The Atlanta Fed's macroblog provides commentary on economic topics including monetary policy, macroeconomic developments, financial issues and Southeast regional trends.
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May 18, 2015
Sales Flexing Muscle at More Firms
The news in this month's Business Inflation Expectations (BIE) report is that, in the aggregate, firms' unit sales levels continue to strengthen: Specifically, the survey question measures firms' perceptions of current unit sales levels relative to "normal times."
This month, 70 percent of firms indicated their sales levels are at or above what they consider normal. Last November, that share was 61 percent, and one year ago, it was only 54 percent. We typically report the aggregate results in a diffusion index (see the chart), which also shows the overall progression toward "normal times" (a value of 0).
But, typical of aggregate statistics, these results obscure the diversity of experience among sectors. Digging deeper, we found that most (but not all) of the sectors represented in our panel have shown further improvement in their sales performance relative to last November (see the chart).
Retailers and those in the real estate and rental leasing/construction sectors reported the most significant improvement since November, with retailers approaching what they consider normal sales levels. This news is likely to be most welcome to Dennis Lockhart, our boss here in Atlanta, who has put the performance of the consumer on his "must watch" list. Two industries—finance and insurance, and transportation and warehousing—reported above-normal sales levels in our recent survey.
Only the manufacturers in our panel indicated that their sales performance has deteriorated since November, and they are now reporting sales well below normal. Of course, this news shouldn't be terribly surprising given the recent softness in the manufacturing indexes from both the Institute for Supply Management and industrial production data. This information was also on the boss's watch list, as he made clear in his speech:
Well, judging from our May BIE report, manufacturers aren't seeing improvement quite yet.
The stronger dollar was likely reflected in a drag on net exports...[and] looking ahead, I expect net exports to be a modest drag on economic activity over much of the year.... It should be noted, however, that in recent weeks the dollar has stabilized and oil prices have begun to move up a little. These developments, if they stick, could dilute somewhat what would otherwise be drags on the economy in the near term. We shall see.
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May 07, 2015
All Eyes on the Consumer
It appears that the first quarter may have been even worse than we thought. The CNBC rapid update—consensus estimates from a panel of forecasters—registered a decline of 0.3 percent as of yesterday.
Clearly, the year didn't start out so well, but here at the Atlanta Fed we have not yet lost faith. We are sticking to the narrative that 2015 will be another solid year of recovery.
That said, our faith is not blind and, befitting data-dependent policymakers, we need to make some call about what it will take to shake our confidence. In a speech delivered yesterday (May 6) in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Atlanta Fed President Dennis Lockhart pointed to our current lodestar:
As I assess the possible and necessary contributors to a rebound in the second quarter and thereafter, attention has to fall on consumer spending, in my view.
Is there a case for optimism? We think so, and it is based on the assumption that the fundamentals supporting consumer spending have been stronger than the actual recent pace of expenditures. President Lockhart continues:
What's up with the consumer? It's puzzling. The fundamentals supporting consumption growth seem strong. I consider consumer fundamentals to be real personal income growth, household wealth, access to credit, and consumer confidence. Consumer confidence is, in turn, highly influenced by the broad employment outlook.
To be more precise about that sentiment, the chart below illustrates an experiment based on a simple model that incorporates President Lockhart's description of "fundamentals." To be even more precise, we ask the following question: What would we have predicted for consumer spending growth during the past four months based on the history of actual consumer spending and its relationship to income, employment (and unemployment), confidence measures, and wealth (specifically, equity prices)? We also threw inflation and oil prices into the mix for good measure.
Here's what we got:
In other words, the "fundamentals" suggest the four-month annualized growth of consumer spending should have been in excess of 4 percent, as opposed to the approximately 1.5 percent we actually saw. That is a story we don't expect to persist, and our current view of the year is that first-quarter consumer spending results are not indicative of future performance.
Consumers are, of course, a forward-looking bunch, and it is possible the recent weak spending reflects a looming reality not captured by the simple model described above. But our forecast for now is that consumers will move to the fundamentals, and not vice versa.
As President Lockhart said in Louisiana: "Stay tuned."
