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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June 22, 2016
Was May's Drop in Labor Force Participation All Bad News?
The unemployment rate declined 0.3 percentage points from April to May, and this was accompanied by a similar drop in the labor force participation rate. It is tempting to interpret this as a “bad” outcome reflecting a weakening labor market. In particular, discouraged about their job-finding prospects, more unemployed workers left the labor force. However, a closer look at the ins and outs of the labor force suggests a possibly less troubling interpretation of the outflow from unemployment.
To get a handle on what is going on, it is useful to look at the number of people that transition among employment, unemployment, and out of the labor force. It is not that unusual for an individual to search for a job in one month and then enroll in school or assume family responsibilities the next. In fact, each month millions of individuals go from searching for work to landing a job or leaving the labor force, and vice versa.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) publishes estimates of these gross flows. Analyzing these data shows that there was indeed an unusually large number of unemployed persons leaving the labor force in May. Curiously, the outflow was concentrated among people who had only been unemployed only a few weeks. It wasn't among the long-term unemployed. Therefore, it seems unlikely that discouragement over job-finding prospects was the main factor. Although it is plausible that people who say they are now doing something else outside the labor market feel disheartened, the number of unemployed who said they gave up looking because they were discouraged was largely unchanged in May.
So why was there an increase in the number of short-term unemployed who left the labor force in May? One clue is provided by the fact that the short-term unemployed tend to be relatively younger than other unemployed. Moreover, the single most common reason that unemployed young people leave the labor force is to go to school. Hence, there is a very distinct seasonal pattern in the outflow. It tends to be relatively low around May when school is ending and high around August when school is starting. Seasonal adjustment techniques correct for these patterns by lowering the unadjusted data in the fall and raising it in late spring.
The following chart shows the seasonally adjusted and unadjusted flow from unemployment to departure from the labor force. Although the trend has been declining during the last few years, a relatively large increase in the seasonally adjusted outflow took place in May of this year.
When I looked at the unadjusted microdata from the Current Population Survey (CPS), I found that the number of people who were unemployed in April 2016 but in May said that they were not in the labor force because they were in school did not exhibit the usual large seasonal decline. Therefore, when the seasonal adjustment is applied, the result is an increase in the estimated flow from unemployment to out of the labor force.
Taking the seasonally adjusted data at face value, it's not obvious that this is bad news. We know that people who leave unemployment to undertake further education tend to rejoin the labor force later. Moreover, they tend to rejoin with better job-finding prospects than when they left. Alternatively, it could be just a statistical quirk of the May survey. After all, the CPS has a relatively small sample, so the estimated flows have a large amount of sampling error. Either way, I don't think it is wise to conclude that the decline in the labor force participation in May reflected a marked deterioration in job-finding prospects. In fact, the job-finding rate among unemployed workers improved in May from 22 to 24 percent, contributing to the decline in the unemployment rate.
June 21, 2016
Wage Growth for Job Stayers and Switchers Added to the Atlanta Fed's Wage Growth Tracker
The Atlanta Fed's Wage Growth Tracker (WGT) moved higher again in May—the third increase in a row and consistent with a labor market that is continuing to tighten. At 3.5 percent, the WGT is at a level last seen in early 2009.
As was noted in an early macroblog post, when the labor market is tightening, people changing jobs experience higher median wage growth than those who remain in the same job. Median wage growth for job switchers has significantly outpaced that of job stayers in recent months. For job stayers, the May WGT was 3.0 percent, the same as in April, whereas for people switching jobs the median WGT increased from 4.1 percent to 4.3 percent in May (the highest reading since December 2007; see the chart).
Because these patterns over time can help shed light on the relative strength of the labor market, we have added downloadable job stayer and job switcher WGT series to the Atlanta Fed's Wage Growth Tracker web page.
I should note that it is not possible to completely identify people who are in the same job as a year ago according to data from the Current Population Survey. Instead, we define a "job stayer" as someone whom we observe in the same occupation and industry as a year earlier, and with the same employer in each of the last three months. A "job switcher" includes everyone else (a different occupation or industry or employer). We'll be monitoring these data in coming months to see if discernable trends begin to emerge, and we'll discuss any findings here.
