April 16, 2012
Taking a deeper dive into the definition of inflation
Sometimes our familiarity with a topic gets in the way of our understanding of it. I often think that about inflation. It's widely known that inflation is a condition of rising prices, or what my favorite macroeconomics text defines more precisely in this way: "Inflation is an increase in the overall level of prices in the economy." And while this idea is serviceable for some purposes, it's pretty inadequate if you try to think about how a central bank goes about the business of controlling inflation.
Here's an example. Friday's retail price report for March revealed that prices rose 3.5 percent from February and averaged 3.7 percent (annualized) over the first three months of the year. I think it's pretty clear we have seen an "increase in the overall level of prices in the economy" this year. But how should the Federal Reserve respond to this rise?
I'm not going to offer an answer that question. I'm a policy adviser, not a policy maker. But we need to dig a little deeper into the textbook to get a better understanding of the inflationary process and how a central bank contributes to that process before we offer up an opinion on the matter.
The inadequacy of the textbook definition of inflation is a topic that's been bugging me for a long time. It's silent about the cause of the rise in prices and therefore does not make any distinction about whether the price increase is a corollary of the policies of the central bank or from another source that a central bank can only nominally influence. This distinction is an important one. (For what it's worth, this 1997 article I wrote explains how I think the term "inflation" has come to be synonymous with "price increase." And here's why I think a deeper appreciation of what constitutes "an increase in the overall level of prices" affects how one thinks about the inflationary experience in real time.)
Here's how economist Irving Fisher put it in his 1913 article "The Monetary Side of The Cost of Living Problem":
"If it can be shown, for instance, that today the good things of this world are becoming scarce on the one hand while money and its substitutes are not becoming plentiful it would be reasonable to conclude that the fault lies with goods and not with money. If, on the contrary, it can be shown that money and its substitutes are becoming plentiful and that goods are not becoming scarce, it is reasonable to conclude that the fault lies chiefly on the monetary side."
Are all price increases inflation? Should central banks use their tools to fight against any rise in costs? The answers to these questions have important implications for how we measure inflation in the short run versus the long run, the horizon over which a central bank ought to be held accountable for achieving price stability, and how monetary policies should be calibrated in the face of rising prices.
In that spirit, the Atlanta Fed has developed an animated video that provides additional perspective on the issue of inflation—specifically, what sorts of price increases are part of the inflationary process that is under the control of the central bank, and which are not. This video is the first in a new series that covers economic issues and the work of the Fed. The video is part of the Atlanta Fed's new feature called "The Fed Explained," which includes a range of new and existing content. We hope these videos stimulate conversation on a range of topics important to the Federal Reserve. The format is targeted to the general public as well as to students and teachers, and we hope it provides an engaging supplement to the study of the Federal Reserve.
Let us know.
Mike Bryan, vice president and senior economist at the Atlanta Fed
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April 13, 2012
Is the composition of job growth behind slow income growth?
"Why is this recovery different from all other recoveries?
"... what really sets the current recovery apart from all its predecessors is this: Almost three years after economic growth resumed, the real value of Americans' paychecks is stubbornly still shrinking. According to Friday's Bloomberg Economics Brief, ‘the pace of income gains is well below that of the past two jobless recoveries and real average hourly earnings continue to decline.'
"The Bloomberg report cites one reason for this anomaly: Most of the jobs being created are in low-wage sectors. According to Bloomberg, fully 70 percent of all job gains in the past six months were concentrated in restaurants and hotels, health care and home health care, retail trade, and temporary employment agencies. These four sectors employ just 29 percent of the country's workforce but account for the vast majority of the jobs being created."
Meyerson accurately repeats the Bloomberg story, but that story itself is somewhat misleading. To begin with, the 70 percent figure appears to include the entire category of professional and business services, of which temporary help services are only a part. The types of jobs that fall under the professional and business service label are broadly described by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and include employment in scientific and technical services, management jobs as well as administrative and support type jobs. In particular, the professional scientific and technical services sector is described as follows...
"The Professional, Scientific, and Technical Services sector comprises establishments that specialize in performing professional, scientific, and technical activities for others. These activities require a high degree of expertise and training. The establishments in this sector specialize according to expertise and provide these services to clients in a variety of industries and, in some cases, to households. Activities performed include: legal advice and representation; accounting, bookkeeping, and payroll services; architectural, engineering, and specialized design services; computer services; consulting services; research services; advertising services; photographic services; translation and interpretation services; veterinary services; and other professional, scientific, and technical services."
