theory says that jobs are there to be found, but that unemployed people have not been lucky enough to look in the right places).

Our labor-market problems may not disappear by themselves and are not addressed by New Keynesian theory.

1 comment:

Steve Roth said...

Uh...yeah. New Keynesians believe that if employers would just pay more employees to produce more, while the employer receives the same amount in revenue, everything would be dishy.

I've definitely heard them say that.