June 02, 2016
Moving On Up
People who move from one job to another tend to experience greater proportionate wage gains than those who stay in their job, except when the labor market is weak and there are relatively few employment options. This point was illustrated using the Atlanta Fed's Wage Growth Tracker in this macroblog post from last year.Given that the Wage Growth Tracker ticked higher in April, it is interesting to see how much of that increase can be attributed to job switching. Here's what I found:
A note about the chart: In the chart, a "job stayer" is defined as someone who is in the same occupation and industry as he or she was 12 months ago and has been with the same employer for at least the last three months. A "job switcher" is everyone else.
The overall Wage Growth Tracker for April was 3.4 percent (up from 3.2 percent in March). For job stayers, the Tracker was 3.0 percent (up from 2.9 percent), and for job switchers it was 3.9 percent (up from 3.7 percent). So the wage gains of job switchers do appear to have helped pull up our overall wage growth measure.
Moreover, unlike the wage growth of job stayers, job switchers are now tending to see wage growth of a similar magnitude to that experienced before the recession. This observation is broadly consistent with the improvement seen during the last year in the quits rate (the number of workers who quit their jobs as a percent of total employment) from the Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey.
I think it will be interesting to continue to monitor the influence of job switching on wage growth as a further indicator of improving labor market dynamism. An update that includes the May data should be available in a few weeks.
June 01, 2016
Putting the Wage Growth Tracker to Work
The April pop in the Atlanta Fed's Wage Growth Tracker has attracted some attention in recent weeks, resulting in some interesting analysis. What is the tracker telling us about the tightness of the labor market and the risks to the inflation outlook?
We had earlier noted the strong correlation between the Wage Growth Tracker and the unemployment rate. Tim Duy took the correlation a step further and estimated a wage Phillips curve. Here's what he found:
The chart shows that lower unemployment generally coincides with higher wage growth (as measured by the Wage Growth Tracker), but wage growth varies a lot by unemployment rate. In the past, an unemployment rate around 5 percent has often been associated with higher wage growth than we currently have.
If the Wage Growth Tracker increased further, would that necessarily lead to an increase in inflation? Jared Bernstein suggests that there isn't much of an inflation signal coming from the Wage Growth Tracker. His primary evidence is the insignificant response of core personal consumption expenditure (PCE) inflation to an increase in the Wage Growth Tracker in a model that relates inflation to lags of inflation, wage growth, and the exchange rate.
However, I don't think the absence of a wage-push inflation connection using the Wage Growth Tracker is really that surprising. The Wage Growth Tracker better captures the wage dynamics associated with improving labor market conditions than rising labor cost pressures per se. For example, if firms are replacing departing workers with relatively low-wage hires, then the wages of incumbent workers could rise faster than do total wage costs (as this analysis by our colleagues at the San Francisco Fed shows). That said, as Bernstein also pointed out in the Washington Post, it's also pretty hard to find evidence of wage pass-through pushing up inflation in his model using more direct measures of labor costs.
I look forward to seeing more commentary about Atlanta Fed tools like the Wage Growth Tracker and how they can be part of the broader discussion of economic policy.
May 19, 2016
Are People in Middle-Wage Jobs Getting Bigger Raises?
As observed in this Bloomberg article and elsewhere, the Atlanta Fed's Wage Growth Tracker (WGT) reached its highest postrecession level in April. This related piece from Yahoo Finance suggests that the uptick in the WGT represents good news for middle-wage workers. That might be so.
Technically, though, the WGT is the median change in the wages of all continuously employed workers, not the change in wages among middle-income earners. However, we can create versions of the WGT by occupation group that roughly correspond to low-, middle-, and high-wage jobs, which allows us to assess whether middle-wage workers really are experiencing better wage growth. Chart 1 shows median wage growth experienced by each group over time. (Note that the chart shows a 12-month moving average instead of a three-month average, as depicted in the overall WGT on our website.)
Wage growth for all three categories has risen during the past few years. However, the timing of the trough and the speed of recovery vary somewhat. For example, wage growth among low-wage earners stayed low for longer and then recovered relatively more quickly. Wage growth of those in high-wage jobs fell by less but also has recovered by relatively less. In fact, while the median wage growth of low-wage jobs is back to its 2003–07 average, wage growth for those in high-wage jobs sits at about 75 percent of its prerecession average.
