If wages fell during a recession

A paper I wrote with Dan Houser is forthcoming in the Journal of Economics Behavior and Organization. “If wages fell during a recession”


The title comes from Bewley’s famous book “Why Don’t Wages Fall During a Recession?” In that book, Truman Bewley asks managers why they do not cut wages in a recession when equilibrium analysis tells us that the price of labor should fall.

We run an experiment in which employers and workers encounter a recession. The employers could cut wages, or they could keep them rigid as we normally observe during recession. The concept of a “cut” assumes a reference point from which to go down from. We establish that reference point by letting the employer set a wage before the recession and repeating that payment to workers for 3 rounds.

We use a Gift Exchange (GE) Game to model the relationship between employers and workers. Employers offer a wage that is guaranteed to the worker. Employers have to trust that workers will not shirk. We do observe a few subjects shirking, and those people are not very interesting to us. We are interested in the workers who respond with positive reciprocity because that means there is “good morale” in the “workplace”. The employers interviewed by Bewley were afraid that wage cuts would damage the good morale that is necessary for a business to run.

After three rounds, there was a recession. The total surplus available in the GE game shrank by 10%.  In the Inflation treatment, the exchange rate of tokens to dollars increased, such that if firms kept nominal wages rigid there would in fact be a 10% real wage cut.

If workers resent nominal wage cuts, then firms should keep wages rigid in a recession. If worker morale falls and workers decrease effort, then firms will be hurt more by the fall in productivity than by a large real wage cost.

In fact, about half of the firms did cut wages. So, we did not observe wage rigidity and we’d like to do follow-up research on that point. It did mean that we had variation and could observe the counterfactual that we were interested in.

Workers don’t like wage cuts. Workers who had been selecting an effort level near the middle of the feasible range dropped their effort significantly if they experienced a wage cut. The real wage cuts under Inflation did not have as sharp of an effect on effort, which suggests some nominal illusion.

Here’s a cumulative distribution of effort choices among workers (Recession treatment had no inflation). After half of the workers experienced a wage cut, the effort distribution moves toward 0.05, the minimum effort level.

We measured loss aversion at the end. We can’t say that loss averse workers resent wage cuts, because everyone resents wage cuts. There’s maybe some evidence that loss averse employers are less likely to cut wages. Thanks for reading! Please reach out through my Samford email if you’d like to know more.

The relationship between loss aversion and wage rigidity deserves more attention from behavioral economics.

Special thanks to Misha Freer, Cesar Martinelli, and Ryan Oprea for conversations that helped us. Also, we are indebted to everyone that we cited, of course, and to all the people we failed to cite.

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