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Posts Tagged ‘elasticity of supply of labour’

A fall in the UK natural rate of unemployment?

When UK unemployment was 7.7% in July 2013, Mark Carney, the newly arrived governor of the Bank of England, said that the Bank would probably have to rise interest rates when the unemployment rate dropped below 7%. Below that rate, it was expected that inflation would rise. In other words, 7% was the NAIRU – the non-accelerating rate of inflation. The most recent figure for the unemployment rate is 4.8% and yet the Bank of England has not raised interest rates. In fact, in response to the Brexit vote, it cut Bank Rate from 0.5% to 0.25% in August last year. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart below.)

The NAIRU is a similar, although not identical, concept to the natural rate of unemployment. The natural rate is the equilibrium rate consistent with an overall long-term balance of aggregate labour demand and supply: i.e. the rate after short-term cyclical movements in unemployment have been discounted. It is thus a long-term concept.

The NAIRU, although similar, focuses on the relationship between inflation and unemployment. With inflation caused solely by demand-side factors, the natural rate and the NAIRU will be similar if not identical. However, if cost-push factors change – say there is a poor harvest, which pushes up food prices and inflation (temporarily), or a substantial depreciation of the exchange rate caused by political factors (such as Brexit) – the NAIRU would increase, at least in the short term, as a higher rate of unemployment would be necessary to stop inflation rising. In the long term, although being defined differently, the NAIRU and the natural rate will be the same.

In practice, because the Bank of England is targeting inflation at a 24-month time horizon, the NAIRU for the UK at that point could also be seen as the natural rate.

So with the Bank of England not raising interest rates despite the considerable fall in the unemployment rate, does this imply a fall in the natural rate of unemployment? The answer is yes. The reason has to do with changes in the structure of the labour market.

The proportion of young people and women with children returning to the labour market has fallen. Such people have a higher-than-average rate of unemployment since they typically spend a period of time searching for a job.

Tax and benefit reforms over the years have increased the incentive for the unemployed to take work.

Perhaps the biggest factor is a greater flexibility in the labour market. As union power has waned and as people are increasingly working on flexible contracts, including zero-hour contracts, so this has moderated wage increases. At the same time, many firms are facing increased competition both from abroad and domestically via the Internet. This has put downward pressure on prices and hence on the wages firms are willing to pay.

The effect has been a fall in the NAIRU and probably the natural rate. Frictions in the labour market have reduced and people losing their jobs because of changes in industrial structure find it easier to get jobs in low-skilled service industries, where employers’ risks of taking on such workers have fallen because of the loss of rights for such workers.

So what is the natural rate of unemployment today? It is certainly much lower than 7%; the consensus is that it is probably below 5%. As Kristin Forbes, External MPC Member of the Bank of England stated in a recent speech:

[Unemployment] is forecast to increase gradually from its current 4.8% to a high of 5.0% in the second half of 2017, before falling back to its current rate by the end of 2019. To put this in context, 5.0% was previously believed to be around the UK’s natural rate of unemployment – the rate below which unemployment could not fall without wages picking up to levels inconsistent with sustaining inflation around the 2% target. Unemployment at 5.0% is also below the average unemployment rate for the UK over the pre-crisis period from 1997 to 2007 (when it was 5.5%).

She went on to discuss just what the figure is for the natural, or ‘equilibrium’, rate of unemployment (U*). One problem here is that there is considerable uncertainty over the figure in the current forecast made by the Bank.

[An] assumption in the forecast about which there is substantial uncertainty is of the equilibrium unemployment rate – or U* for short. Since I have been on the MPC, the Committee has assumed that U* was around 5%. This implied that the more by which unemployment exceeded 5%, the more slack existed in the economy, and the less upward momentum would be expected in wages (controlling for other factors, such as productivity growth).

As part of our annual assessment of regular supply-side conditions this January, Bank staff presented several pieces of analysis that suggested U* may be lower than 5% today [see, for example]. The majority of the MPC voted to lower our estimate of U* to 4.5%, based partly on the persistent weakness of wage growth over the past few years after accounting for other factors in our models. [See page 20 of the February 2017 Inflation Report.]

My own assessment, however, suggested that although U* was likely lower than 5% today, it is likely not as low as 4.5%. If true, this would suggest that there is less slack in the economy than in the MPC’s central forecast, and wage growth and inflation could pick up faster than expected.

Against that, however, uncertainty related to Brexit negotiations could make firms more cautious about raising wages, thereby dampening wage growth no matter where unemployment is relative to its equilibrium. Moreover, even if we could accurately measure the level of U* in the economy today, it could easily change over the next few years as the labour force adjusts to any changes in the movement of labour between the UK and European Union.

Determining the precise figure of the current natural rate of unemployment, and predicting it for the medium term, is very difficult. It involves separating out demand-side factors, which are heavily dependent on expectations. It also involves understanding the wage elasticity of labour supply in various markets and how this has been affected by the increased flexibility of these markets.

