经济学人官方译文 | 降价经济学:众多消费品的价格变动出乎经济学家所料

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Free exchange
自由交流
Cut-price economics
降价经济学
Prices for many consumer goods do not move the way economists reckon they should
众多消费品的价格变动出乎经济学家所料

TWO YEARS ago British chocoholics felt the pinch from the decision to leave the European Union. As sterling tumbled, global firms selling to the British market faced the same production costs as before, but got less money for each sweet sold. Rather than raise the price per chocolate, some chose to shrink the chocolate per price. The famous peaks on a bar of Toblerone grew conspicuously less numerous (though Mondelez, the bar’s maker, said Brexit was not the cause). Other products suffered the same “shrinkflation”: toilet rolls and toothpaste tubes became smaller. The threat of Brexit made the phenomenon more visible, but it is surprisingly common. Statisticians and policymakers need to take note.
两年前英国脱欧的决定让巧克力控们感受到了冲击。随着英镑暴跌,向英国市场销售甜食的跨国公司面临的生产成本还和从前一样,单位产品的实际收入却减少了。一些公司没有选择提高巧克力的单价,而是让每单位价格的巧克力“瘦身”。每条三角巧克力棒(Toblerone)上著名的“山峰”的数量明显少了,尽管制造商亿滋(Mondelez)否认这是脱欧引发的。其他产品也出现了同样的“瘦身式涨价”,比如卷筒纸和牙膏管都变小了。虽然这种现象因为英国脱欧的威胁变得更加明显,但它实则惊人地普遍。统计学家和政策制定者都需要引起注意。

Every first-year economics student quickly becomes familiar with charts of supply and demand, which place price on one axis and quantity on the other. Given a drop in demand, the charts show, firms can either sell fewer items at the prevailing price or cut prices to prop up sales. But online retailing, which makes it easier to collect fine-grained price data, reveals how poorly textbook models reflect real-world market dynamics. The prices of consumer goods, it turns out, behave oddly.
每个经济学专业的新生很快都会熟悉供求关系图,图上两条轴线分别用来标示价格和数量。图表显示,如果需求下降,企业要么维持现价、少卖商品,要么降价以提振销量。但是,更容易收集到详细价格数据的在线零售业却揭示,教科书上的模型远不能正确反映现实的市场动态。事实证明,消费品价格的变动很是古怪。

A forthcoming paper by Diego Aparicio and Roberto Rigobon of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology helps make the point. Firms that sell thousands of different items do not offer them at thousands of different prices, but rather slot them into a dozen or two price points. Visit the website for H&M, a fashion retailer, and you will find a staggering array of items for £9.99: hats, scarves, jewellery, belts, bags, herringbone braces, satin neckties, patterned shirts for dogs and much more. Another vast collection of items cost £6.99, and another, £12.99. When sellers change an item’s price, they tend not to nudge it a little, but rather to re-slot it into one of the pre-existing price categories. The authors dub this phenomenon “quantum pricing” (quantum mechanics grew from the observation that the properties of subatomic particles do not vary along a continuum, but rather fall into discrete states).
麻省理工学院的迭戈·阿帕里西奥(Diego Aparicio)和罗伯托·里哥本(Roberto Rigobon)即将发表的一篇论文有助于说明这一点。企业销售的商品成千上万,但不会一种商品一个价,而是会为它们设定十几二十个价格点。访问时装零售商H&M的网站,你会发现数量惊人的售价9.99英镑的商品,如帽子、围巾、首饰、腰带、包、交叉背带、缎子领带、给狗狗穿的花衬衫等等。还有大批售价为6.99英镑或12.99英镑的商品。当商家给商品调价时,往往不是微调,而是将它们归到其他业已存在的价格点之下。两位作者将这一现象称为“量子式定价”(量子力学所基于的观察是亚原子粒子是以离散而非连续体的形式变化)。

Just as surprising as the quantum way in which prices adjust is how rarely they move at all. Retailers, Messrs Aparicio and Rigobon suggest, seem to design products to fit their preferred price points. Given a big enough shift in market conditions, such as an increase in labour costs, firms often redesign a product to fit the price rather than tweak the price. They may make a production process less labour-intensive—or shave a bit off a chocolate bar.
与量子式定价一样令人惊讶的是,价格根本就很少变动。阿帕里西奥和里哥本认为,零售商似乎是根据自己喜欢的价格点来设计产品的。如果出现劳动力成本增加等较大的市场变化,企业常常会根据价格来重新设计产品,而不是微调价格。他们可能会减少生产过程中的用工量,或者把巧克力棒稍微刮掉一些。

Central banks are starting to see the consequences. Inflation does not respond to economic conditions as much as it used to. (To take one example, deflation during the Great Recession was surprisingly mild and short-lived, and after nearly three years of unemployment below 5%, American inflation still trundles along below the Federal Reserve’s target rate of 2%.) In its recently published annual report the Bank for International Settlements, a club of central banks, mused that quantum pricing and related phenomena help account for such trends.
各国央行已开始看到这样做的后果。经济状况对通货膨胀的影响不如过去那么大了。比如,大衰退时期的通货紧缩出奇地温和且短暂,而如今经历了近三年的失业率低于5%之后 ,美国的通胀率仍低于美联储2%的目标。“央行俱乐部”国际清算银行在最近发布的年度报告中推测,量子式定价和相关现象部分造成了这种趋势。

