Ben Malin

Senior Economist

Benjamin.Malin@mpls.frb.org
CV
RePEc Profile

Interests:
Firms’ price-setting behavior
Business cycles
Economic growth

Ben Malin joined the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis as a senior economist in 2012, after spending 6 years as an economist at the Federal Reserve Board of Governors. His current research focuses on firms’ price-setting behavior, business cycles, and economic growth. Ben’s work has appeared in the Handbook of Monetary Economics, American Economic Review, Journal of Public Economics, and other journals. Ben holds a B.S. in economics from Iowa State University and a Ph.D. in economics from Stanford University.

Informational Rigidities and the Stickiness of Temporary Sales

We use unique price data to study how retailers react to underlying cost changes. Temporary sales account for 95% of price changes in our data. Simple models would, therefore, suggest that temporary sales play a central role in price responses to cost shocks. We find, however, that, in response to a wholesale cost increase, the entire increase in retail prices comes through regular price increases. Sales actually respond temporarily in the opposite direction from regular prices, as though to conceal the price hike. Additional evidence from responses to commodity cost and local unemployment shocks, as well as broader evidence from BLS data reinforces these findings. We present institutional evidence that sales are complex contingent contracts, determined substantially in advance. We show theoretically that these institutional practices leave little money “on the table”: in a price-discrimination model of sales, dynamically adjusting the size of sales yields only a tiny increase in profits.

Education’s Role in China’s Structural Transformation

We explore education’s role in improving the allocation of labor between China’s agricultural and nonagricultural sectors and measure the portion of China’s recent growth attributable to this channel. Using detailed micro-level data and an empirical model that allows for the endogenous selection of education and sector of employment, we estimate the relationship between an individual’s educational attainment, sector, and income. We find that about 11% of aggregate growth in output per worker from 1978 to 2004 is accounted for by increased education, with 9% coming through the labor-reallocation channel and 2% attributable to increased within-sector human capital.

Reset Price Inflation and the Impact of Monetary Policy Shocks

Many business cycle models use a flat short-run Phillips curve, due to time-dependent pricing and strategic complementarities, to explain fluctuations in real output. But, in doing so, these models predict unrealistically high persistence and stability of US inflation in recent decades. We calculate “reset price inflation”—based on new prices chosen by the subsample of price changers—to dissect this discrepancy. We find that the models generate too much persistence and stability both in reset price inflation and in the way reset price inflation is converted into actual inflation. Our findings present a challenge to existing explanations for business cycles.

Testing for Keynesian Labor Demand

According to the textbook Keynesian model, short-run demand for labor is sensitive to the demand for goods. In this view, sellers deviate from setting the marginal product of labor proportional to the real wage, instead enduring or choosing lower price markups when demand for goods is high. We test this prediction across U.S. industries in the two decades up through the Great Recession. To identify movements in goods demand, we exploit how durability varies across 70 categories of consumption and investment. We also take into account the flexibility of prices and capital-intensity of production across goods. We find evidence in support of Keynesian Labor Demand.

Comparison of Solutions to the Multi-Country Real Business Cycle Model

We compare the performance of perturbation, projection, and stochastic simulation algorithms for solving the multi-country RBC model described in Den Haan et al. (this issue). The main challenge of solving this model comes from its large number of continuous-valued state variables, ranging between four and 20 in the specifications we consider. The algorithms differ substantially in terms of speed and accuracy, and a clear trade-off exists between the two. Perturbation methods are very fast but invoke large approximation errors except at points close to the steady state; the projection methods considered are accurate on a large area of the state space but are very slow for specifications with many state variables; stochastic simulation methods have lower accuracy than projection methods, but their computational cost increases only moderately with the state-space dimension. Simulated series generated by different methods can differ noticeably, but only small differences are found in unconditional moments of simulated variables. On the basis of our comparison, we identify the factors that account for differences in accuracy and speed across methods, and we suggest directions for further improvement of some approaches.

Solving the Multi-Country Real Business Cycle Model with a Smolyak-Collocation Method

We describe a sparse-grid collocation method to compute recursive solutions of dynamic economies with a sizable number of state variables. We show how powerful this method can be in applications by computing the non-linear recursive solution of an international real business cycle model with a substantial number of countries, complete insurance markets and frictions that impede frictionless international capital flows. In this economy, the aggregate state vector includes the distribution of world capital across different countries as well as the exogenous country-specific technology shocks. We use the algorithm to efficiently solve models with up to 10 countries (i.e., up to 20 continuous-valued state variables).

