The Bright Side of Deflation, Part Two

David Leonhardt of The New York Times also writes about falling prices today:

The cost of fruits, vegetables, clothing and vehicles are all dropping. Housing prices have been falling for more than two years, and a barrel of oil costs about $45, down from $145 in July.

The inflation report released by the government on Tuesday showed that the Consumer Price Index was 3 percent lower last month than it had been three months earlier. It was the steepest such drop since 1933.

Leonhardt says a “deflationary spiral” isn’t likely, so the effects of falling prices will help cushion the blow of the recession on family incomes. What’s particularly interesting to me is his discussion of “sticky-wage theory”:

conomists 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…

The forecasting firm IHS Global Insight predicts that prices will fall by an additional 1 percent in 2009. That would bring the total drop, from the summer of 2008 to the end of 2009, to roughly 4 percent. But you can be sure that most executives will not force their workers to take a 4 percent cut in their paychecks. The fears about morale will be too great.

That’s good to know.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.