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macroblog

August 18, 2014

Are You Sure We're Not There Yet?

In recent macroblog posts, our colleagues Dave Altig and John Robertson have posed the questions Getting There? and Are We There Yet?, respectively. "There" in these posts refers to "full employment." Dave and John conclude that while we may be getting there, we're not there yet.

Not everyone agrees with that assessment, of course. Among the recent evidence some observers cite in defense of an approaching full-employment and growing wage pressures is the following chart. It shows a rather strong correlation between survey data from the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) on the proportion of firms planning to raise worker compensation over the next three months and lagged wage and salary growth (see the chart). (This recent post from the Dismal Scientist blog and this short article from the Dallas Fed also discuss this assessment.)

Businesses' Response to Tightening Job Market

OK, no people brave enough to weigh in on this issue are actually saying they know for certain where the line is that separates rising wage pressures from just more of the same. But if you are looking for a sign of impending wage pressure, the chart above certainly looks compelling. Well, except that a pretty large gap has opened up between the behavior of the NFIB survey data and the actual growth trend in compensation since 2011. We'll have more on that in a moment.

The Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta also conducts a survey of businesses, and among the things we occasionally ask our panel is how much they expect to adjust their compensation of workers (including benefits) in the year ahead. But our survey data aren't showing the same rise in compensation expectations that we see in the NFIB survey data (see the tables).

Firm's Compensation Expectations

Of the 210 business respondents who answered the compensation question in our August survey, 81 percent expect to increase compensation over the next 12 months, compared with 4 percent who expect to reduce compensation for the next 12 months. In other words, on net, 77 percent of the businesses in our panel expect to raise compensation during the next 12 months. This share is a shade less than the proportion of firms that expected to increase compensation in May 2013.

Our survey data are not directly comparable to the NFIB since the NFIB survey asks firms about their plans during the next three months, and we ask about plans during the coming 12 months. Moreover, the NFIB surveys small businesses—roughly 75 percent of the businesses in the NFIB survey employ fewer than 20 workers, and about 60 percent employ fewer than 10.

So we cut our survey to isolate the smaller firms. The first observation we note is that as the size of the firm shrinks, so does the proportion of small firms planning to increase wages. This result isn't especially surprising since the small firms in our panel report considerably worse prevailing business conditions than do the large firms. But more to the point, we still fail to pick up a rise in expected wage pressure. On net in August, 53 percent of the firms in our panel that employ fewer than 20 workers expect to raise worker compensation during the next 12 months. That percent is down from 69 percent of similarly sized firms in May 2013.

Further, the average amount that firms expect to increase wages (2.7 percent) is also about unchanged from 15 months ago (2.8 percent), and this result is rather consistent by firm size and industry. If anything, our panel of businesses reports less expected compensation pressure in the year ahead than when we last asked them in May 2013. So no matter how we cut our panel data, we have trouble confirming the story that firms are anticipating significantly more wage pressure today than a year or so ago.

But maybe this is missing the big point of the figure that kicked off this post. Since about 2011, there appears to be a growing discrepancy between the recent trend in the NFIB survey on compensation increases and actual compensation increases. One could interpret that observation in two very different ways. The first is that the growing gap between the NFIB survey data and actual wage growth suggests pressure on compensation that will soon break loose. Perhaps. But another interpretation is that the relationship between the NFIB survey and actual wage increases has broken down recently. Correlation is different than causation, and many correlations coming from the labor market in recent years appear to be deviating from their historical norms. Isn't that the takeaway of the two earlier macroblog posts?

We're not brave enough to say that we know for certain that the economy isn't on the verge of an accelerated pace of compensation growth. But, if we were brave enough, we'd say our survey data indicate that such acceleration is unlikely.

Photo of Mike Bryan

Photo of Brent Meyer

Photo of Nicholas Parker


August 18, 2014 in Employment, Inflation Expectations, Labor Markets | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

August 12, 2014

Are We There Yet?

Editor’s note: This macroblog post was published yesterday with some content inadvertently omitted. Below is the complete post. We apologize for the error.

