The Atlanta Fed's macroblog provides commentary on economic topics including monetary policy, macroeconomic developments, financial issues and Southeast regional trends.
- BLS Handbook of Methods
- Bureau of Economic Analysis
- Bureau of Labor Statistics
- Congressional Budget Office
- Economic Data - FRED® II, St. Louis Fed
- Office of Management and Budget
- Statistics: Releases and Historical Data, Board of Governors
- U.S. Census Bureau Economic Programs
- White House Economic Statistics Briefing Room
November 05, 2015
A Closer Look at Changes in the Labor Market
The Atlanta Fed's Center for Human Capital Studies hosted its annual employment conference on October 1–2, 2015, organized once again by Richard Rogerson (Princeton University), Robert Shimer (University of Chicago), and the Atlanta Fed's Melinda Pitts. This macroblog post provides a summary of the papers presented at the conference.
Many measures of labor market performance remain at relatively low levels compared with levels seen before the Great Recession. A key question for policymakers and academic researchers is the extent to which these changes reflect a slow recovery from a large cyclical shock—or do they simply represent the "new normal"? This conference brought together researchers studying several dimensions of these changes in labor-market outcomes. A common theme is that current labor market outcomes largely reflect the ongoing effect of secular trends that predated the Great Recession.
Recent empirical work has highlighted that the U.S. economy, and in particular the labor market, has seen a pronounced downward trend in several measures of "dynamism." Prominent among these measures are decreases in job and worker flows as well as in the entry rate of new establishments. A key challenge is to uncover the driving forces behind these trends and determine whether they reflect a worsening of U.S. economic performance.
Three papers addressed these changes. In "Changing in Business Dynamism: Volatility of vs. Responsiveness to Shocks?," Decker, Haltiwanger, Jarmin, and Miranda pose a key question for assessing whether these declines might reflect positive versus negative forces. Specifically, if lower volatility in firm-level outcomes reflects a change in the volatility in the economic environment in which firms operate, then it might well be a positive development. On the other hand, if the decreased volatility in firm-level measures reflects less responsiveness to changes in the economic environment, then the changes may constitute a negative development. The paper notes that elements of each may be present in different sectors of the economy, but their analysis suggests that lower responsiveness to shocks is an important factor.
In a second paper on the topic, "Dynamism Diminished: The Role of Credit Conditions," Davis and Haltiwanger focus on the decline in the business entry rate and consider one particular driving force: the role of housing wealth in facilitating start-up entrepreneurship. They ask whether cities that had the largest drops in housing wealth also had larger drops in entrepreneurial activity, holding other factors constant. Their analysis finds a strong correlation between the two, suggesting that the loss of housing wealth from the Great Recession has had a significant negative effect on the rate of business startups.
A third paper on the theme of diminished dynamics offered a somewhat different perspective. In their paper "Understanding the Thirty Year Decline in the Start-Up Rate: A General Equilibrium Approach," Karahan, Pugsley, and Sahin offer a more innocuous interpretation of the trend decline in the entry rate. They note that the growth of the U.S. labor force has slowed in the last 30 years, because of the aging of the baby boomers as well as the slowdown in the growth rate of women in the labor force. Standard models of industry equilibrium imply that this will require a slowdown in the rate of growth of firms, achieved through a decrease in the rate of entry. They also note that standard models imply that substantial differences in cohort dynamics in response to such a change will not be evident, and they depict this in the data.
Secular changes in inequality have received much attention in recent years. Two papers examined the nature of these changes. In "Firming Up Inequality," Bloom, Guvenen, Price, Song, and von Wachter use tax return data from the Social Security Administration to examine the underlying sources of increased income inequality since 1978. A key feature of this analysis is that it is based on tax return data for the universe of individuals, making it much more extensive and reliable than estimates based on smaller samples and self-reported measures of income. The authors find that the rise in income inequality is dominated by an increase in income dispersion across firms rather than within firms, which seems to result from an increase in the extent of sorting of workers across firms. The authors suggest that this increase reflects a change in the way firms are organized. The authors also show that executive pay plays essentially no role in the overall rise of inequality.
