The Atlanta Fed's macroblog provides commentary on economic topics including monetary policy, macroeconomic developments, financial issues and Southeast regional trends.

Authors for macroblog are Dave Altig and other Atlanta Fed economists.

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):

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.


October 5, 2015 in Employment, Labor Markets, Unemployment | Permalink | Comments (0)

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.

diagram of choices made in Current Population Survey

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.

Chart 1: Z-Pop: The Share of the Population Fully Utilized

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).

Chart 2: Z-Pop and the Employment-to-Population Ratio

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.

September 22, 2015 in Employment, Labor Markets, Unemployment | Permalink | Comments (2)

September 21, 2015

What Do U.S. Businesses Know that New Zealand Businesses Don't? A Lot (Apparently).

A recent paper presented at the Brookings Institute, picked up by the Financial Times and the Washington Post, suggests that when it comes to communicating their inflation objective, central banks have a lot of work to do. This conclusion is based primarily on two pieces of evidence.

The first piece is that when businesses in New Zealand are asked about their expectations for changes in "overall prices"—which presumably corresponds with their inflation expectation—the responses, on average, appear to be much too high relative to observed inflation trends. And the responses vary widely from business to business. According to this survey, the average firm in New Zealand expects 4 to 5 percent inflation on a year-ahead basis, and 3.5 percent inflation over the next five to 10 years. Those expectations are for the average firm. Apparently, about one in four firms in New Zealand think inflation in the year ahead will be more than 5 percent, and about one in six firms believe inflation will top 5 percent during the next five to 10 years. Certainly, these aren't the responses one would expect from businesses operating in an economy (like New Zealand) where the central bank has been targeting 2 percent inflation for the past 13 years, over which time inflation has averaged only 2.2 percent (and a mere 0.9 percent during the past four years).

But count us skeptical of this evidence. In this paper from last year, we challenge the assumption that asking firms (or households, for that matter) about expected changes in "overall prices" corresponds to an inflation prediction.

The second piece of evidence regarding the ineffectiveness of inflation targeting is more direct—the authors of this paper actually asked New Zealand businesses a few questions about the central bank and its policies, including this one:

What annual percentage rate of change in overall prices do you think the Reserve Bank of New Zealand is trying to achieve? (Answer: ______%)

The distribution of answers by New Zealand firms is shown in the chart below. According to the survey, the median New Zealand firm appears to think the central bank's inflation target is 5 percent. Indeed, more than a third of firms in New Zealand reported that they think the central bank is targeting an inflation rate greater than 5 percent. Only about 12 percent of the firms were able to correctly identify their central bank's actual inflation target of 2 percent (actually, the New Zealand inflation target is a range of between 1 and 3 percent, centered on 2 percent).

If this weren't embarrassing enough for central bankers, the study also reports that New Zealand households (like U.S. households) don't seem to know who the head of the central bank is. In fact, the authors show that there are more online searches for "puppies" than for information about macroeconomic variables.

OK, to be honest, we don't find that last result very surprising. Puppies are adorable. Central bankers? Not so much. But we were very surprised to see just how high and wide-ranging businesses in New Zealand perceived their central bank's inflation target to be. We're surprised because that bit of information doesn't fit with our understanding of U.S. firms.

In December 2011, the month before the Fed officially announced an explicit numerical target for inflation, we wanted to know whether firms had already formed an opinion about the Fed's inflation objective. So we asked a panel of Southeast businesses the following question:


What we learned was that 16 percent of the 151 firms who responded to our survey had no opinion regarding what rate of inflation the Federal Reserve was aiming for. But of the firms that had an opinion, 58 percent identified a 2 percent inflation target.

But perhaps this isn't a fair comparison to the recent survey of New Zealand businesses. In our 2011 survey, firms had only six options to choose from (including "no opinion"). It could be that our choice of options biased the responses away from high inflation values. So last week, we convened another panel of firms and asked the question in the same open-ended format given to New Zealanders:

What annual rate of inflation do you think the Federal Reserve is aiming for over the long run? (Answer: ______%)

The only material distinction between their question and ours is that we substituted the word "inflation" for the phrase "changes in overall prices." (For this special survey, we polled a national sample of firms that had never before answered one of our survey questions.) The chart below shows what we found relative to the results recently reported for New Zealand firms.