Anyone who has undertaken a long road trip with children will be familiar with the frequent “are we there yet?” chorus from the back seat. So, too, it might seem on the long post-2007 monetary policy road trip. When will the economy finally look like it is satisfying the Federal Open Market Committee’s (FOMC) dual mandate of price stability and full employment? The answer varies somewhat across the FOMC participants. The difference in perspectives on the distance still to travel is implicit in the range of implied liftoff dates for the FOMC’s short-term interest-rate tool in the Summary of Economic Projections (SEP).

So how might we go about assessing how close the economy truly is to meeting the FOMC’s objectives of price stability and full employment? In a speech on July 17, President James Bullard of the St. Louis Fed laid out a straightforward approach, as outlined in a press release accompanying the speech:

To measure the distance of the economy from the FOMC’s goals, Bullard used a simple function that depends on the distance of inflation from the FOMC’s long-run target and on the distance of the unemployment rate from its long-run average. This version puts equal weight on inflation and unemployment and is sometimes used to evaluate various policy options, Bullard explained.

We think that President Bullard’s quadratic-loss-function approach is a reasonable one. Chart 1 shows what you get using this approach, assuming a goal of year-over-year personal consumption expenditure inflation at 2 percent, and the headline U-3 measure of the unemployment rate at 5.4 percent. (As the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics defines unemployment, U-3 measures the total unemployed as a percent of the labor force.) This rate is about the midpoint of the central tendency of the FOMC’s longer-run estimate for unemployment from the June SEP.

Chart 1: Progress toward Objectives: U-3 Gap

Notice that the policy objective gap increased dramatically during the recession, but is currently at a low value that’s close to precrisis levels. On this basis, the economy has been on a long, uncomfortable trip but is getting pretty close to home. But other drivers of the monetary policy minivan may be assessing how far there is still to travel using an alternate road map to chart 1. For example, Atlanta Fed President Dennis Lockhart has highlighted the role of involuntary part-time work as a signal of slack that is not captured in the U-3 unemployment rate measure. Indeed, the last FOMC statement noted that

Labor market conditions improved, with the unemployment rate declining further. However, a range of labor market indicators suggests that there remains significant underutilization of labor resources.

So, although acknowledging the decline in U-3, the Committee is also suggesting that other labor market indicators may suggest somewhat greater residual slack in the labor market. For example, suppose we used the broader U-6 measure to compute the distance left to travel based on President Bullard’s formula. The U-6 unemployment measure counts individuals who are marginally attached to the labor force as unemployed and, importantly, also counts involuntarily part-time workers as unemployed. One simple way to incorporate the U-6 gap is to compute the average difference between U-6 and U-3 prior to 2007 (excluding the 2001 recession), which was 3.9 percent, and add that to the U-3 longer-run estimate of 5.4 percent, to give an estimate of the longer-run U-6 rate of 9.3 percent. Chart 2 shows what you get if you run the numbers through President Bullard’s formula using this U-6 adjustment (scaling the U-6 gap by the ratio of the U-3 and U-6 steady-state estimates to put it on a U-3 basis).

Chart 2: Progress toward Objectives: U-3 Gap versus U-6 Gap

What the chart says is that, up until about four years ago, it didn’t really matter at all what your preferred measure of labor market slack was; they told a similar story because they tracked each other pretty closely. But currently, your view of how close monetary policy is to its goals depends quite a bit on whether you are a fan of U-3 or of U-6—or of something in between. I think you can put the Atlanta Fed’s current position as being in that “in-between” camp, or at least not yet willing to tell the kids that home is just around the corner.

In an interview last week with the Wall Street Journal, President Lockhart effectively put some distance between his own view and those who see the economy as being close to full employment. The Journal’s Real Time Economics blog quoted Lockhart:

“I’m not ruling out” the idea the Fed may need to raise short-term interest rates earlier than many now expect, Mr. Lockhart said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal. But, at the same time, “I’m a little bit cautious” about the policy outlook, and still expect that when the first interest rate hike comes, it will likely happen somewhere in the second half of next year.