Articles
When will Britons get a pay rise? The Guardian, Phillip Inman (26/2/17)
BoE decision, Inflation Report – Analysts react DigitalLook, Alexander Bueso (2/2/17)
Bank of England hikes UK economic growth forecasts but warns of rising inflation The Telegraph, Szu Ping Chan (2/2/17)

Bank of England publications
Inflation Report Bank of England (February 2017)
A MONIAC (not manic) economy Bank of England Speeches, Kristin Forbes (8/2/17)
The labour market Bank of England Speeches, Michael Saunders (31/1/17)

Questions

  1. Distinguish between the following terms: natural rate of unemployment, NAIRU, equilibrium rate of unemployment, disequilibrium rate of unemployment.
  2. For what reasons did the Monetary Policy Committee members feel that the equilibrium rate of unemployment might be as low as 4.25%?
  3. Why might it be as high as 5%?
  4. How are changes in migration trends likely to affect (a) wage growth and (b) unemployment?
  5. How is the amount of slack in an economy measured? What impact does the degree of slack have on wage growth and inflation?
  6. What is meant by the ‘gig’ economy? How has the development of the gig economy impacted on unemployment and wages?
  7. Why has there been a considerable rise in self employment?
  8. How may questions of life style choice and control over the hours people wish to work impact on the labour market?
  9. If people are moving jobs less frequently, does this imply that the labour market is becoming less flexible?
  10. Why may firms in the current climate be cautious about raising wages even if aggregate demand picks up?
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Taxes and incentives: a global perspective

Taxes are a key element in redistributive policies: taxes on the rich can be spent on benefits to the poor. The more progressive the taxes (i.e. the more steeply they rise with rising incomes), the bigger will be the redistributive effect and hence the more equal will post-tax incomes be.

But high and steeply progressive taxes can act as a disincentive to work longer, or to go for promotion or to move to a better paid job. High corporate taxes and income taxes can act as disincentive to inward investment and may encourage a ‘brain drain’ and capital flight with people and capital leaving the country for lower tax regimes abroad.

Raising taxes has two effects. First there is the substitution effect: people may work less and substitute it with leisure – after all, work is now less rewarding. People may also substitute working abroad for working at home. But the second effect works in the opposite direction. This is the income effect. As taxes are raised and people’s take-home pay is thereby reduced, they may feel the need to work longer hours or try harder for promotion in order to make up the lost income and maintain their living standards. Thus the effect of higher taxes is not clear-cut. It is an empirical question of which of the two effects is the stronger.

One important determinant of the effects of different tax rates is their relative position compared with other countries. Another is the international mobility of labour and capital. The greater the mobility, the greater the elasticity of supply with respect to changes in tax rates.

The following report and articles look at relative tax rates between different countries and the effects on output and factor movements

Articles
Wide tax gaps among countries, UHY study finds UHY International, Press Release (10/6/11)
Britain’s most talent workers flee to avoid high tax rates The Telegraph, Myra Butterworth (13/6/11)
UK tax rate ‘one of the highest’ Belfast Telegraph (13/6/11)

Data
Tax Rates Around the World – Comparison UHY Worldwide-tax.com
Effects of taxes and benefits on household income National Statistics
    (see especially Data: The effects of taxes and benefits on household income, 2009/10)

Questions

  1. Why may relative income tax rates between countries give only a partial picture of the international competitiveness of these countries? What else would need to be taken into account?
  2. Does making taxes more steeply progressive necessarily act as a disincentive to output? Explain.
  3. What factors are likely to determine the relative size of the income and substitution effects of tax changes?
  4. How progressive are income taxes in the UK compared with other countries? Give examples.
  5. What externalities (positive and negative) might result from steeply progressive income tax rates?
  6. What determines the international elasticity of supply of labour?
  7. What is the Laffer curve? How will the shape of the Laffer curve be affected by the international mobility of labour and international tax rates?
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On the buses with Evan

The article linked to below from Evan Davis’s blog starts with the following multiple choice question:

“What effect do you think it has, if a British bus company employs a bus driver from overseas?

a) it takes away the job of a British bus driver?
b) it increases the number of bus drivers we have?
c) it undercuts the wages of British bus drivers?
d) it reduces bus fares for British passengers?”

What is your answer?

On the buses BBC News Online (5/11/07)

Questions
1. Explain what is meant by the phrase “lump of labour fallacy”.
2. Assess the extent to which the most appropriate answer to the multiple choice question is “(e) all of the above”.
3. Discuss the extent to which the answer to the above multiple choice question may differ in a perfectly competitive and imperfect labour market.
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The globalisation of labour

The UK and global labour markets are changing significantly. In the UK we have faced a level of immigration of around 500 – 600 thousand people (the government does not know the exact figure), while in the global economy the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has estimated in its latest World Economic Outlook that the global labour force has quadrupled in the last quarter of a century. So what is the impact on the UK labour market? Many assume that the effect is negative, but as is always the way with these things, you will find plenty of economists who will argue the opposite. The article below from the Times Online looks at these national and global issues.

Workers count cost of a global labour flood Times Online (29/4/07)
Migrants create job market slack Times Online (20/5/07)


Questions
1. Using diagrams as appropriate assess the impact of recent immigration on the UK labour market.
2. Discuss the extent to which changes in the global labour force and UK immigration have affected the level of wages in the UK labour market.
3. Discuss the extent to which the global labour force is likely to change in the next decade.
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