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April 20, 2015
What the Weather Wrought
At Seeking Alpha, Joseph Calhoun responds to Friday's macroblog post, which noted that, over the course of the recovery, first-quarter gross domestic product (GDP) growth has on average been slower than the quarterly performance over the balance of the year:
... the "between-the-lines" meaning of the Atlanta post is to ignore all of this since this weakness is being portrayed as "just like last year" a statistical problem in the one measure that economists think most represents the economy.
Rest assured, we try pretty hard to not place any messages "between the lines," and the penultimate sentence of Friday's piece was meant to strike the appropriately tentative tone: "As for the rest of the year, we'll have to wait and see."
We do believe, like others, that weather was at play in the subpar performance of 2015's debut. Severe weather, in February in particular, can explain some of the first-quarter weakness, but "some" is the operative qualifier.
As the following chart illustrates, relative to a baseline forecast without weather effects—proxied with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration measures of heating and cooling days through March—we estimate that the severity of the winter subtracted about 0.6 percentage point from GDP growth:
Two points: First, to the extent that weather is a culprit in subpar first-quarter growth, we should see some payback in the current quarter (as, dare we say, we saw last year).
Second, we (the Atlanta Fed staff) did not begin the year projecting first-quarter growth at a mere 1.8 percent annualized (as the benchmark forecast in the experiment illustrated above implies). That rate of growth is a considerable step-down from our forecast at the beginning of the year, forced by the realities of the incoming data (as captured, for example, by GDPNow estimates). That gap leaves plenty of explaining left to do.
Observable developments can plausibly explain much of the forecast miss—mainly the initial, somewhat ambiguous, impact of energy price declines and the rapid, steep appreciation of the dollar, which has clearly been associated with a suppression of export activity. Our current view is that, as energy prices and the exchange rate stabilize, we will see a return to growth patterns that are closer to 3 percent than 1 percent.
We are not, however, selling the position that it is wise to be completely sanguine about the rest of the year. Here is the official word from Dennis Lockhart, president of the Atlanta Fed (subscription required for full citation):
I lean to a later lift-off date [for the federal funds rate target]. To the extent you want to simplify that debate to June versus September, I lean to September. I don't think, given the progress we have made, the state of the economy, and my confidence that the first quarter was an aberration, that it would be horribly damaging to go a little earlier versus later. But my preference would be to wait for more confirming evidence that we are on the track we think we are on and we expect to carry us back to inflation toward target.
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March 06, 2015
Signs of Improvement in Prime-Age Labor Force Participation
This morning's job report provided further evidence of a stabilizing labor force participation (LFP) rate. After falling over 3 percentage points since 2008, LFP has been close to 62.9 percent of the population for the past seven months. Although demographics and behavioral trends explain much of the overall decline (our web page on LFP dynamics gives a full account), there is a cyclical component at work as well. In particular, the labor force attachment of "prime-age" (25 to 54 year olds) individuals to the labor force is something we're watching closely. Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta President Dennis Lockhart noted as much in a February 6 speech:
Over the last few years, there has been a worrisome outflow of prime-age workers—especially men—from the labor force. I believe some of these people will be enticed back into formal work arrangements if the economy improves further.
There are signs that some of the prime-age individuals who had retreated to the margins of the labor market have been flowing back into the formal labor market.For one thing, LFP among prime-age individuals stopped declining 16 months ago for women and nine months ago for men. By our estimates, declining LFP in this age category accounts for about one-third of the overall decline in LFP since 2007, so 25- to 54-year-olds' decision to engage in the labor market has a big effect on the overall rate (see the chart). Even with an improving economy, however, a turnaround in LFP among prime-age individuals might not occur.
The reason an improving economy might not reverse the LFP trends is that LFP for both prime-age men and women had been on a longer-term downward trend even before the recession began, suggesting that factors other than the recession-induced decline in labor demand have been important. But the decline in the "shadow labor force"—the share of the prime-age population who say they want a job but are not technically counted as unemployed—demonstrates the cyclical nature of the labor market. For the last year and half, the share of these individuals in the labor force has been generally declining (see the chart).
Moreover, the job-finding success of the shadow labor force has improved. Although the 12-month flow into the official labor force has remained reasonably close to 50 percent, the likelihood of flowing into unemployment (as opposed to employment) rose during the recession. But during the past two years, that trend appears to be reversing (see the chart).