Are middle-wage earners experiencing good wage growth? In a relative sense, yes. The 12-month WGT for high-wage earners was 3.1 percent in April compared with 3.2 percent and 3.0 percent for middle- and low-wage workers, respectively. So the typical wage growth of those in middle-wage jobs is trending slightly higher than for high-wage earners, a deviation from the historical picture.
Interestingly, this pattern of wage growth doesn't quite jibe with the relative tightness of the labor market for different types of jobs. As was shown here, the overall WGT appears to broadly reflect the tightness of the labor market (possibly with some lag).
In theory, as the pool of unemployed shrinks, employers will face pressure to increase wages to attract and retain talent. Chart 2 shows the 12-month average unemployment rates for people who were previously working in one of the three wage groups.
Like the relationship between overall WGT and the unemployment rate, wage growth and the unemployment rate within these wage groups are negatively correlated (in other words, when the unemployment rate is high, wage growth is sluggish). The correlation ranges from minus 0.81 for low-wage occupations to minus 0.88 for middle-wage occupations.
However, notice that although the current gap between unemployment rates across the wage spectrum is similar to prerecession averages, the current relative gap in median wage growth is different than in the past. In particular, the wage growth for those in higher-wage jobs has been sluggish compared to middle- and lower-wage occupations.
Nonetheless, it's clear that the labor market is getting tighter. Wage growth overall has moved higher over the past year, driven primarily by those working in low- and middle-wage jobs. Is firming wage growth starting to show up in price inflation? Perhaps.
The consumer price index inflation numbers moved higher again in April, and Atlanta Fed President Dennis Lockhart said on Tuesday that—from a monetary policy perspective—recent inflation readings and signs of better growth in economic activity during the second quarter (as indicated by the Atlanta Fed's GDPNow tracker) are encouraging signs.
May 04, 2016
What's behind the Recent Uptick in Labor Force Participation?
The labor force participation rate had been generally declining since around 2007. However, that trend has partially reversed in recent months. As noted in the minutes of the March meeting of the Federal Open Market Committee, this rise was interpreted as further strengthening of the labor market. But will the increase persist?
As shown in a previous macroblog post, the dominant contributor to the decline in participation during the last several years has been the aging of the population. To see what's behind the increase in participation during the last few months, the following chart breaks the participation rate change between the first quarters of 2015 and 2016 into a part that is the result of shifts in the age distribution (holding behavior within age groups fixed), and the parts that are the result of changes in behavior (holding the age distribution fixed).
During the last year, the negative effect on participation attributable to an aging population (0.22 percentage points) has been offset by a 0.23 percentage point decline in the share of people who want a job but are not counted as unemployed (including people who are marginally attached). This decline is an encouraging sign, and consistent with a tightening labor market.
How much more can the want-a-job category improve? We don't really know. But that category's share of the population is currently about 0.3 percentage points above the prerecession trough of 2.0 percent. So at the current pace we would be at prerecession levels in about a year.
Despite the recent uptick, projections over the next decade or so have the labor force participation rate moving lower, chiefly because of an aging population. But how much farther participation actually declines will also depend on the evolution of various behavioral factors. The employment report for April will be released this Friday by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and it will be interesting to see whether the number of people on the margin of the labor force continues to shrink.
April 29, 2016
Is the Number of Stay-at-Home Dads Going Up or Down?
A recent Wall Street Journal post observed that most of the recession's "stay-at-home dads" are going back to work. Specifically, data from the U.S. Labor Department shows that the share of married men with children under 18 who are not employed (but their spouse is) rose during the recession and has since given back much of that increase, as the Journal's chart below indicates.
Of course, being a stay-at-home dad in the sense defined in the previous chart (that is, not employed) can be either involuntary because of unemployment, or it can be the result of a voluntary decision to not be in the workforce. Most of the variation in the previous chart is cyclical, suggesting that it is related to the rise and fall in unemployment. But it also looks like the share of stay-at-home dads is higher now than it was a decade or so ago. So perhaps there is also an increasing trend in the propensity to voluntarily be a stay-at-home dad.