... and here is the description of management of companies and enterprises sector:
"The Management of Companies and Enterprises sector comprises (1) establishments that hold the securities of (or other equity interests in) companies and enterprises for the purpose of owning a controlling interest or influencing management decisions or (2) establishments (except government establishments) that administer, oversee, and manage establishments of the company or enterprise and that normally undertake the strategic or organizational planning and decision making role of the company or enterprise. Establishments that administer, oversee, and manage may hold the securities of the company or enterprise."
These parts of the economy are hardly made up of the prototypical low-wage jobs and, according to my calculations, you don't get to Bloomberg's 70 percent number without including them.
If you focus strictly on "restaurants and hotels" (or, more precisely, the leisure and hospitality sector), health care, retail, and temporary employment services, your conclusion would be that these sectors accounted for about 50 percent of total job growth/change over the past six months, a share that may still strike you as pretty significant. But is it really? A little historical context might help:
It is true that this expansion, which began in July 2009, has been unusually concentrated in the four sectors identified by Bloomberg and highlighted in the Meyerson piece. However, a closer look reveals that the only one of the four that looks unusual is employment in temporary help services, the share of which in this recovery has been five times the post-1990 level as a whole. (We reach the same conclusion even if we compare where we are today in this recovery—roughly three years out—with that same period following the recoveries from the 1991 and 2001 recessions.)
On the other hand, it is also true that the share of temp services in total jobs gains has been much lower over the past six months than it was earlier in this recovery. I don't know if that share will eventually fall to the (remarkably stable) level that characterized the (almost) two decades before the past recession. But even if that share remains near 12 percent, as opposed the more historical 6 percent level, I think the story remains the broad-based nature of the relatively tepid growth (in incomes and jobs) that has characterized this recovery.
By Dave Altig, executive vice president and research director at the Atlanta Fed
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April 09, 2012
The structure of the structural unemployment question
In the middle of its thorough analysis of U.S. labor markets, the New York Fed tucked in a direct look at whether persistently high unemployment can be plausibly ascribed to mismatches between the skill sets of unemployed workers and those skill sets required by available jobs. The operating hypothesis goes something like this: structural unemployment arises when the skills that are appropriate for declining sectors are not easily transferable to the jobs available in expanding sectors. In the current context, we can think, for example, about the challenge of turning construction workers into nurses (a metaphor offered a while back by Philadelphia Fed President Charles Plosser). If skill mismatch is an important source of postcrisis unemployment, it stands to reason that we would find its markers in the construction sector.
In fact, the authors (Richard Crump and Ayşegül Şahin) of a New York Fed study find no evidence that construction workers are "experiencing relatively worse labor market outcomes." Though this observation comes with its caveats—in this space my colleagues Lei Fang and Pedro Silos noted that construction workers who are finding employment in nonconstruction businesses apparently have suffered unusually large wage reductions—the Crump-Şahin results generally conform to other research questioning the proposition that skill mismatch looks to be a larger-than-normal problem in the current recovery.
The idea that inter-sectoral flows of employment, or the lack thereof, is a source of structural unemployment has a venerable history in macroeconomics. But it is increasingly clear to me that the bigger story is not about skill mismatches as workers flow across sectors but about mismatches as workers are faced with changing skill requirements within sectors. In other words, the issue is not changing construction workers into nurses, but changing both construction workers and nurses from old-style workers to new-style workers.
"Old style" and "new style" here refer to jobs defined by the performance of routine tasks versus those that require the performance of nonroutine tasks. The labor market outcomes associated with this shift from old style to new style has come to be known as "job polarization." Job polarization is the subject of a new paper by Nir Jaimovich and Henry Siu, described last week by David Andolfatto at MacroMania:
"Job polarization refers to the recent disappearance of employment in occupations in the middle of the skill distribution...
"Evidently, these classifications correspond to rankings in the occupational income distribution. Non-routine cognitive occupations tend to be high-skill jobs, and non-routine manual occupations tend to be low-skill jobs. Routine occupations—both cognitive and non-cognitive—tend to be middle-skill occupations.
"... across three decades, the share of employment in the middle of the skill distribution appears to be disappearing. Prime suspect: routine biased technological change (e.g., think of ATMs replacing bank tellers)."