“I remain one who is looking for further validation that we are on a track that is going to make the path to our mandate objectives pretty irreversible,” Mr. Lockhart said. “It’s premature, even with the good numbers that have come in ... to draw the conclusion that we are clearly on that positive path,” he said.

Mr. Lockhart said the current unemployment rate of 6.2% will likely continue to decline and tick under 6% by the end of the year. But, he said, there remains evidence of underlying softness in the job sector, and, he also said, while inflation shows signs of firming, it remains under the Fed’s official 2% target.

Our view is that the current monetary policy journey has made considerable progress toward its objectives. But the trip is not yet complete, and the road ahead remains potentially bumpy. In the meantime, I recommend these road-trip sing-along selections.

Photo of John RobertsonBy John Robertson, a vice president and senior economist in the Atlanta Fed’s research department


August 12, 2014 in Economics, Employment, Federal Reserve and Monetary Policy, Inflation, Labor Markets, Monetary Policy, Pricing, Unemployment | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

August 08, 2014

Getting There?

To say that last week was somewhat eventful on the macroeconomic data front is probably an exercise in understatement. Relevant numbers on GDP growth (past and present), employment and unemployment, and consumer price inflation came in quick succession.

These data provide some of the context for our local Federal Open Market Committee participant’s comments this week (for example, in the Wall Street Journal’s Real Time Economics blog, with similar remarks made in an interview on CNBC’s Closing Bell). From that Real Time Economics blog post:

Although the economy is clearly growing at a respectable rate, Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta President Dennis Lockhart said Wednesday it is premature to start planning an early exit from the central bank’s ultra-easy policy stance.

“I’m not ruling out” the idea the Fed may need to raise short-term interest rates earlier than many now expect, Mr. Lockhart said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal. But, at the same time, “I’m a little bit cautious” about the policy outlook, and still expect that when the first interest rate hike comes, it will likely happen somewhere in the second half of next year.

“I remain one who is looking for further validation that we are on a track that is going to make the path to our mandate objectives pretty irreversible,” Mr. Lockhart said. “It’s premature, even with the good numbers that have come in...to draw the conclusion that we are clearly on that positive path,” he said.

Why so “cautious”? Here’s the Atlanta Fed staff’s take on the state of things, starting with GDP:

With the annual benchmark revision in hand, 2013 looks like the real deal, the year that the early bet on an acceleration of growth to the 3 percent range finally panned out. Notably, fiscal drag (following the late-2012 budget deal), which had been our go-to explanation of why GDP appeared to have fallen short of expectations once again, looks much less consequential on revision.

Is 2014 on track for a repeat (or, more specifically, comparable performance looking through the collection of special factors that weighed on the first quarter)? The second-quarter bounce of real GDP growth to near 4 percent seems encouraging, but we are not yet overly impressed. Final sales—a number that looks through the temporary contribution of changes in inventories—clocked in at a less-than-eye-popping 2.3 percent annual rate.

Furthermore, given the significant surprise in the first-quarter final GDP report when the medical-expenditure-soaked Quarterly Services Survey was finally folded in, we’re inclined to be pretty careful about over-interpreting the second quarter this early. It’s way too early for a victory dance.

Regarding labor markets, here is our favorite type of snapshot, courtesy of the Atlanta Fed’s Labor Market Spider Chart:

Atlanta Fed Labor Market Spider Chart

There is a lot to like in that picture. Leading indicators, payroll employment, vacancies posted by employers, and small business confidence are fully recovered relative to their levels at the end of the Great Recession.

On the less positive side, the numbers of people who are marginally attached or who are working part-time while desiring full-time hours remain elevated, and the overall job-finding rate is still well below prerecession levels. Even so, these indicators are noticeably better than they were at this time last year.

That year-over-year improvement is an important observation: the period from mid-2012 to mid-2013 showed little progress in the broader measures of labor-market performance that we place in the resource “utilization” category. During the past year, these broad measures have improved at the same relative pace as the standard unemployment statistic.