Our survey results look very similar to our results of four years ago. About one in five of the 102 firms that answered our survey was unsure about the Fed's inflation target. But almost 53 percent of the firms that responded answered 2 percent. (On average, U.S. firms judged the central bank's inflation target to be 2.2 percent, just a shade higher than our actual target.)

Furthermore, the distribution of responses to our survey was very tightly centered on 2 percent. The highest estimate of the Fed's inflation target (from only one firm) was 5 percent. So again, our results don't at all resemble what has been reported for the firms down under.

Why is there a glaring difference between what the survey of New Zealand firms found and what we're finding? Well, as noted earlier, we've got our suspicions, but we'll keep studying the issue. And in the meantime, have you seen this?

Photo of Mike Bryan
By Mike Bryan, vice president and senior economist,
Photo of Brent Meyer
Brent Meyer, assistant policy adviser and economist, and
Photo of Nicholas Parker
Nicholas Parker, economic policy specialist, all in the Atlanta Fed's research department

Editor's note: Learn more about inflation and the consumer price index in an ECONversations webcast featuring Atlanta Fed economist Brent Meyer.

September 21, 2015 in Federal Reserve and Monetary Policy, Inflation | Permalink | Comments (2)

September 04, 2015

5-Year Deflation Probability Moves Off Zero

Since 2010, our Bank has regularly posted 5-year deflation probabilities derived from prices of Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities (TIPS) on our Deflation Probabilities web page. Each deflation probability, which measures the likelihood of a decline in the Consumer Price Index over a fixed five-year window, is estimated by comparing the price of a recently issued 5-year TIPS with a 10-year TIPS issued about five years earlier. Because the 5-year TIPS has more "deflation protection" than the 10-year TIPS, the implied deflation probability rises when the 5-year TIPS becomes more valuable relative to the 10-year TIPS. (See this macroblog post for a more detailed explanation, or this appendix with the mathematical details.)

From early September 2013 to the first week of August 2015, the five-year deflation probability estimated with the most recently issued 5-year TIPS was identically 0 as the chart shows.

Of course, we should not interpret this long period of zero probability of deflation too literally. It could easily be the case that the "true" deflation probability was slightly above zero but that confounding factors—such as differences in the coupon rates, maturity dates, or liquidity of the TIPS issues—prevented the model from detecting it.

Since August 11, however, the deflation probability has had its own "liftoff" of sorts, fluctuating between 0.0 and 1.3 percent over the 16-day period ending August 26 before rising steadily to 4.1 percent on September 2. Of course, this rise off zero could be temporary, as it proved to be in the summer of 2013.

How seriously should we take this recent liftoff? We can look at options prices on Consumer Price Index inflation (inflation caps and floors) to get a full probability distribution for future inflation; see this published article by economists Yuriy Kitsul and Jonathan Wright or a nontechnical summary in this New York Times article. An alternative is simply to ask professional forecasters for their subjective probabilities of inflation falling within various ranges like "1.0 to 1.4 percent," "1.5 to 1.9 percent," and so forth. The Philly Fed's Survey of Professional Forecasters does just this, with the chart below showing probabilities of low inflation for the Consumer Price Index excluding food and energy (core CPI) from each of the August surveys since 2007.

Although the price index, and the horizon for the inflation outcome, differs from the TIPS-based deflation probability, we see that the shape of the curves is broadly similar to the one shown in the first chart. In the most recent survey, the probability that next year's core CPI inflation rate will be low was small and not particularly elevated relative to recent history. However, the deadline date for this survey was August 11, before liftoff in either the TIPS-based deflation probability or the recent volatility in global financial markets. So stay tuned.

Photo of Pat Higgins
By Pat Higgins, senior economist in the Atlanta Fed's research department

September 4, 2015 in Deflation, Federal Reserve and Monetary Policy, Inflation | Permalink | Comments (1)

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