The ability of the prime-age shadow labor force to find work is improving at the same time that the LFP rate of the prime-age population is stabilizing. Taken together, this trend is consistent with improving job market opportunities and further absorption of the nation's slack labor resources.For a more complete analysis of long-term behavioral and demographic effects on LFP for the prime-age and non-prime-age populations, see our Labor Force Participation Dynamics web page, which now includes 2014 data.
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February 12, 2015
Are We Becoming a Part-Time Economy?
Compared with 2007, the U.S. labor market now has about 2.5 million more people working part-time and about 2.2 million fewer people working full-time. In this sense, U.S. businesses are more reliant on part-time workers now than in the past.
But that doesn't necessarily imply we are moving toward a permanently higher share of the workforce engaged in part-time employment. As our colleague Julie Hotchkiss pointed out, almost all jobs created on net from 2010 to 2014 have been full-time. As a result, from 2009 to 2014, the part-time share of employment has declined from 21 percent to 19 percent and is about halfway back to its prerecession level.
But the decline in part-time utilization is not uniform across industries and occupations. In particular, the decline is much slower for occupations that tend to have an above-average share of people working part-time. This portion of the workforce includes general-service jobs such as food preparation, office and administrative support, janitorial services, personal care services, and sales.
The following chart compares the share of part-time employment for these general-service occupations with the share for production-type occupations (such as machine operators, fabricators, construction workers, and truck drivers).
The above chart suggests that if you talk to retailers or restaurateurs, they will say that they always relied pretty heavily on part-time workers. Their utilization increased during the recession, and it really hasn't changed much since then. But manufacturers or construction firms are more likely to say that part-time work is not that common, and although they did increase their utilization of part-time workers during the recession by quite a lot, things have been gradually returning to normal.
Why is the part-time share of employment declining more slowly in general-service occupations? The economy has been generating full-time general-service jobs at a much slower pace than in the past. Of the approximately 7.6 million full-time jobs created between 2010 and 2014, only about 17 percent have been in general-service occupations, versus about 32 percent of the 7.8 million full-time jobs created between 2003 and 2007. At the current rate of full-time job creation in general-service occupations, it would take more than 10 years for the part-time share of employment in general-service occupations to return to its prerecession average.
From the workers' perspective, a relevant question is whether these part-time utilization rates are desirable. Some people work part-time and do not currently want or are not available for full-time work (so-called part-time for noneconomic reasons, PTNER). Others are available and want full-time work but are working part-time because of slack business conditions or the unavailability of full-time jobs (so-called part-time for economic reasons, PTER). The following chart shows the share of employment in the general-service and production occupation groupings that is PTER and PTNER.
The chart indicates that most of the movement in the part-time share of employment is coming from people who want full-time work. In both cases, the share of involuntary part-time employment rose during the recession, but for general-service occupations it has been more persistent than for production jobs.
Why has the demand for full-time workers in general-service occupations been more subdued than for other jobs? As the following chart shows, wage growth for these occupations has been quite weak in the past few years, suggesting that employers have not been experiencing much tightness in the supply of workers to fill vacancies for these occupations. Presumably, then, the firms generally find it acceptable to have a greater share of part-time workers than in the past.
The overall share of the workforce employed in part-time jobs is declining and is likely to continue to decline. But the decline is not uniform across industries and occupations. Working part-time has become much more likely in general-service occupations than in the past—and a greater share of those workers are not happy about it.
By John Robertson, vice president and senior economist, and
Ellie Terry, an economic policy analysis specialist, both of the Atlanta Fed's research department
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January 15, 2015
Contrasting the Financing Needs of Different Types of Firms: Evidence From a New Small Business Survey
The National Federation of Independent Business's (NFIB) small business optimism index surpassed 100 in December, a sign that small business' outlook on the economy has now reached "normal" long-run average levels. But that doesn't mean that everything is moonlight and roses for small firms. One question from the NFIB's survey (one that is not used in its overall optimism index) concerns a firm's ability to obtain credit. The survey asks, "During the last three months, was your firm able to satisfy its borrowing needs?" The chart below shows the net percent (those responding "yes" minus those saying "no") of firms reporting improving credit access.