We have been contending for some time that part-time for economic reasons (PTER) is an important factor in understanding ongoing sluggishness in wage growth, and we are not yet seeing anything much in the way of meaningful wage pressures:

Total Private Earnings, year/year % change, sa

There was, to be sure, a second-quarter spike in the employment cost index (ECI) measure of labor compensation growth, but that increase followed a sharp dip in the first quarter. Maybe the most recent ECI reading is telling us something that hourly earnings are not, but that still seems like a big maybe. Outside of some specific sectors and occupations (in manufacturing, for example), there is not much evidence of accelerating wage pressure in either the data or in anecdotes we get from our District contacts. We continue to believe that wage growth is most consistent with the view that that labor market slack persists, and underlying inflationary pressures (from wage costs, at least) are at bay.

Clearly, it’s dubious to claim that wages help much in the way of making forward predictions on inflation (as shown, for example, in work from the Chicago Fed, confirming earlier research from our colleagues at the Cleveland Fed). And in any event, we are inclined to agree that the inflation outlook has, in fact, firmed up. At this time last year, it was hard to argue that the inflation trend was moving in the direction of the Committee’s objective (let alone that it was not actually declining).

But here again, a declaration that the risks have clearly shifted in the direction of overshooting the FOMC’s inflation goals seems wildly premature. Transitory factors have clearly elevated recent statistics. The year-over-year inflation rate is still only 1.5 percent, and by most cuts of the data, the trend still looks as close to that level as to 2 percent.

'Trends' in the June Core PCE

We do expect measured inflation trends to continue to move in the direction of 2 percent, but sustained performance toward that objective is still more conjecture than fact. (By the way, if you are bothered by the appeal to a measure of core personal consumption expenditures in that chart above, I direct you to this piece.)

All of this is by way of explaining why we here in Atlanta are “a little bit cautious” about joining any chorus singing from the we’re-moving-on-up songbook. Paraphrasing from President Lockhart’s comments this week, the first steps to policy normalization don’t have to wait until the year-over-year inflation rate is consistently at 2 percent, or until all of the slack in the labor market is eliminated. But it is probably prudent to be fairly convinced that progress to those ends is unlikely to be reversed.

We may be getting there. We’re just not quite there yet.

Photo of Dave AltigBy Dave Altig, executive vice president and research director of the Atlanta Fed


August 8, 2014 in Economic conditions, Economics, Employment, Federal Reserve and Monetary Policy, GDP, Inflation, Labor Markets | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

August 05, 2014

What’s Driving the Part-Time Labor Market? Results from an Atlanta Fed Survey

A subtle shift appears to be emerging in the public discussion of part-time employment in the United States. In monetary policy circles, elevated levels of part-time employment have generally been taken as a signal of lingering weakness in the labor market. (See, for example, here and here.) In this view, the rise in the use of part-time workers is a response to weak economic conditions, and the rate of part-time utilization will return to something approaching the prerecession average as firms respond to strengthening demand by increasing the hours of some of part-time staff who want more hours (thus reducing the number and share of part-time workers who would like full-time work) and by creating more full time jobs for those who want them (thus reducing the share of involuntary part-time workers).

But some labor market observers interpret the recent rise in the share of part-time jobs as more structural in nature—and hence less likely to be remedied by demand-inducing strategies such as monetary stimulus. If the arithmetic of having full-time or part-time workers has changed (for example, we frequently hear about increased compensation costs resulting from health care changes associated with the Affordable Care Act), then employers might lean more on part-time workers, at least while they can. Employers might be more able to do so while there is an ample supply of unemployed people and fewer full-time job opportunities, or if technology has made it sufficiently easy to manage workers’ hours. Virginia Postrel at BloombergView recently wrote an essay about how technology is helping firms better manage part-time employees. From that essay:

For many part-time workers in the post-crash economy, life has become like endless jury duty. Scheduling software now lets employers constantly optimize who’s working, better balancing labor costs and likely demand.

Perhaps the “demand” aspect of that passage refers to the level of overall spending in the economy (a point made in another BloombergView piece that Postrel’s column cites). But there is an undeniable technological slant to this story—one that is not so obviously about the condition of the economy. And based on recent legislative proposals out of Congress, some lawmakers seem to see an issue that is likely to persist beyond the current business cycle.

