The Atlanta Fed's macroblog provides commentary and analysis on economic topics including monetary policy, macroeconomic developments, inflation, labor economics, and financial issues.
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January 31, 2014
A Brief Interview with Sergio Rebelo on the Euro-Area Economy
Last month, we at the Atlanta Fed had the great pleasure of hosting Sergio Rebelo for a couple of days. While he was here, we asked Sergio to share his thoughts on a wide range of current economic topics. Here is a snippet of a Q&A we had with him about the state of the euro-area economy:
Sergio, what would you say was the genesis of the problems the euro area has faced in recent years?
The contours of the euro area’s problems are fairly well known. The advent of the euro gave peripheral countries—Ireland, Spain, Portugal, and Greece—the ability to borrow at rates that were similar to Germany's. This convergence of borrowing costs was encouraged through regulation that allowed banks to treat all euro-area sovereign bonds as risk free.
The capital inflows into the peripheral countries were not, for the most part, directed to the tradable sector. Instead, they financed increases in private consumption, large housing booms in Ireland and Spain, and increases in government spending in Greece and Portugal. The credit-driven economic boom led to a rise in labor costs and a loss of competitiveness in the tradable sector.
Was there a connection between the financial crisis in the United States and the sovereign debt crisis in the euro area?
Simply put, after Lehman Brothers went bankrupt, we had a sudden stop of capital flows into the periphery, similar to that experienced in the past by many Latin American countries. The periphery boom quickly turned into a bust.
What do you see as the role for euro area monetary policy in that context?
It seems clear that more expansionary monetary policy would have been helpful. First, it would have reduced real labor costs in the peripheral countries. In those countries, the presence of high unemployment rates moderates nominal wage increases, so higher inflation would have reduced real wages. Second, inflation would have reduced the real value of the debts of governments, banks, households, and firms. There might have been some loss of credibility on the part of the ECB [European Central Bank], resulting in a small inflation premium on euro bonds for some time. But this potential cost would have been worth paying in return for the benefits.
And did this happen?
In my view, the ECB did not follow a sufficiently expansionary monetary policy. In fact, the euro-area inflation rate has been consistently below 2 percent and the euro is relatively strong when compared to a purchasing-power-parity benchmark. The euro area turned to contractionary fiscal policy as a panacea. There are good theoretical reasons to believe that—when the interest rate remains constant that so the central bank does not cushion the fall in government spending—the multiplier effect of government spending cuts can be very large. See, for example, Gauti Eggertsson and Michael Woodford, “The Zero Interest-rate Bound and Optimal Monetary Policy,” and Lawrence Christiano, Martin Eichenbaum, and Sergio Rebelo, "When Is the Government Spending Multiplier Large?”
Theory aside, the results of the austerity policies implemented in the euro area are clear. All of the countries that underwent this treatment are now much less solvent than in the beginning of the adjustment programs managed by the European Commission, the International Monetary Fund, and the ECB.
Bank stress testing has become a cornerstone of macroprudential financial oversight. Do you think they helped stabilize the situation in the euro area during the height of the crisis in 2010 and 2011?
No. Quite the opposite. I think the euro-area problems were compounded by the weak stress tests conducted by the European Banking Association in 2011. Almost no banks failed, and almost no capital was raised. Banks largely increased their capital-to-asset ratios by reducing assets, which resulted in a credit crunch that added to the woes of the peripheral countries.
But we’re past the worst now, right? Is the outlook for the euro-area economy improving?
After hitting the bottom, a very modest recovery is under way in Europe. But the risk that a Japanese-style malaise will afflict Europe is very real. One useful step on the horizon is the creation of a banking union. This measure could potentially alleviate the severe credit crunch afflicting the periphery countries.
Thanks, Sergio, for this pretty sobering assessment.
By John Robertson, a vice president and senior economist in the Atlanta Fed’s research department
Editor’s note: Sergio Rebelo is the Tokai Bank Distinguished Professor of International Finance at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. He is a fellow of the Econometric Society, the National Bureau of Economic Research, and the Center for Economic Policy Research.
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January 17, 2014
What Accounts for the Decrease in the Labor Force Participation Rate?
Editor's note: Since this post was written, we have developed new tools for examining labor market trends. For a more detailed examination of factors affecting labor force participation rates, please visit our Labor Force Participation Dynamics web page, where you can create your own charts and download data.
Despite the addition of only 74,000 jobs to the economy in December, the unemployment rate dropped significantly—from 7 percent to 6.7 percent. The decline came mostly from a decrease in the labor force.