The chart suggests that credit access has improved significantly since the end of the recession but that conditions still appear to be tougher than typical. Given the importance of small firms to employment growth, we at the Atlanta Fed have been particularly interested in monitoring financing conditions for small businesses. For this reason, we've conducted a regular survey of small businesses in the Southeast since 2010. In the fall of 2014, we joined forces with the New York, Philadelphia, and Cleveland Feds to expand and refine the small business data collection effort. The results of that survey are now available on our website and include downloadable data tabulations by different types of firms. Specifically, data are available by criteria including states, industries, firm size (in terms of revenue), and firm development stage.
Our previous small business surveys have focused on the experiences of young firms, so I found the new survey's tabulation by firm development stage of particular interest. For example, here's a summary of the experience of startups' ability to access financing markets versus that of mature firms.
First, what constitutes a startup? For comparison purposes, we draw the line (somewhat arbitrarily) at less than five years old. For mature firms, they not only have to be at least five years old, but they also must have at least 10 employees and hold some debt. When I picture a startup, I imagine a new restaurant owner purchasing tables and chairs, or a tech company manufacturing a prototype to market to potential investors. These types of firms are unproven and risky and tend to need relatively small amounts of money. Which begs the question: where are they going to get funds they need to grow? Before answering that question, let's examine the recent business performance of startups in the survey. About half of startups operated at a loss during the previous 12 months, but only about 20 percent had shrinking revenues. Most were either increasing the size of their workforce or had the same number of employees as a year ago. The top challenge reported by these young businesses was nearly tied between "difficulty attracting customers" (reported by 27 percent of firms) and "lack of credit availability" (reported by 26 percent of firms).
So how do those behind startups fund their businesses? In 2013, nearly half relied primarily on personal savings, whereas about 18 percent primarily used retained business earnings. Without a solid revenue history to prove their creditworthiness, financing was understandably difficult to come by. Only about 38 percent of startups received at least some financing, compared with 93 percent of mature firms. Many startups assumed it would be a fruitless endeavor—about one-fifth of them assumed they would be turned down, the cost would be too high, or the search would be too time consuming. The number of people who sought financing was about equal to those who were discouraged, and most were seeking less than $250,000.
Where did they apply? Their search was much broader than used by their counterparts at mature firms. Although both types of firms sought mostly loans and lines of credit, applications for products backed by the Small Business Administration, credit cards, and equity investments were notably higher for younger firms compared to mature firms. When it came to loans and lines of credit, there were large differences not only in what types of insitutions they submitted applications to, but also where they were most successful. Startups were mostly likely to apply at large regional and large national banks, but their approval rates were higher with smaller banks and online lenders (see the table).
The differences between young firms and mature ones is only one way to look at the data. The full report details variations by firm size, industry, and state. For more on general business and finance conditions of small firms, visit the small business trends dashboard.
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December 23, 2014
Chances of Finding Full-Time Employment Have Improved
Today's sharp upward revision to the third-quarter GDP reading reinforces the view that the underlying strength of the U.S. economy has been sufficient to support more rapid improvement in the labor market. Last week we noted the solid and broad-based recent improvement in the involuntary part-time work (part-time for economic reasons or PTER) situation over the last year, noting significant declines in the stock of PTER workers across industrial sectors and occupational categories.
In this post we look at labor market improvement over the last year in terms of worker flows. Because the Current Population Survey is set up as a rotating panel, many of the people in the survey in any given month were in the survey a year earlier as well. This allows us to ask the question: if you were an unemployed prime-age individual (25–54 years old) or working PTER one year ago, what are you doing today? Have your chances of becoming employed full-time improved? Chart 1 shows the distribution of labor market outcomes of prime-age workers who were PTER one year earlier. Chart 2 shows the distribution of outcomes for those who were unemployed one year earlier. The data are 12-month moving averages to smooth out seasonal variation.
For both PTER workers and the unemployed, the chances of becoming employed full-time are up from a year earlier (and the chances of being unemployed are down). In November 2013 there was about a 45 percent chance of someone who was PTER a year earlier having a full-time job. In November 2014 that had improved to about a 48 percent chance. This full-time employment flow rate is still much lower than the prerecession average of around 55 percent, and the improvement appears to have stalled a bit in recent months, but it is a notable improvement from a year earlier nonetheless. For PTER workers, the picture along other dimensions is more mixed. The chances of becoming unemployed appear to have returned to around prerecession levels, which is good, but the likelihood of remaining PTER is still quite elevated.
