The stickiness of wages seems to be one of the key stylized facts of economics. For some reason, the idea that sticky wages may be the key to explaining business-cycle downturns in which output and employment– not just prices and nominal incomes — fall is now widely supposed to have been a, if not the, major theoretical contribution of Keynes in the General Theory. The association between sticky wages and Keynes is a rather startling, and altogether unfounded, inversion of what Keynes actually wrote in the General Theory, heaping scorn on what he called the “classical” doctrine that cyclical (or in Keynesian terminology “involuntary”) unemployment could be attributed to the failure of nominal wages to fall in response to a reduction in aggregate demand. Keynes never stopped insisting that the key defining characteristic of “involuntary” unemployment is that a nominal-wage reduction would not reduce “involuntary” unemployment. The very definition of involuntary unemployment is that it can only be eliminated by an increase in the price level, but not by a reduction in nominal wages.
Keynes devoted three entire chapters (19-21) in the General Theory to making, and mathematically proving, that argument. Insofar as I understand it, his argument doesn’t seem to me to be entirely convincing, because, among other reasons, his reasoning seems to involve implicit comparative-statics exercises that start from a disequlibrium situation, but that is definitely a topic for another post. My point is simply that the sticky-wages explanation for unemployment was exactly the “classical” explanation that Keynes was railing against in the General Theory.
So it’s really quite astonishing — and amusing — to observe that, in the current upside-down world of modern macroeconomics, what differentiates New Classical from New Keynesian macroeconomists is that macroecoomists of the New Classical variety, dismissing wage stickiness as non-existent or empirically unimportant, assume that cyclical fluctuations in employment result from high rates of intertemporal substitution by labor in response to fluctuations in labor productivity, while macroeconomists of the New Keynesian variety argue that it is nominal-wage stickiness that prevents the steep cuts in nominal wages required to maintain employment in the face of exogenous shocks in aggregate demand or supply. New Classical and New Keynesian indeed! David Laidler and Axel Leijonhufvud have both remarked on this role reversal.
Many possible causes of nominal-wage stickiness (especially in the downward direction) have been advanced. For most of the twentieth century, wage stickiness was blamed on various forms of government intervention, e.g., pro-union legislation conferring monopoly privileges on unions, as well as other forms of wage-fixing like minimum-wage laws and even unemployment insurance. Whatever the merits of these criticisms, it is hard to credit claims that wage stickiness is mainly attributable to labor-market intervention on the side of labor unions. First, the phenomenon of wage stickiness was noted and remarked upon by economists as long ago as the early nineteenth century (e.g., Henry Thornton in his classic The Nature and Effects of the Paper Credit of Great Britain) long before the enactment of pro-union legislation. Second, the repeal or weakening of pro-union legislation since the 1980s does not seem to have been associated with any significant reduction in nominal-wage stickiness.
Since the 1970s, a number of more sophisticated explanations of wage stickiness have been advanced, for example search theories coupled with incorrect price-level expectations, long-term labor contracts, implicit contracts, and efficiency wages. Search theories locate the cause of wage nominal stickiness in workers’ decisions about what wage offers to accept. Thus, the apparent downward stickiness of wages in a recession seems to imply that workers are turning down offers of employment or quitting their jobs in the mistaken expectation that search will uncover better offers, but that doesn’t seem to be what happens in recessions, when quits decline and layoffs increase. Long-term contracts can and frequently are renegotiated when conditions change. Implicit contracts also can be adjusted when conditions change. So insofar as these theories posit that workers are somehow making decisions that lead to their unemployment, the story seems to be incomplete. If workers could be made better off by accepting reduced wages instead of being unemployed, why isn’t it happening?
Efficiency wages posit a different cause for wage stickiness: that employers have cleverly discovered that by overpaying workers, workers will work their backsides off to continue to be considered worthy of receiving the rents that their employers are conferring upon them. Thus, when a recession hits, employers use the opportunity to weed out their least deserving employees. This theory at least has the virtue of not assigning responsibility for sub-optimal decisions to the workers.