Since the recession began, the labor force participation rate (LFPR) has dropped from 66 percent to 63 percent. Many people have left the labor force because they are discouraged from applying (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data indicate that a little under 1 million people fall into this category). But the primary drivers appear to be an increase in the number of people who are either retired, disabled/ill, or in school.
Certainly, the aging of the population accounts for much of the increase in the retired and disabled/ill categories. Still, there has been a lot of movement over the past few years in the reasons people cite for not participating in the labor force within age groups. Knowing the reasons why people have left (or delayed entering) the labor force can help us understand how much of the decline will likely halt once the economy picks back up and how much is permanent. (For more on this topic, see here, here, and here.)
The chart below shows the distribution of reasons in the fourth quarter of 2013. (Of the people not in the labor force, 1.6 percent indicate they want a job and give a reason for not being in the labor force. They are categorized here as "want a job" only.) Young people are not in the labor force mostly because they are in school. Individuals 25 to 50 years old who are not in the labor force are mostly taking care of their family or house. After age 50, disability or illness becomes the primary reason people do not want to work—until around age 60, when retirement begins to dominate.
How has this distribution changed over the past seven years? For simplicity, I've grouped people by age to show changes over time in the reasons people give for not being in the labor force. However, you can also see an interactive version of the same data without age buckets—and download the data—here.
Of the 12.6 million increase in individuals not in the labor force, about 2.3 million come from people ages 16 to 24, and of that subset, about 1.9 million can be attributed to an increase in school attendance (see the chart below). In particular, young people aged 19 to 24 are more likely to be in school now than before the recession. Among college-age people, those absent from the labor force because they are in school rose from 57 percent to 60 percent. Among people of high school age, the share not in the labor force because they are in school rose from 87 percent to 88 percent.
The number of middle-aged workers not in the labor force rose by 1.8 million (or 11 percent), with four main factors driving the increase.* "Wants a Job" increased 546,000 (34 percent). The "In School" category increased 438,000 (a 38 percent rise). "Disability/Illness" rose 393,000 (an 8 percent rise), and 302,000 more people said they were retired (a 43 percent rise; see the chart below).
Among individuals aged 51 to 60, those not in the labor force increased by 1.6 million (or 16 percent). This increase came almost entirely from the number of people who are disabled or ill, which rose by 1.3 million (a 33 percent increase). Interestingly, the number of retired individuals actually fell by 305,000 between the fourth quarter of 2007 and the fourth quarter of 2010. Since then, the number of retired people within this age group has risen 183,000 but remains 122,000 lower than fourth-quarter 2007 levels. So it seems more people in this age group were delaying retirement instead of leaving early (see the chart below).
About 6.8 million of the 12.6 million increase in those not in the labor force came from the 61-and-over category. An additional 5.3 million (a 17 percent increase) are retired, and 1 million more (a 34 percent increase) are not in the labor force because they are disabled or ill. The other categories were little changed (see the chart below).
In total, the number of people not in the labor force rose by 12.6 million (16 percent) from the fourth quarter of 2007 to the fourth quarter of 2013. About 5.5 million more people (a 16 percent increase) are retired, 2.9 million (a 23 percent increase) are disabled or ill, and 2.5 million (a 19 percent increase) are in school. An additional 161,000 are taking care of their family or house, and an additional 99,000 are not in the labor force for other reasons. The fraction who say they want a job has risen the most (32 percent) but has contributed only 11 percent to the total change. The chart below shows the overall contributions by reason to the changes in labor force participation for all age groups since the onset of the recession.
What further changes can we anticipate? It's hard to say, as many moving parts are at play. Most people currently in school will be approaching the labor market upon graduation. But increased college and graduate school enrollment could augur a permanent shift in the portion of the population who are in school instead of the labor force. We can also expect continued downward pressure on the LFPR from retiring baby boomers as well as boomers who exit the labor force because of disability or illness.
Last, the portion of people who want a job has increased the most since the recession began, and is currently 1.4 million above its prerecession level. People in this category tend to have greater labor force attachment, making them more likely to shift into the labor force. In fact, the number of people in this category has already started to decrease—and is down 709,000 from the fourth quarter 2012.