Lochner and Shin also examine the dynamics of inequality in "Understanding Earnings Dynamics: Identifying and Estimating the Changing Roles of Unobserved Ability, Permanent and Temporary Shocks." This paper focuses on changes in labor earnings among males from 1970 to 2008. Unlike the previous paper that focused on dispersion between and within firms, this paper focuses on permanent versus transitory components of inequality and the extent to which changes in inequality reflect changes in the price of unobserved skill. The paper provides a detailed decomposition of the evolution of these various components over a 40-year period. The decomposition between permanent and transitory components is of central concern since higher transitory variance averages out over time at the individual level. One key finding is that since 1990, the dispersion of permanent shocks has increased, especially for low-income workers.
Hall and Schulhofer-Wohl analyze changes in match efficiency in the U.S. economy since 2001 in their paper "Measuring Job Finding Rates and Matching Efficiency with Heterogeneous Job Seekers." Standard estimates based on an aggregate matching function that treats all workers as identical imply that matching efficiency has deteriorated dramatically during the Great Recession and its aftermath. The authors show that if one takes into account heterogeneity in matching rates for workers with different observable characteristics, a very different picture emerges. In particular, although a decrease is still evident in the aftermath of the Great Recession, this decrease reflects a continuation of an existing downward trend. The key implication is that lower matching rates currently found in the data reflect a secular trend.
In "The Great Reversal in the Demand for Skill and Cognitive Tasks," Beaudry, Green, and Sand offer a new perspective on secular trends in the labor market. Key to their explanation is that the boom prior to 2000 is associated with investment in the new general-purpose technology associated with information technology. Their theory holds that this technology is put in place during a period of high investment demand and high demand for skilled labor. But once the new technology is in place, it requires much less high-skilled labor to maintain or operate it. In this "de-skilling" phase, high-skilled individuals will move to jobs that are lower in the skill spectrum, thereby displacing individuals with lower skill levels to either move farther down ladder or even out of the labor force. The authors argue that this de-skilling phase began sometime around 2000 and was somewhat obscured prior to the Great Recession. The paper presents a stylized model of this process and presents several pieces of empirical evidence consistent with this dynamic. The key implication is that recent developments in the labor market indicate secular trends.
Autor, Figlio, Karbownik, Roth and Wasserman examine a different trend in U.S. labor market outcomes. In "Family Disadvantage and the Gender Gap in Behavioral and Education Outcomes," the authors examine the growing gap between male and female educational attainment. This gap is particularly large for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. The authors evaluate the hypothesis that the gap reflects differences in the sensitivity of boys and girls to adverse environments. They use data from Florida that allow them to study brother-sister pairs, allowing them to control for family environment. The key finding is that their study supports this hypothesis, though they are unable to identify which specific factors might be at work.
Full papers for most of these presentations are available on the Atlanta Fed's Center for Human Capital Studies website.
October 19, 2015
Should We Be Concerned about Declines in Labor Force Growth?
For the second month in a row, the October jobs report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) has revealed a decline in the labor force. From August to September, the labor force lost a seasonally adjusted 350,000 participants. And the August number of participants was a seasonally adjusted 41,000 below July's level. Although two months don't necessarily make a trend, observers have noticed the declines in the labor force (here and here, for example), and they deserve some attention.
Economists might be concerned about these labor force declines for two reasons. First, these losses might indicate that the current unemployment rate doesn't accurately reflect a strong labor market. Second, our economy needs labor to make things, perform services, and continue to grow. Let's take a look at the evidence supporting these two concerns.
Concerns about a shadow weak labor market
Two pieces of evidence suggest that the declines in the labor force don't indicate a weak labor market: employment growth and the reasons people cite for being out of the labor force. Employment growth is robust. According to the Atlanta Fed's Jobs Calculator, the labor market needs to create an average of only 112,000 jobs per month to maintain its relatively low unemployment rate of 5.1 percent. During 2015, the economy has created, on average, 198,000 jobs per month.