For the unemployed, there has been an even more marked improvement in the full-time finding rate over the last year. In November 2013 there was around a 32 percent chance of someone who was unemployed a year earlier having a full-time job. In November 2014 the chances improved to close to 36 percent. Moreover, the improvement in the rate of finding full-time work is responsible for the similar-sized decline in the chances of remaining unemployed. The only negative here is that the likelihood of an unemployed worker becoming PTER, while low, remains elevated compared with before the recession.
All in all, we think these developments are encouraging and add to the view that the pace of labor market improvement has picked up over the last year.
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December 19, 2014
Exploring the Increasingly Widespread Decline in Involuntary Part-Time Work
We at the Atlanta Fed have been arguing for some time that the unusually large number and share of workers employed part-time but wanting full-time work (counted in the Current Population Survey as part-time for economic reasons, or PTER) partly reflects slack in the labor market that is not reflected in the official unemployment statistics. We are in good company. Chair Yellen reiterated this view in her prepared remarks during Wednesday’s Federal Open Market Committee press conference. The good news is that the stock of PTER workers has declined by around 900,000 during the last year compared with a decline of fewer than 200,000 in 2013. Moreover, the CPS data suggest the decline is primarily because these workers have either found full-time work or are no longer wanting full-time work (that is, are working part-time for noneconomic reasons), and not because they have become unemployed or have joined the ranks of the discouraged outside of the formal labor market. Even better news is that the recent decline has been very broad based (see the charts).
Up until about a year ago, the overall decline in the number of PTER workers was driven primarily by those in middle-skill occupations in goods-producing industries and, to a lesser extent, in services-producing industries. But during 2014, the decline is also evident in services-producing industries among PTER workers in both low- and high-skill occupations—two categories that had not seen any material decline in their PTER ranks since the end of the recession. (A previous macroblog post discussed the various occupational skill categories.) There is still a ways to go, but these developments are very encouraging.
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November 24, 2014
And the Winner Is...Full-Time Jobs!
Each month, the U.S. Census Bureau for the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) surveys about 60,000 households and asks people 15 years and older whether they are employed and, if so, if they are working full-time or part-time. The BLS defines full-time employment as working at least 35 hours per week. This survey, referred to as both the Current Population Survey and the Household Survey, is what produces the monthly unemployment rate, labor force participation rate, and other statistics related to activities and characteristics of the U.S. population.
For many months after the official end of the Great Recession in June 2009, the Household Survey produced less-than-happy news about the labor market. The unemployment rate didn't start to decline until October 2009, and nonfarm payroll job growth didn't emerge confidently from negative territory until October 2010. Now that the unemployment rate has fallen to 5.8 percent—much faster than most would have expected even a year ago—the attention has turned to the quality, rather than quantity, of jobs. This scrutiny is driven by a stubbornly high rate of people employed part-time "for economic reasons" (PTER). These are folks who are working part-time but would like a full-time job. Several of my colleagues here at the Atlanta Fed have looked at this phenomenon from many angles (here, here, here, here, and here).
The elevated share of PTER has left some to conclude that, yes, the economy is creating a significant number of jobs (an average of more than 228,000 nonfarm payroll jobs each month in 2014), but these are low-quality, part-time jobs. Several headlines have popped up over the past year or so claiming that "...most new jobs have been part-time since Obamacare became law," "Most 2013 job growth is in part-time work," "75 Percent Of Jobs Created This Year  Were Part-Time," "Part-time jobs account for 97% of 2013 job growth," and as recently as July of this year, "...Jobs Report Is Great for Part-time Workers, Not So Much for Full-Time."
However, a more careful look at the postrecession data illustrates that since October 2010, with the exception of four months (November 2010 and May–July 2011), the growth in the number of people employed full-time has dominated growth in the number of people employed part-time. Of the additional 8.2 million people employed since October 2010, 7.8 million (95 percent) are employed full-time (see the charts).
The pair of charts illustrates the contribution of the growth in part-time and full-time jobs to the year-over-year change in total employment between January 2000 and October 2014. By zooming in, we can see the same thing from October 2010 (when payroll job growth entered consistently positive territory) to October 2014. Job growth from one month to the next, even using seasonally adjusted data, is very volatile.