To explore this possibility, the next chart shows the annual average share of married men ages 25–54 who have children and who say the main reason they do not currently want a job is because of family or household responsibilities. (This reason doesn't necessarily imply that they are looking after children, but it is likely to be the leading reason.) The fraction is very small—about 1.3 percent in 2015, or 285,000 men—but the share has more than doubled during the last 15 years and would account for about half of the elevated level of the stay-at-home rate in 2015 relative to 2000.
So although large numbers of unemployed stay-at-home dads have been going back to work, it also appears that there's a small but growing group of men who are choosing to take on household and family responsibilities instead.
April 04, 2016
Which Wage Growth Measure Best Indicates Slack in the Labor Market?
The unemployment rate is close to what most economists think is the level consistent with full employment over the longer run. According to the Federal Open Market Committee's latest Summary of Economic Projections, the unemployment rate is currently only 15 basis points above the natural rate. Yet, average hourly earnings (AHE) for production and nonsupervisory workers in the private sector increased a paltry 2.3 percent in March from a year earlier (as did the AHE of all private workers), and is barely above its average course of 2.1 percent since 2009.In contrast, the Atlanta Fed's Wage Growth Tracker (WGT) suggests that wage growth has been increasing. The February WGT reading was 3.2 percent (the March data will be available later in April), considerably higher than its post-2009 average of 2.3 percent.
Why is there such a large difference between these measures of wage growth? Besides differences in data sources, the primary reason is that they measure fundamentally different things. The WGT is an estimate of the wage growth of continuously employed workers—the same worker's wage is measured in the current month and a year earlier.
In contrast, the AHE measure is an estimate of the change in the typical wage of everyone employed this month relative to everyone employed a year earlier. Most of these workers are continuously employed, but some of those employed in the current month were not employed the prior year, and vice versa. These changes in the composition of employment can have a significant effect.
A recent study by Mary C. Daly, Bart Hobijn, and Benjamin Pyle at the San Francisco Fed shows that while growth in wages tends to be pushed higher by the wage gains of continuously employed workers, the net effect of entry and exit into employment tends to put a drag on the growth in wages. Moreover, the magnitude of the entry/exit drag can be relatively large, varies over time, and differs by the type of entry and exit.
For example, older workers who have retired and left the workforce tend to come from the higher end of the wage distribution, and their absence from the current period wage pool exerts downward pressure on the typical wage. The greater number of baby boomers starting to retire is having an even larger depressing effect on growth in wages than in the past. Because the WGT looks only at continuously employed workers, it is not influenced by these net entry/exit effects.
To the extent that firms adjust the pay for incumbent workers in response to labor market pressures to attract and retain workers, the WGT should reasonably capture changes in the tightness of the labor market.
Economists at the Conference Board modeled the relationship between different wage growth series and measures of labor market slack. One of the slack measures they use is the unemployment gap—the difference between an estimate of the natural rate of unemployment and the actual unemployment rate.To illustrate their findings, the following chart shows the WGT and AHE measures along with the unemployment gap lagged six months (using the Congressional Budget Office estimate of the natural rate).
The WGT appears to move more closely with the lagged unemployment gap than does the growth in AHE, and a comparison of the correlation coefficients confirms the stronger relationship with the WGT. The correlation between the lagged unemployment gap and the change in average hourly earnings is 0.75.
In contrast, the correlation with the wage growth tracker is higher at 0.93. Moreover, the unemployment gap-AHE relationship appears to be particularly weak since the Great Recession. The correlation since 2009 falls to just 0.08 for the AHE, whereas the WGT correlation is still 0.93.
Our colleagues at the San Francisco Fed concluded their analysis of the effect of flows into and out of the employment on wage growth by suggesting that:
"... wage growth measures that focus on the continuously full-time employed are likely to do a better job of gauging labor market strength, since they are constructed to more clearly capture the wage dynamics associated with improving labor market conditions. The Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta's Wage Growth Tracker is an example."
That assessment is consistent with the Conference Board study, and suggests that labor markets may be tighter than is commonly believed based on sluggish growth in measures of average wages such as AHE.
February 17, 2016
Are Paychecks Picking Up the Pace?
