Sunday, December 21, 2008

Sticky Wages, Flexible Labor Costs?

The version of the "textbook" Keynesian model that I teach my students relies on "sticky" wages, set in advance. One of the less-satisfying features of the story is that the large gains to adjusting wages are left on the table. And yet, my students mostly find it plausible, because it seems consistent with observed behavior. In last week's Times column, David Leonhardt explored the issue:
Jobs are disappearing, bonuses are shrinking and raises will be hard to come by. But the drop in prices, which isn’t over yet, will make life easier on millions of people. It’s possible, in fact, that the current recession will do less harm to the typical family’s income than it does to many other parts of the economy.

The reason is something called the sticky-wage theory. Economists have long been puzzled by the fact that most businesses simply will not cut their workers’ pay, even in a downturn. Businesses routinely lay off 10 percent of their workers to cut costs. They almost never cut pay by 10 percent across the board.

Traditional economic theory doesn’t do a good job of explaining this. During a recession, the price of hamburgers, shirts, cars and airline tickets falls. But the price of labor does not. It’s sticky.

In the 1990s, a Yale economist named Truman Bewley set out to solve this riddle by interviewing hundreds of executives, union officials and consultants. He emerged believing there was only one good explanation.

“Reducing the pay of existing employees was nearly unthinkable because of the impact of worker attitudes,” he wrote in his book “Why Wages Don’t Fall During a Recession,” summarizing the view of a typical executive he interviewed. “The advantage of layoffs over pay reduction was that they ‘get the misery out the door.’ ”

However, there are other margins to adjust, and its far from obvious (to me, at least) that layoffs are less damaging to worker morale than pay cuts. That's why I found the examples of non-wage adjustments in this Times story interesting:

A growing number of employers, hoping to avoid or limit layoffs, are introducing four-day workweeks, unpaid vacations and voluntary or enforced furloughs, along with wage freezes, pension cuts and flexible work schedules. These employers are still cutting labor costs, but hanging onto the labor.

And in some cases, workers are even buying in. Witness the unusual suggestion made in early December by the chairman of the faculty senate at Brandeis University, who proposed that the school’s 300 professors and instructors give up 1 percent of their pay.

“What we are doing is a symbolic gesture that has real consequences — it can save a few jobs,” said William Flesch, the senate chairman and an English professor.

He says more than 30 percent have volunteered for the pay cut, which could save at least $100,000 and prevent layoffs for at least several employees. “It’s not painless, but it is relatively painless and it could help some people,” he said....

At some companies, employees are supporting the indirect wage cuts — at least for now. The downturn hit so hard, with its toll felt so widely through hits on pensions and 401(k) retirement plans and with the future so murky, that employers and even some employees say it is better to accept minor cuts than risk more draconian steps.

The rolls of companies nipping at labor costs with measures less drastic than wholesale layoffs include Dell (extended unpaid holiday), Cisco (four-day year-end shutdown), Motorola (salary cuts), Nevada casinos (four-day workweek), Honda (voluntary unpaid vacation time) and The Seattle Times (plans to save $1 million with a week of unpaid furlough for 500 workers). There are also many midsize and small companies trying such tactics.

To be sure, these efforts are far less widespread than layoffs, and outright pay cuts still appear to be rare. Over all, the average hourly pay of rank-and-file workers — who make up about four-fifths of the work force — rose 3.7 percent from November 2007 to last month, according to the latest Labor Department data.


The magnanimous feeling will probably pass, said Truman Bewley, an economics professor at Yale University who has studied what happens to wages during a recession. If the sacrifices look as though they are going to continue for many months, he said, some workers will grow frustrated, want their full compensation back and may well prefer a layoff that creates a new permanence.

“These are feel-good, temporary measures,” he said.
Update (12/31): Washington Post columnist Steven Pearlstein ponders the merits of sharing the pain through wage cuts.


Anonymous said...

It's a little strange to think about, but if wages get cut on a national scale, we could see support for the Union grow proportionally. So assuming that most businesses don't like unions, would that mean that Management is likely shooting itself in the foot?

Bill C said...

Thanks for the comment. That's an interesting issue. I would think that whichever option is best in terms of employee morale would also be best for employers that want to discourage interest in unionization. If you're right, perhaps thats another reason why wage cuts are so rare.

Anonymous said...

Half of my friends are commissioned sales people and another third get bonuses. They would disagree that their "wages" were not cut.

What is the variable (commissions/bonuses) labor COS proportion to the fixed labor COS for a company/industry and for the country as a whole (compare US to Hong Kong).

In a Service business (i.e. software) this variable cost is relatively large component. Maybe wages aren't as sticky as Keynes thought.