The post-1980s job polarization trend has received a lot of attentions over the past decade—notable studies by MIT economist David Autor (here and here), for example—but the essential message of the Jaimovich-Siu study is the observation that trend changes are not smooth, but concentrated around downturns in the economy. Jaimovich and Siu explain:
"... job polarization is not a gradual phenomenon: the loss of middle-skill, routine jobs is concentrated in economic downturns. Specifically, 92% of the job loss in these occupations since the mid-1980s occurs within a 12 month window of NBER [National Bureau of Economic Research] dated recessions (that have all been characterized by jobless recoveries). In this sense, the job polarization 'trend' is a business 'cycle' phenomenon... Our first point is that polarization happens almost entirely in recessions.
"Our second point is that jobless recoveries are due to job polarization... jobless recoveries are observed only in... disappearing, middle-skill jobs. The high- and low-skill occupations to which employment is polarizing either do not experience contractions, or if they do, rebound soon after the turning point in aggregate output. Hence, jobless recoveries are due to the disappearance of middle-skill, routine occupations in recessions."
A few posts back, I posed this question:
"[The pace of improvement in employment, overall and by sector,] draw a clear picture of labor markets that are underperforming by historical standards—a position that I take to be the conventional wisdom. An argument against following that conventional wisdom centers on the question of whether historical standards represent the appropriate yardstick today. In other words, is the correct reference point the level of employment or the pace of improvement in the labor market from a permanently lower level?"
The Jaimovich-Siu results really do suggest that the answer could well be the latter. That said, the levels of employment in the broad nonroutine job categories identified in Jaimovich and Siu's paper remain below the peak levels associated with the 2001 recession—something that was not apparently true at this point in the recoveries after the 1990–91 and 2001 recessions.
Furthermore, not everyone agrees that the Jaimovich-Siu case is persuasive. Mark Thoma, for example:
"There is plenty of evidence pointing in the other direction, i.e. plenty of evidence indicating the problem is cyclical and we are nowhere near full recovery.
"With so much uncertainty remaining, the advice from Stevenson and Wolfers in a post... about how policymakers should react when they are unsure of how strong the recovery will be is appropriate:
'... the cost of too little growth far outweighs the cost of too much. If we readily bear the burden of carrying an umbrella when there's a reasonable chance of getting wet, we should certainly be willing to stimulate the economy when there's a reasonable risk that doing nothing could yield a jobless generation.'
"The fact that the costs are asymmetric and what this means for policy—it should lean against the more costly outcome—seems strangely absent from policy discussions and decisions."
It is worth noting that asymmetric costs referenced here are a matter of judgment, not theory. In fact, if the employment losses suffered through the recession are structural, stimulating the economy is exactly the wrong thing to do. (The classic exposition of this point, in math terms, was provided years ago by Michael Woodford.) In this sense, Thoma's argument just begs the question.
And though there may be "plenty of evidence" pointing in the direction of labor market slack, there is also developing evidence of tightness directly related to the job-polarization phenomenon. From Kathleen Madigan, at The Wall Street Journal:
"The U.S. labor market is struggling with a paradox: despite an 8.3% unemployment rate, many jobs go begging.
"The Institute for Supply Management-New York said this week that 20% of its members say the shortage of skilled labor is an obstacle to business. On Thursday, the National Federation of Independent Business [NFIB] reported a rising share of small business owners who say they have jobs that are hard to fill."
Care should be taken not to over-interpret these types of observations. Though the degree of skill shortages reported in the NFIB surveys was higher in 2011 than 2010, it is still well below prerecession levels. As I indicated in my earlier post, in the end the truth is likely to seen in the behavior of inflation. The asymmetry to which Thoma, and Stevenson and Wolfers, appeal is implicitly based on their belief that the risks of inflation are very low. With that in mind, this summary at Angry Bear of the March employment report warrants some notice:
"Recently, unit labor cost has been rising faster than prices, implying margin pressure and very weak profits. To sustain profits growth, firms have to reestablish stronger productivity growth. The weakness in March employment is a strong indicator that business is trying to rebuild productivity growth and profits growth."
The other possibility, of course, is that businesses will try to rebuild profit growth by raising prices.
The story continues to develop. Watch this space.
By Dave Altig, executive vice president and research director at the Atlanta Fed
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