All of these theories were powerfully challenged about eleven or twelve years ago by Truman Bewley in a book Why Wages Don’t Fall During a Recession. (See also Peter Howitt’s excellent review of Bewely’s book in the Journal of Economic Literature.) Bewley, though an accomplished theorist, simply went out and interviewed lots of business people, asking them to explain why they didn’t cut wages to their employees in recessions rather than lay off workers. Overwhelmingly, the responses Bewley received did not correspond to any of the standard theories of wage-stickiness. Instead, business people explained wage stickiness as necessary to avoid a collapse of morale among their employees. Layoffs also hurt morale, but the workers that are retained get over it, and those let go are no longer around to hurt the morale of those that stay.
While I have always preferred the search explanation for apparent wage stickiness, which was largely developed at UCLA in the 1960s (see Armen Alchian’s classic “Information costs, Pricing, and Resource Unemployment”), I recognize that it doesn’t seem to account for the basic facts of the cyclical pattern of layoffs and quits. So I think that it is clear that wage stickiness remains a problematic phenomenon. I don’t claim to have a good explanation to offer, but it does seem to me that an important element of an explanation may have been left out so far — at least I can’t recall having seen it mentioned.
Let’s think about it in the following way. Consider the incentive to cut price of a firm that can’t sell as much as it wants at the current price. The firm is off its supply curve. The firm is a price taker in the sense that, if it charges a higher price than its competitors, it won’t sell anything, losing all its sales to competitors. Would the firm have any incentive to cut its price? Presumably, yes. But let’s think about that incentive. Suppose the firm has a maximum output capacity of one unit, and can produce either zero or one units in any time period. Suppose that demand has gone down, so that the firm is not sure if it will be able to sell the unit of output that it produces (assume also that the firm only produces if it has an order in hand). Would such a firm have an incentive to cut price? Only if it felt that, by doing so, it would increase the probability of getting an order sufficiently to compensate for the reduced profit margin at the lower price. Of course, the firm does not want to set a price higher than its competitors, so it will set a price no higher than the price that it expects its competitors to set.
Now consider a different sort of firm, a firm that can easily expand its output. Faced with the prospect of losing its current sales, this type of firm, unlike the first type, could offer to sell an increased amount at a reduced price. How could it sell an increased amount when demand is falling? By undercutting its competitors. A firm willing to cut its price could, by taking share away from its competitors, actually expand its output despite overall falling demand. That is the essence of competitive rivalry. Obviously, not every firm could succeed in such a strategy, but some firms, presumably those with a cost advantage, or a willingness to accept a reduced profit margin, could expand, thereby forcing marginal firms out of the market.
Workers seem to me to have the characteristics of type-one firms, while most actual businesses seem to resemble type-two firms. So what I am suggesting is that the inability of workers to take over the jobs of co-workers (the analog of output expansion by a firm) when faced with the prospect of a layoff means that a powerful incentive operating in non-labor markets for price cutting in response to reduced demand is not present in labor markets. A firm faced with the prospect of being terminated by a customer whose demand for the firm’s product has fallen may offer significant concessions to retain the customer’s business, especially if it can, in the process, gain an increased share of the customer’s business. A worker facing the prospect of a layoff cannot offer his employer a similar deal. And requiring a workforce of many workers, the employer cannot generally avoid the morale-damaging effects of a wage cut on his workforce by replacing current workers with another set of workers at a lower wage than the old workers were getting. So the point that I am suggesting seems to dovetail with morale-preserving explanation for wage-stickiness offered by Bewley.
If I am correct, then the incentive for price cutting is greater in markets for most goods and services than in markets for labor employment. This was Henry Thornton’s observation over two centuries ago when he wrote that it was a well-known fact that wages are more resistant than other prices to downward pressure in periods of weak demand. And if that is true, then it suggests that real wages tend to fluctuate countercyclically, which seems to be a stylized fact of business cycles, though whether that is indeed a fact remains controversial.