But firms’ aversion to increasing prices may be as much a consequence of limp inflation as a contributor to it. When the price of everything rises a lot year after year, as in the 1970s and 1980s, firms can easily adjust the real, inflation-adjusted cost of their wares without putting off shoppers. A 5.5% jump in the cost of a pint after years of 5% increases does not send beer drinkers searching for other pubs in the way that a 0.5% hike after years of no change might. Thus falling inflation can make prices “stickier”. To compensate, firms instead find other ways to impose costs on buyers—such as making products smaller or lower-quality.
但是,企业不愿意涨价既可能是通胀疲软的一个原因,也可能是其结果。就像上世纪七八十年代所有商品年年大涨价之时,商家可以轻易调整商品经通胀调整后的实际成本,而不致引起消费者的反感。一品脱啤酒在连续多年涨价5%后再涨5.5%,并不会让客人跑到其他酒吧去,而如果价格多年不变后上涨0.5%却会有这种后果。因此,不断下降的通胀会使价格更具“粘性”。为弥补不涨价带来的损失,公司会寻找其他办法将成本转嫁到消费者头上,比如让产品瘦身或降低产品质量。

Labour markets are affected, too. Wages are notoriously sticky, especially downwards. In a world of low inflation, the ability to trim pay by raising wages less than inflation is lost to firms, with serious macroeconomic consequences. Economists blame sticky wages for causing unemployment during recessions. Facing reduced demand, firms that cannot cut pay to maintain margins while slashing prices instead reduce output—and sack workers.
劳动力市场同样受到影响。工资的粘性之大众所周知,尤其是在向下调整时。在低通胀的情况下,公司没法用让工资涨幅低于通胀的方式来削减薪资,这给宏观经济带来了严重后果。经济学家将经济衰退期的失业归咎于粘性工资。面对需求减少,那些无法在大幅降价时削减薪资以维持利润的公司只能转而减产和裁员。

But nimble firms have other options: the employment version of shaving a bit of chocolate from the bar. Some cut costs by boosting output per worker, often by driving workers harder. Tellingly, growth in output per worker now tends to fall in booms and rise during busts, precisely the opposite of the pattern 40 years ago, when inflation was high. Firms can respond to market pressures by reducing the benefits available to workers; Asda, a supermarket, recently announced plans to slash British workers’ holiday allowances. Or they can offer workers more tortuous schedules. Research published in 2017 suggests that being able to vary workers’ hours from week to week is worth at least 20% of their wages. On the flipside, during good times firms often opt to reward workers with office perks and one-off bonuses, rather than pay rises that cannot easily be clawed back during downturns.
但灵活的公司还有其他选择,比如把刮掉一点巧克力这个办法挪到用工环节上。一些公司通过提高人均产量来削减成本——通常是加大员工的劳动强度。很能说明问题的是,现在的人均产量增长往往在经济繁荣时下降,在衰退时上升,与40年前通胀高企时的规律正好相反。公司可以通过减少工人的福利来应对市场压力。阿斯达超市(Asda)最近就宣布了削减英国工人假期津贴的计划。或者公司也可以给员工安排更含混不清的工作时间。2017年发表的一项研究表明,如果可以每周调整员工的工作时间,便相当于至少节省了20%的工资支出。另一方面,在经济繁荣期,公司往往选择用办公室福利和一次性奖金来奖励员工,而不是给他们加薪,因为加好的薪水没法在衰退期轻易再降下来。

The uncertainty principle
不确定性原则

If it happens on a sufficiently large scale, the practice of tweaking quality in lieu of price could play havoc with essential economic data. Statistical agencies do their best to account for changing product quality, but if adjustments are unexpectedly common or subtle then muted inflation figures could easily be concealing a more turbulent economic picture. Central banks watching for big swings in inflation or wage growth as a sign of trouble could be reacting to figures that bear far less relation to business conditions than they used to.
如果这种情况发生的范围足够广,微调质量而非价格的做法可能会严重干扰基本经济数据。统计机构竭力解释产品质量为何出现变化,但如果调整出人意料地普遍或难以觉察,那么温和的通胀数据很容易掩盖更为动荡的经济形势。各国央行关注通胀或工资增长的大幅波动,将其视为问题的征兆,但它们为之做出反应的数据与商业状况的关系已经远没有以前那么密切。

What’s more, the substitution of quality for price as firms’ main way of responding to changing market conditions weakens the case for keeping inflation low and stable. Inflation makes relative prices less informative, economists reckon, making it harder to decide what to buy and how to spend. Rather than clarity, low inflation has brought a different sort of confusion: one of shrinking chocolate bars and lost holidays.
此外,当公司以质量代替价格作为应对市场变化的主要手段时,维持稳定的低通胀这一做法变得理据不足。经济学家认为通胀降低了相对价格的指示性,使人们更难决定该买什么以及如何花钱。但低通胀并没有带来确定性,而是带来了另一种困惑:巧克力棒为何瘦身,假期为何消失。

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