But we might be concerned if the workers leaving the labor market were entering into the no-man's land of the marginally attached, a term describing those who want a job, are available to work, have looked for work in the previous year, but recently have stopped looking. Some of these people have stopped looking explicitly because they think jobs prospects are poor (called "discouraged workers"). Others have stopped looking for other reasons such as attending school or taking care of family members. If these categories of nonparticipants were absorbing a large share of those leaving the labor force, we could be concerned that they would, at any moment, reenter the labor market and push that unemployment rate right back up again. The chart below tells us that this possibility is unlikely.
The chart decomposes the year-over-year changes in the total number of labor force participants into changes in the population and the negative changes among reasons given for nonparticipation in the labor force. (I use year-over-year changes because the reasons given for not being in the labor force are not seasonally adjusted.) Year-over-year changes in the population have been consistent in their contributions to changes in the labor force, propping it up. The growth in the contribution of those not wanting a job (pulling down labor force growth) has been fairly striking.
The share of people giving other reasons for not being in the labor force (discouraged, not available, etc.)—in addition to making relatively small contributions to changes to the labor force—has mostly been shrinking since April, meaning that they cannot explain the recent slowing of labor force growth. In other words, only a very small part of the growth in nonparticipants has come from those marginal workers who are most likely to reenter the labor force. So the first fear—that this declining labor force growth is producing a false sense of security in a relatively strong labor market—appears unfounded.
Threats to economic growth
Labor is an important component in the production process. Short of dramatic technological advancements, both the manufacturing and service sectors need a consistent source of labor to fuel output. Even though the economy appears to be on the right track with respect to job creation, ongoing declines in labor force growth could pose a challenge to economic growth. Additionally, as employers compete for fewer workers, we would expect wages to be bid up. Keep an eye on the Atlanta Fed's wage tracker to see how slowing labor force growth plays out in wages.
October 05, 2015
Labor Report Silver Lining? ZPOP Ratio Continued to Rise in September
We have received several requests for an update of our ZPOP ratio statistic to incorporate September's data. We have also been asked whether the ZPOP ratio can be constructed from labor force data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
The ZPOP ratio is an estimate of the share of the civilian population aged 16 years and over whose labor market status is what they say they currently want (assuming that people who work full-time want to do so). A rising ZPOP ratio is consistent with a strengthening labor market. We constructed the ZPOP ratio from the microdata in the BLS's Current Population Survey, but we can also construct a very close approximation from the BLS's Labor Force Statistics data. Here's how (using data that are not seasonally adjusted):
- Take total employment, and add those not in the labor force who do not currently want a job. Then subtract those who were at work from one to 34 hours for economic reasons. The ZPOP ratio is this figure as a percentage of the civilian population 16 years and over.
The following chart shows the history of the resulting ZPOP ratio over 20 years, seasonally adjusted.
Unlike the headline U-3 unemployment rate, which remained unchanged from August to September, the seasonally adjusted ZPOP ratio improved slightly (from 92.0 to 92.1 percent). Relative to an estimated 230,000 increase in the population over the month, the improvement in the ZPOP ratio was the result of an increase in the number of people who said they do not currently want a job and a decline in involuntary part-time employment in excess of the decline in total employment.
Finally, the chart below shows the performance of the seasonally adjusted ZPOP ratio relative to the comparable employment-to-population (EPOP ratio) and the EPOP ratio for those aged 25–54. The relatively greater recovery in the ZPOP ratio since 2009 is primarily because the EPOP ratios do not adjust for the share of the population who say they do not currently want a job.
September 22, 2015
The ZPOP Ratio: A Simple Take on a Complicated Labor Market
In her press conference following the latest FOMC meeting, Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) Chair Janet Yellen emphasized that she still sees cyclical weakness in the labor market, even as the headline unemployment rate has moved close to FOMC participants' median estimate of its longer-run normal level.