Microeconomic Evidence on Price-Setting

The last decade has seen a burst of micro price studies. Many studies analyze data underlying national CPIs and PPIs. Others focus on more granular sub-national grocery store data. We review these studies with an eye toward the role of price setting in business cycles. We summarize with ten stylized facts: Prices change at least once a year, with temporary price discounts and product turnover often playing an important role. After excluding many short-lived prices, prices change closer to once a year. The frequency of price changes differs widely across goods, however, with more cyclical goods exhibiting greater price flexibility. The timing of price changes is little synchronized across sellers. The hazard (and size) of price changes does not increase with the age of the price. The cross-sectional distribution of price changes is thick-tailed, but contains many small price changes too. Finally, strong linkages exist between price changes and wage changes.

Hyperbolic Discounting and Uniform Savings Floors

Previous research suggests that, in partial equilibrium, individuals whose decision-making exhibits a present-bias – such as hyperbolic discounters who tend to over-consume – will be in favor of having a floor imposed on their savings. In this paper, I show it is quite difficult for the introduction of a savings floor to be Pareto improving in general equilibrium. Indeed, a necessary condition for the floor to be Pareto improving is that it is high enough to be binding for all individuals. Even in that case, because the equilibrium interest rate adjusts with the level of the savings floor, some individuals may prefer to commit to a future time path of consumption by facing a high interest rate (and no floor) rather than a high floor. An essential insight for understanding this result is to note that even those with little self-control (in an absolute sense) will choose to save a lot when the interest rate is high enough.

Resurrecting the Role of the Product Market Wedge in Recessions

Employment and hours appear far more cyclical than dictated by the behavior of productivity and consumption. This puzzle has been called “the labor wedge” — a cyclical intratemporal wedge between the marginal product of labor and the marginal rate of substitution of consumption for leisure. The intratemporal wedge can be broken into a product market wedge (price markup) and a labor market wedge (wage markup). Based on the wages of employees, the literature has attributed the intratemporal wedge almost entirely to labor market distortions. Because employee wages may be smoothed versions of the true cyclical price of labor, we instead examine the self-employed and intermediate inputs, respectively. Looking at the past quarter century in the United States, we find that price markup movements are at least as important as wage markup movements — including during the Great Recession and its aftermath. Thus, sticky prices and other forms of countercyclical markups deserve a central place in business cycle research, alongside sticky wages and matching frictions.

Informational Rigidities and the Stickiness of Temporary Sales

We use unique price data to study how retailers react to underlying cost changes. Temporary sales account for 95% of price changes in our data. Simple models would, therefore, suggest that temporary sales play a central role in price responses to cost shocks. We find, however, that, in response to a wholesale cost increase, the entire increase in retail prices comes through regular price increases. Sales actually respond temporarily in the opposite direction from regular prices, as though to conceal the price hike. Additional evidence from responses to commodity cost and local unemployment shocks, as well as broader evidence from BLS data reinforces these findings. We present institutional evidence that sales are complex contingent contracts, determined substantially in advance. We show theoretically that these institutional practices leave little money “on the table”: in a price-discrimination model of sales, dynamically adjusting the size of sales yields only a tiny increase in profits.

Lower-Frequency Macroeconomic Fluctuations: Living Standards and Leisure

Although it is well known that aggregate variables have slow-moving stochastic components, research on macroeconomic fluctuations has focused primarily on high-frequency movements of the data. I document some interesting lower-frequency facts in U.S. postwar data and investigate whether dynamic stochastic general equilibrium (DSGE) models can explain these facts. One fact of particular interest is that hours worked per capita is negatively correlated with both output per capita and total factor productivity (TFP) at lower frequencies, in stark contrast to the positive comovement of these three variables at high frequencies. I show that this lower-frequency fact is puzzling for many DSGE models and explore a variety of candidate solutions to this puzzle. I demonstrate that preferences which depend on a time-varying reference level of consumption (i.e., a “living standard”) can rationalize the observed patterns. Finally, I discuss the relative merits of the “living standards” interpretation of the model to alternative interpretations.