My Atlanta Fed colleagues Julie Hotchkiss and Fernando Rios-Avila in their 2013 paper "Identifying Factors behind the Decline in the U.S. Labor Force Participation Rate," looked at a range of LFPR projections for 2015–17 based on different labor market assumptions. Depending on the future strength of the U.S. labor market, the projections are highly varying—ranging between a decline of 2.4 percentage points and an increase of 2 percentage points from the 2010–12 average of 64.1 percent. So far, more factors are pulling down the LFPR than pushing it up; the latest reading for December 2013 is already 1.3 percentage points below the 2010–12 average. At that pace, the Hotchkiss et al. lower-bound estimate will be reached before the end of 2014, unless the dynamics change as the economy further improves.
By Ellyn Terry, an economic policy analysis specialist in the research department of the Atlanta Fed
* I've chosen to break the "middle-age" grouping at age 50 instead of 54 because the probability of retiring has changed in different ways over the past few years for the 25- to 50-year-old group and the 51- to 60-year-old group. See the chart mentioned earlier for more detail.
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January 14, 2014
A Football Field of Labor Market Progress
The December meeting of the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC), as summarized in the minutes published last week, debated the context for tapering the quantitative easing (QE) program of asset purchases and adjusting the FOMC’s forward guidance on the federal funds rate. One of the issues debated was postrecession progress in the labor market. For example, participants struggled with the reasons for the large drop in labor force participation in recent years:
Some participants cited research that found that demographic and other structural factors, particularly rising retirements by older workers, accounted for much of the recent decline in participation. However, several others continued to see important elements of cyclical weakness in the low labor force participation rate and cited other indicators of considerable slack in the labor market, including the still-high levels of long-duration unemployment and of workers employed part time for economic reasons and the still-depressed ratio of employment to population for workers ages 25 to 54. In addition, although a couple of participants had heard reports of labor shortages, particularly for workers with specialized skills, most measures of wages had not accelerated. A few participants noted the risk that the persistent weakness in labor force participation and low rates of productivity growth might indicate lasting structural economic damage from the financial crisis and ensuing recession.
In a speech on Monday, Atlanta Fed President Dennis Lockhart emphasized similar concerns. He posed the question of whether the improvement in the unemployment rate since the end of the recession, now having recovered about 65 percent of its 2007–09 increase, is overstating the actual progress in the utilization of the nation’s labor resources. President Lockhart observes:
But the unemployment rate is influenced by labor force participation, and there has been a sizable decline in the share of the population in the labor force since 2009. This explains how you could get a big drop in the unemployment rate with anemic job gains, as occurred in December.
The labor force participation rate has fallen from 65.8 percent of the population at the end of 2008 to 62.8 percent in December 2013. On this, President Lockhart notes:
Some of the decline in labor force participation since 2009 is due to the baby boomers retiring, but even among prime-age workers—those aged 25 to 54—the participation rate is down significantly [2.1 percentage points]. This suggests that other factors, such as low prospects of finding a job, are playing a role.
To examine this possibility, we can look at the sum of marginally attached workers. These are people who say they are willing to work and have looked for work recently but are not currently looking.
The marginally attached are not counted in the official labor force statistic. During the recession, the number of marginally attached swelled (from around 1.4 million at the end of 2007 to 2.4 million at the end of 2009). Since the end of 2009, the marginally attached rate (as a share of the labor force including marginally attached) has retraced only 12 percent of the recessionary increase. From this, President Lockhart concludes:
It’s accurate to say the country has a large number of people in the so-called “shadow labor force.”
Because the sharp decline in labor force participation is not fully understood, and because the unemployment rate decline conflates declines in participation with employment gains, President Lockhart suggests it is useful to also look at the share of the prime-age population that is employed. Between the end of 2007 and 2009 the employment-to-population rate for this group declined from 79.7 to 74.8 percent. Since 2009, employment gains for the core of the workforce have advanced only 27 percent toward the prerecession peak (for the entire population over age 16, the recovery is essentially zero). Variations on this theme can be seen here and here.
Usually, the employment to population rate and the unemployment rate move in lock step (because labor force movements are very gradual). But that has not been the case during this recovery.
In addition to unemployment, President Lockhart highlights the issue of underemployment:
Many Americans are working fewer hours than they would prefer because their employers are offering them only part-time work. The share of workers who are involuntarily working part-time doubled during the recession and has moved only about 30 percent lower since the recovery began.
So, on the question of whether the unemployment rate decline has overstated actual progress in labor utilization, Lockhart says yes:
To sum up, these comparisons of employment data suggest that the labor market is not as healthy as the improved unemployment rate might suggest. The unemployment rate drop may overstate progress achieved.
