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October 01, 2010
What does "structural" mean?
On Wednesday, Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta President Dennis Lockhart summed up one of the hot policy questions of the moment this way:
"A necessary debate is jelling on the diagnosis of our economic troubles and the appropriate prescription. As I think about it, there are three lines of argument. One argument maintains there is not enough spending occurring—in economists' terms, a shortfall of aggregate demand—and that this shortfall can be reduced by further stimulus. A second argument is that the economy is undergoing deep structural adjustments in industry composition, labor markets, and household finances, especially the level of debt, and these adjustments will take considerable time to play out. Finally, it can be argued that much of the uncertainty has to be dealt with in other areas of government, and monetary policy can't do much about this kind of problem. This characterization doesn't do full justice to the complexity of the matter, but it lays out in broad strokes what questions are in play."
In some quarters, the opinion seems to be that the debate is effectively over. On the day of President Lockhart's speech, Mark Whitehouse wrote this piece in the Wall Street Journal:
"In recent months, policy makers have puzzled over the inadequate rate at which job searchers and job vacancies are coming together. By some estimates, if openings were turning into hires at the rate they typically do, the unemployment rate should be about three percentage points lower than the current 9.6%....
"A new paper, though, suggests employers themselves are at least part of the problem. The authors—Steven Davis of Chicago Booth School of Business, R. Jason Faberman of the Philadelphia Fed and John Haltiwanger of the University of Maryland—take a deep dive into Labor Department data and come up with an estimate of what they call 'recruiting intensity,' a measure of employers' vacancy-filling efforts including advertising, screening and wage offers.
"Their finding: Employers haven't been trying as hard as they usually do. Estimates provided by Mr. Davis suggest that over the three months ending July, recruiting intensity was about 12% below the average for the seven years leading up to the recession. Their lack of effort probably accounts for about a quarter of the shortfall in the hiring rate."
Paul Krugman made note of the same issue a few days earlier:
"Job openings have plunged in every major sector, while the number of workers forced into part-time employment in almost all industries has soared. Unemployment has surged in every major occupational category."
Whitehouse mentions a solution that comes from the Krugman (and many others') playbook:
"Depressing as it might seem, the finding is in some ways encouraging. It suggests that the trouble with hiring might be more a 'cyclical' function of low business confidence than a chronic, 'structural' ailment that will last for years to come."
The "low business confidence" part sounds right, but does that make the problem "cyclical"? I'm not so sure. Let's say an employer is reluctant to post a job opening because, just for example, the cost of the new employee potentially will expand by an amount that is unknowable until the details of healthcare reform legislation are clarified. Would you call that cyclical or structural? If "low confidence" reduces the search intensity of businesses, wouldn't it be reasonable to describe the resulting drop-off in job openings "structural"?
I think a reasonable answer comes down to whether the reluctance to create a job opening would be overcome by a pickup in business activity. But that may in turn depend on whether or not businesses think they can meet that demand by expanding productivity, something they have shown great aptitude for over the course of the past three years.
Maybe businesses have reached their capacity to grow through productivity gains rather than job creation. So maybe additional policy-induced demand will be enough to overcome the uncertainties that are clearly plaguing private decision makers. But I don't see that the evidence in hand so clearly tips the scales one way or the other.
By Dave Altig, senior vice president and research director at the Atlanta Fed
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