So is our issue insufficient demand, about which monetary policy can arguably do something, or is it a change in the nature of work in the United States, which is arguably impervious to the effects of changes in monetary policy?

Both of these questions seem valid, and reasonable perspectives support both of them (see, for example, here and here). So as we try to sort this out, we turned to the Atlanta Fed’s Regional Economic Information Network of business contacts and went to the source: employers themselves.

First, though, let’s review a few facts. During the recession, full-time employment fell substantially while the number working part-time actually increased. Today, there are about 12 percent more people working part-time than before the recession and about 2 percent fewer people working full-time hours. As the chart below shows, this slow rebound in full-time employment—and the sustained level of part-time employment—has resulted in a greater share of employed working part-time: 19 percent of employed people are working fewer than 35 hours compared with 17 percent of all employed before the recession began.

Number of People Employed Full-Time and Part-Time

To delve more deeply into these facts, we collected the responses of 339 firms with at least 20 employees to two questions: “Compared to before the recession, is your current mixture of part-time and full-time employees different? Do you think your current mixture will change over the next couple of years?” The responses (presented in the chart below) are weighted by national firm size and industry distributions.

Change in Firms' Mixture of Part-Time and Full-Time Employees

About two-thirds of firms indicated their mixture of full-time and part-time employees was not currently different than before the recession began. One quarter of firms said they currently have a higher share of part-time employees, and 8 percent have a smaller share. Looking forward, 31 percent believe their workforce will possess a greater share of part-time workers in two years than it does now.

What did employers cite as the reason for the increase in part-time employment? Firms that currently have a higher share of part-time employees gave about equal weighting to cyclical and structural factors, as the chart below indicates. Most chose the options “Full-time employee compensation costs have increased relative to those of part time employees” and “Business conditions (sales) are not yet strong enough to justify converting part-time jobs to full-time” as either somewhat important or very important. These firms saw the other options—“Technology has made it easier to manage part-time employees” and “More job candidates are willing to take part-time jobs”—as less important.

Reasons for Increasing Share of Part-Time Employees since the Beginning of the Recession

The next chart shows that structural factors are on the minds of employers, especially among firms who haven’t yet increased their share of part-time employees. Expectations of increases in the compensation cost of full-time employees relative to part-time workers were cited as the most important factor for all firms, but the difference in the relative importance among expected compensation costs and other factors was greater among firms that have not yet increased their part-time share of employment. Expected weak sales and future ample supply of people willing to work part-time were also seen as somewhat important factors for many firms.

Reasons for Increasing or Maintaining a Higher Share of Part-Time Employees Over the Next Two Years

Do firms anticipate a return to their prerecession mix of part-time and full-time employment? Although we didn’t ask this question directly, the next chart constructs an answer based on their responses to our other two questions.

Anticipated Change in Share Working Part-Time Two Years from Now Compared with Prerecession Share

Compared with prerecession levels, 34 percent of firms indicated they expect the share of part-time employees in their firm to be higher in two years. This segment includes the vast majority (90 percent) of the 25 percent of firms who already have a higher share now than before the recession and 12 percent of other firms who currently have the same share but anticipate increases during the next two years. Surprisingly, only about 2 percent of firms currently have a higher share of part-time workers and anticipate decreases over the next two years (they are represented in the above chart in the “no change” category).

To sum up, the results have something for people on either side of the cyclical-versus-structural debate. Weak business conditions and the increase in the relative cost of full-time employees have been about equally important drivers of the increase in the use of part-time employees thus far. Thinking about the future, firms mostly cite an expected rise in the relative cost of full-time workers as the reason for shifting toward more part-time employees. So while there are some clear structural forces at work, a large amount of uncertainty around the future cost of health care and the future pace of economic growth also exists. The extent to which these factors will ultimately affect the share working part-time remains to be seen.

Photo of Ellyn TerryBy Ellyn Terry, an economic policy analysis specialist in the Atlanta Fed’s research department


August 5, 2014 in Economic conditions, Employment, Labor Markets | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)