She also noted that FOMC participants look at many different indicators of labor utilization, because the headline unemployment rate (commonly known as the U-3 rate) is overstating the health of the labor market. One alternative measure that has received some attention is the employment-to-population (EPOP) ratio. However, a well-recognized problem with the EPOP ratio is that because it defines utilization as employment, trends in demographic and behavioral labor force participation can affect it.
This problem is partially addressed by looking at the EPOP ratio for the prime-age population, or by making adjustments for demographic changes as suggested by Kapon and Tracy at the New York Fed and further analyzed by our Atlanta Fed colleague Pat Higgins. Here, we propose an alternative approach that uses a broader definition of utilization that makes it less affected by labor supply trends.
The Current Population Survey does not ask the question "are your labor services being fully utilized?" Therefore, we have to use our judgment to classify someone as fully utilized. The figure below shows the choices we make. We assume that everyone who says they are working fewer hours than they want is underutilized (the red boxes). This includes those in the labor force but unemployed, those not in the labor force but wanting a job, and those working part-time but wanting full-time hours (similar to the treatment of underutilization in the broad U-6 unemployment rate measure).
Everyone working full-time, working part-time for a noneconomic reason, and those who say they don't want a job are considered fully utilized (the green boxes). Of course, this takes the "don't want a job" classification at face value. For example, someone who is retired is counted as fully utilized, irrespective of the (unknown) reason they chose to retire.
As shown in the Chart 1 below, the share of the population 16 years or older that is fully utilized—what we call the utilization-to-population (ZPOP) ratio—is currently about 1.5 percentage points below its prerecession level, after having fallen by 6 percentage points during the recession.
Notice that because the ZPOP ratio treats those who are not employed and don't want a job as fully utilized, it is less affected by demographic and behavioral trends in labor force participation than the EPOP ratio. (You can learn more on our website about how demographic and behavioral trends are affecting labor force participation.) When compared with the EPOP ratio, the ZPOP ratio paints a somewhat rosier picture of labor market conditions (see chart 2).
In sum, the utilization-to-population (ZPOP) ratio is the share of the working-age population that is working full time, is voluntarily working part-time, or doesn't want to work any hours. According to this measure, about 91 percent of the working-age population is considered fully utilized. The remaining 9 percent are "underutilized" and are a roughly even mixture of the unemployed, those not in the labor force but wanting to work, and those working part-time but wanting full-time hours.
The headline U-3 unemployment rate is very close to its prerecession level but is thought to overstate the health of the labor market. At the same time, we think that the EPOP ratio overstates the amount of remaining labor market slack. The ZPOP ratio is in the middle; approaching its prerecession level but still with some way to go.
- A Closer Look at Changes in the Labor Market
- Should We Be Concerned about Declines in Labor Force Growth?
- Labor Report Silver Lining? ZPOP Ratio Continued to Rise in September
- The ZPOP Ratio: A Simple Take on a Complicated Labor Market
- What Do U.S. Businesses Know that New Zealand Businesses Don't? A Lot (Apparently).
- 5-Year Deflation Probability Moves Off Zero
- Should I Stay or Should I Go Now?
- No Wage Change?
- Getting to the Core of Goods and Services Prices
- Different Strokes for Different Folks
- November 2015
- October 2015
- September 2015
- August 2015
- July 2015
- June 2015
- May 2015
- April 2015
- March 2015
- February 2015
- Business Cycles
- Business Inflation Expectations
- Capital and Investment
- Capital Markets
- Data Releases
- Economic conditions
- Economic Growth and Development
- Exchange Rates and the Dollar
- Fed Funds Futures
- Federal Debt and Deficits
- Federal Reserve and Monetary Policy
- Financial System
- Fiscal Policy
- Health Care
- Inflation Expectations
- Interest Rates
- Labor Markets
- Latin America/South America
- Monetary Policy
- Money Markets
- Real Estate
- Saving, Capital, and Investment
- Small Business
- Social Security
- This, That, and the Other
- Trade Deficit
- Wage Growth