The Atlanta Fed has been featuring the labor market spider chart tool on its website as a way to track relative progress in a number of labor market indicators since the end of the recession. For the purposes of President Lockhart’s speech, the relative improvement in various indicators of the rate of labor utilization was presented graphically in the form of yardage gains from the goal-line of a football field. The changes can be seen here (the data are from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and Atlanta Fed calculations). The idea is that the labor utilization “team” was driven back to its own goal line from the end of 2007 through the end of 2009, and the graphic shows how many yards (percent) the team has recovered as of the January 10 labor report. (The use of a football field image is perhaps appropriate, given that the recent BCS championship game featured two teams from the Sixth District.)
President Lockhart also suggests a link between labor market slack and the weak pricing trends we have experienced in recent years:
It’s worth noting that wage and salary income growth remains weak. I hear very little from business contacts about upward wage pressures except in a few specialized job categories. Wage pressures usually accompany growing demand and rising inflation but, although demand appears to be growing, inflation is very soft.
In fact, looking at the recent disinflation apparent in virtually all consumer price statistics relative to the FOMC’s longer-run objective, President Lockhart acknowledges the risk of an inflation “safety”:
...I think inflation will stabilize and begin to move back in the direction of the FOMC’s 2 percent objective as the economy gathers momentum. So I’m interpreting the soft inflation numbers as a risk signal. Through the lens of prices, the economy could be weaker than we currently believe.
By John Robertson, a vice president and senior economist in the Atlanta Fed’s research department
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January 08, 2014
Money as Communication: A New Educational Video by the Atlanta Fed
Roughly a year ago, the Federal Open Market committee (FOMC) switched from date-based forward guidance on the federal funds rate path to guidance based on economic conditionality. The idea, as Chairman Bernanke put it in his post-FOMC press conference, is that "[b]y tying future monetary policy more explicitly to economic conditions, this formulation of our policy guidance should also make monetary policy more transparent and predictable to the public."
Now, on the one hand, you can't be any more clear than to say that the policy interest rate will remain near zero until such-and-such a date. But if you really want to know the "reaction function" that guides monetary policy decisions, date-based guidance isn't going to speak very clearly to this question. Rather, you would probably rather know the economic conditions that would warrant the FOMC's decision to adjust the policy rate.
Let me suggest that clear communication is one of the foundations of good monetary policy because it's one of the foundational characteristics of good money.
A textbook description of money is usually just a recitation of its functions—it acts as a store of value, a medium of exchange, and a unit of account. This definition of money is a rather hollow one (as Minneapolis Fed President Narayana Kocherlakota noted back in his academic days) because it tells us only what money does but doesn't speak to the core issue—what is the problem that money solves?
The "unit of account" function, in particular, gets little development in the textbooks and has generally not carried much weight in the academic literature on the theory of money. (There are a few exceptions, like this NBER working paper by Matthias Doepke and Martin Schneider.) But if people are going to communicate with one another about value, those communications are going to be most effective if done using some standardized metric—and that's where money comes in. As a "unit of account," our money is how we communicate about value. It can be a physical thing, like a particular commodity, or it can be an abstract concept, like the broad purchasing power of a medium of exchange.
But this isn't to imply that all things are equally up to the job of being a good unit of account. Many economists, beginning with Adam Smith, have been critical of commodity-based monetary systems in this regard. In Congressional testimony in 1922 about stabilizing the purchasing power of our money, famed economist Irving Fisher argued that while gold may have been chosen as our money because it was a good medium of exchange, it had proven to be a poor choice as a unit of account on which contracts could be negotiated. Indeed, he argued for a system where the value of money was fixed in terms of a statistical index of its broad purchasing power, a system certainly similar in spirit to the one the Federal Reserve pursues today:
Is it not absurd to have a dollar also a unit in weight, when it is not intended to measure weight, but is intended to measure purchasing power. It is used in commerce in buying and selling, by debtor and creditor for lending and repaying; and we propose that the repayment shall be just. What does that mean? It does not mean that you shall return a given weight of gold or a given weight of anything; it means that you shall return to the lender something that is a just equivalent. Value is involved in there, and value is statistically increased by an index number average purchasing power.
In other words, it's essential that the unit of account conveys value so that the units expressed in trade, contracts, and financial accounts are both meaningful and durable. We recently produced a simple four-minute video on the subject. Give it a view and let us know what you think. We're big on getting our communications right.
By Mike Bryan, vice president and senior economist in the Atlanta Fed's research department
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