To get a better idea of the underlying stable trends in the data, it is useful to compare outcomes in the same month from one year to the next, which is the comparison that the charts make. The black line depicts the change in the number of people employed each month compared to the number employed in the same month the previous year. The green bars show the change in the number of full-time employed, and the purple bars show the change in the number of part-time employed.
During the Great Recession (until about October 2010), the growth in part-time employment clearly exceeded growth in full-time employment, which was deep in negative territory. The current high level of PTER employment is likely to reflect this extended period of time in which growth in part-time employment exceeded that of full-time employment. But in every month since August 2011, the increase in the number of full-time employed from the year before has far exceeded the increase in the number of part-time employed. This phenomenon includes all of the months of 2013, in spite of what some of the headlines above would have you believe.
So, in the post-Great Recession era, the growth in full-employment is, without a doubt, way out ahead.
Author's note: The data used in this post, which are the same data used to generate the headlines linked above, reflect either full-time or part-time employment (total hours of work at least or less than 35 per week, respectively). They do not necessarily reflect employment in a single job.
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October 15, 2014
What's behind Declining Labor Force Participation? Test Your Hypothesis with Our New Data Tool
The share of people (age 16 and over) participating in the labor market—that is, either working or looking for work—declined significantly during the recession. As many researchers have noted (see our list of supplemental reading under "More Information"), there is clearly a cyclical component to the decline. When labor market opportunities dry up, it influences decisions to pursue activities other than work, such as schooling, taking care of family, or retiring. However, much of the decrease in the overall labor force participation rate (LFPR) could be the result of the continuation of longer-term behavioral and demographic trends.
While the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) produces aggregate statistics on LFPR by various demographic measures, the published data tables don't detail the reasons people give for not participating in the labor market. However, we have cut and coded the micro monthly data from BLS's Current Population Survey so that you can explore your own questions.
For example: Are millennials less likely to participate in the labor market than earlier cohorts? Are people retiring sooner? Are women less likely to stay at home than in the past? You can answer these and other types of questions on our new Labor Force Participation Dynamics page (click on "Interact and Download Data").
In addition to allowing you to create your own charts and download the chart data, the website also guides you through some of the major factors we found that contributed to the decline in LFPR from 2007 to mid-2014, as well as a picture of the trend in those factors before the recession began.
The chart below (also in the Executive Summary) provides an overview of the major factors that we noted in our analysis of the data. Each bar shows the contribution to the 3 percentage point change in the overall LFPR from 2007 to mid-2014.
What the chart doesn't show is whether the trends were occurring before the Great Recession. For a deeper dive into any of the factors in the chart, see the "Long-Term Behavioral and Demographic Trends" section. The most influential factor has been the changing distribution of the population (see "Aging Population"). The fact that a greater portion of Americans are retirement age now than in 2007 accounts for about 1.7 percentage points of the decline. At the same time, older Americans are more likely to be working than in the past, a trend that has been putting upward pressure on LFPR for some time. All else being equal, if those older than 60 were just as likely to retire as they were in 2007, LFPR would be about 1.0 percentage point lower than it is today.
Other factors bringing down the overall LFPR include an increased incidence of people saying they are unable to work as a result of disability or illness (click on "Health Problems"), increased school attendance among the young (click on "Rising Education"), and decreased participation among individuals 25–54—the age group with the greatest attachment to the labor force (click on "Focus on Prime Working-Age Individuals").
These are the factors we found to be the most significant drivers of changes in LFPR, but you can also explore many other questions with these data. Check out the interactive data tools and read our take on the data and let us know what you think.
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- Sales Flexing Muscle at More Firms
- All Eyes on the Consumer
- Signs of Strengthening Wage Growth?
- What the Weather Wrought
- Déjà Vu All Over Again
- Is Measurement Error a Likely Explanation for the Lack of Productivity Growth in 2014?
- What Seems to Be Holding Back Labor Productivity Growth, and Why It Matters
- Signs of Improvement in Prime-Age Labor Force Participation
- Could Reduced Drilling Also Reduce GDP Growth?
- Are Shifts in Industry Composition Holding Back Wage Growth?
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