Are prices sticky?:
“Sticky” sales, by Phil Davies,The Region, FRG Minneapolis: Sales are ubiquitous in the U.S. economy. Black Friday, President’s Day, Mother’s Day, the Fourth of July; almost any occasion is cause for price cutting, accompanied by prominent signage, balloons and ads in traditional and social media to make the savings known far and wide. Retailers also put on sales ostensibly to clear out inventory, celebrate being on the sidewalk and go out of business.
Economists are interested in sales, not because they want cheap stuff (well, maybe they’re as partial to a deal as anyone), but because the role of sales has a bearing on a question central to macroeconomics: How flexible are prices? Price flexibility—how quickly prices adjust to changes in costs or demand—is crucial to understanding how shocks of any kind, including fiscal and monetary policy, affect economic performance.
Retail prices rise and fall frequently as merchants put items on sale and then restore the regular, or shelf, price. Indeed, the bulk of weekly and monthly variance in individual prices is due to sales promotions, not changes in regular prices. But there’s a lively debate in economics about the true flexibility of sale prices, from a macro perspective; for all their seeming fluidity, how readily do sales respond to changes in underlying costs and unexpected events that alter economic conditions?
How sale prices respond to wholesale cost shocks and broader macroeconomic shocks such as an increase in government spending or monetary policy stimulus, or a decrease in global aggregate demand, affects the flexibility of aggregate retail prices, with profound implications for monetary policy and the accuracy of macroeconomic models that guide policymaking.
Monetary policy as a tool for influencing the economy depends on sticky prices—the idea that prices don’t adjust instantly to shifts in demand caused by changes in money supply. If they did, an increase in demand for goods and services due to monetary easing would trigger an immediate price rise, suppressing demand and leaving economic output and employment unchanged. Thus, the stickier are prices, the more effective is monetary policy in modulating economic growth in the short and medium run. (Economists generally agree that money is neutral in the long run; that is, over a long enough period of time, prices are actually quite flexible, so monetary policy has no long-run effect on the real economy.)
Recent work by Ben Malin, a senior research economist at the Minneapolis Fed, provides insight into the import of temporary sales for price stickiness and thus monetary policy. In “Informational Rigidities and the Stickiness of Temporary Sales” (Minneapolis Fed Staff Report 513), Malin uses a rich data set of prices from a U.S. retail chain to investigate how retail prices adjust in response to wholesale price increases and other economic shocks. Joining Malin in the research are economists Emi Nakamura and Jón Steinsson of Columbia University, and marketing professors Eric Anderson and Duncan Simester of Northwestern University and MIT, respectively.
Surprisingly, the authors find no change in the frequency and depth of price cuts in response to shocks. Their analysis, which also taps micro price data underlying the consumer price index to look at how sales at a representative sample of U.S. retailers respond to booms and downturns, shows that merchants rely exclusively on regular prices to adapt to cost changes and evolving economic conditions. The research “supports the view that the behavior of regular prices is what matters for aggregate price flexibility,” Malin said in interview. ...