Profit-Price Inflation: Theory, International Evidence, and Policy Implications

Profits need to come down to reduce inflation and allow real wages to recover

New research confirms that corporate profits in Australia, despite recent moderation, remain well above historic norms, and must fall further in order to allow a rebuilding of real wages in Australia that have been badly damaged by recent inflation.

The report, compiled by Dr Jim Stanford (Economist and Director of the Centre for Future Work), with contributions from several other economists at the Centre and the Australia Institute, confirms that higher corporate profits still account for most of the rise in economy-wide unit prices in Australia since the pandemic struck.

The good news is that corporate profits have begun to moderate, as global supply chains are repaired, shortages of strategic commodities dissipate, and consumer purchasing patterns adjust after the pandemic. This has occurred alongside a reduction in inflation of over half since early 2022 (falling from a peak of 8.9% annualised in early 2022 to 3.4% by June 2023). This further confirms the close correlation between corporate profits and inflation — but both profits and inflation need to fall further.

The report also reviews the methodology and findings of over 35 international studies confirming the existence of profit-led inflation across many industrial countries (including Australia). The methodology and findings of these studies are very similar to that utilised by the Australian Institute and the Centre for Future Work in previous research on profit-led inflation.

The international research includes reports from numerous established institutions (including the OECD, the IMF, the Bank for International Settlements, many central banks, and the European Commission). Using similar methodology, these institutions came to similar conclusions: namely, that historically high corporate profits were the dominant factor in the initial surge of global inflation after COVID.

The report was submitted on 21 September as evidence to the ACTU’s Price-Gouging Inquiry, headed by Prof Allan Fels. This Inquiry is gathering documentary evidence on how Australian workers and consumers have faced exploitive and unfair pricing practices by Australian corporations, which have added to recent inflation and undermined real wages. The new report provides macroeconomic evidence confirming the relevance of the Inquiry’s terms of reference.

Policy-makers in other countries (including Europe and the U.S.) agree that corporate profit margins need to fall further in order to continue reducing inflation, while allowing real wages to recover to pre-pandemic levels. The new report shows this is also true in Australia. Average real wages are presently 6% lower than in mid-2021 (when post-pandemic inflation broke out, led by higher prices and corresponding super-profits in strategic industries like energy, manufacturing, and transportation).

Wages will thus have to grow significantly faster than inflation for a sustained period of time to recoup those losses. That can occur while still reducing inflation if historically high profit margins are reduced to traditional levels.

Full report