Friday, July 14, 2023

Less competition reduces the power of interest rates to cut inflation

The ground has been shifting under the feet of the world’s central bankers, including our own Dr Philip Lowe, the outgoing chief of the RBA. This has weakened the power of higher interest rates to get inflation down.

Like all economists, central bankers believe their theory – their “model” – gives them great understanding of how the economy works and what they have to do to keep inflation low and employment high.

They know, for instance, that inflation – rising prices – occurs when the demand for goods and services exceeds the economy’s ability to supply those goods and services. So they can use an increase in interest rates to discourage businesses and households from spending so much.

This will reduce the demand for goods and services, bringing it into alignment with supply and so stop it causing prices to rise so quickly. It will also slow the rate at which the economy’s growing, of course.

But, with a bit of care, they won’t need to push interest rates so high the economy goes into “recession”, when demand (spending) becomes so weak that the economy gets smaller, causing some businesses to go bust and many workers to lose their jobs.

This theorising has worked reasonably well for many years, leading central bankers to be confident they know how to fix the present surge in inflation.

But the economy keeps changing, particularly as we keep using advances in technology to improve the range of goods and services we produce, and the way we produce them.

One consequence of our businesses’ unending pursuit of labour-saving technology – more of the work being done by machines and less by humans – has not been fewer jobs, but bigger factories and businesses.

As in all the rich economies, many industries are now dominated by just a few huge companies. In our case, we’re down to just four big banks, three big power companies, three big phone companies, two airlines and two supermarket chains. And that’s before you get the handful of giants dominating the rich world’s internet hardware, software and platforms.

Trouble is, when just a few firms dominate an industry, they gain “market power” – the power to hold their prices well above their costs; to increase their “markup”, as economists say.

The size of markups is a measure of the degree of competition in an industry. When competition between firms is strong, markups are low. When competition is weak, markups are high.

There is much empirical evidence that industries in the rich countries have become more concentrated over time, and markups have risen. And, as I’ve written before, Australia’s no exception to this trend.

In economics, “monopoly” means just one seller. “Monopsony” means just one buyer. So, when a firm has a degree of monopoly power, it can overcharge its customers. When a firm has a degree of monopsony power – when workers don’t have many employers to pick from – it can underpay its workers.

Researchers have found much evidence of labour-market power. And again, I’ve written before about the evidence this, too, is happening in Australia.

But this week, at the annual Australian Conference of Economists, federal Competition Minister Andrew Leigh, himself a former economics professor, drew attention to two recent International Monetary Fund research papers suggesting that a lack of competition is reducing the effectiveness of monetary policy – the manipulation of interest rates – in influencing inflation.

The first paper, by Romain Duval and colleagues, uses American data and data from 14 advanced economies to find that, compared with low-markup firms, high-markup firms are less likely to respond to changes in interest rates. The level of their sales changes less, as do their decisions about future investment in production capacity.

So, fat markups mean companies are less likely to change their behaviour. They’re not likely to cut their investment spending, for example.

This means more of the pressure to respond to higher rates will fall on households with big mortgages, but also on firms with low markups.

The second paper, by Anastasia Burya and colleagues, uses online job ads from across the United States to find that in regions where firms have a lot of labour-market power – that is, where workers don’t have much choice of where to work – those firms can hire workers without having to offer higher wages to attract the people they need.

This is the opposite of what standard theory predicts. It’s bad news for workers, who could have expected strong demand for labour to push up wages.

But another way to look at it is that, where big firms have labour-market power, there’s little relationship between employment and the change in wages. If so, conventional calculations of the “non-accelerating-inflation rate of unemployment” – the lowest point to which unemployment can fall without causing wages to take off – will give wrong results, encouraging central banks to keep unemployment higher than it needs to be.

And at times when price inflation is too high, unemployment will have to rise by more than you’d expect to get the rate of inflation back down to where you want it. How do you bring about a bigger rise in unemployment? By increasing interest rates more than you expected you’d have to.

So, whether it’s inadequate competition in the markets for particular products, or inadequate competition in the market for workers’ labour, lack of competition makes monetary policy – moving interest rates – less effective than central bankers have assumed it to be.

The model of how markets work that central bankers (and most other economists) rely on assumes that the competition between firms – including the competition for workers – is intense.

In the real world, however, markets have increasingly become dominated by just a few huge firms, which has given them the power to keep prices higher than they should be, and wages lower than they should be.

Leigh, Minister for Competition, gets the last word: “If you care about central banks being able to do their jobs, then you should care about a competitive and dynamic economy.”