From the minutes of the January 26–27 meeting of the Federal Open Market Committee, it's clear that many participants saw tightening labor market conditions during 2015:
In their comments on labor market conditions, participants cited strong employment gains, low levels of unemployment in their Districts, reports of shortages of workers in various industries, or firming in wage increases.
Based on the Atlanta Fed's Wage Growth Tracker (WGT), the median annual growth in hourly wage and salary earnings of continuously employed workers in 2015 was 3.1 percent—up from 2.5 percent in 2014 and 2.2 percent in 2013. That is, the typical wage growth of workers employed for at least 12 months appears to be trending higher.
However, wage growth by job type varies considerably. For example, the WGT for part-time workers has been unusually low since 2010. The following chart displays the WGT for workers currently employed in part-time and full-time jobs. For those in part-time jobs, the WGT was 1.9 percent in 2015, versus 3.3 percent for those in full-time jobs. The part-time/full-time wage growth gap has closed somewhat in the last couple of years but is still large relative to its size before the Great Recession. Note that full-time WGT is similar to the overall WGT because most workers captured in the WGT data work full-time (81 percent in 2015).
In addition to hours worked, median wage growth also tends to vary across occupation. The following chart plots the WGT for workers in low-skill jobs, versus those in mid- and high-skill jobs. (We define low-skill jobs as those in occupations related to food preparation and serving; building and grounds cleaning; and maintenance, protection, and personal care services.)
Notably, after lagging during most of the recovery, median wage growth in low-skill occupations increased 2.8 percent in 2015, versus 2.0 percent in 2014 and compared to 3.2 and 2.7 percent for other occupations in 2015 and 2014, respectively.
The improvement in wage growth for low-skill occupations seems mostly attributable to full-time workers; wage growth for people in low-skill jobs working part-time was about half that (1.6 percent versus 3.0 percent) of those working full-time (see the chart).
This pickup in low-skill wage growth fits with some anecdotal reports we've been hearing. Some of our contacts in the Southeast have reported increasing wage pressure for workers in lower-skill occupations within their businesses. One can also see evidence of growing tightness in the market for low-skill jobs in the help-wanted data. As the following chart shows, the ratio of unemployed to online job postings for low-skill jobs is always higher than for middle- and high-skill occupations. But the ratio for low-skill jobs is now well below its prerecession level, and the tightness has increased during the last two years.
The take-away? Wage growth for continuously employed workers appears to have picked up some steam in 2015, and the recent trend in wage growth is positive across a variety of job characteristics. Wage growth for people in lower-skill jobs has increased during the last couple of years, consistent with evidence of increasing tightness in the market for those types of jobs. The largest discrepancy in wage growth appears to be among part-time workers, whose median gain in hourly wages in 2015 still fell well short of those in full-time jobs.
February 05, 2016
Introducing the Refined Labor Market Spider Chart
In January 2013, Atlanta Fed research director Dave Altig introduced the Atlanta Fed's labor market spider chart in a macroblog post.
In a follow-up post that June, Atlanta Fed colleague Melinda Pitts and I introduced a dedicated page for the spider chart located at the Center for Human Capital Studies (CHCS) webpage. It shows the distribution of 13 labor market indicators relative to their readings just before the 2007–09 recession (December 2007) and the trough of the labor market following that recession (December 2009). The substantial improvement in the labor market during the past three years is quite evident in the spider chart below.
As of December 2012, none of the indicators had yet reached their prerecession levels, and some had a long way to go. Now, many of these indicators are near their prerecession values—and some have blown by them.
To make the spider chart more relevant in an environment with considerably less labor market slack than three years ago, we are introducing a modified version, which you can see here. Below is an example of a chart I created using the menu-bars on the spider chart's web page:
In this chart, I plot the May 2004 and November 2015 percentile ranks of labor market indicators relative to their distributions since March 1994. As with the previous spider chart, indicators such as the unemployment rate, where larger values indicate more labor market slack, have been multiplied by –1. The innermost and outermost rings represent the minimum and maximum values of the variables from March 1994 to January 2016. The three dashed gray rings in between are the 25th, 50th, and 75th percentiles of the distributions. For example, the November 2015 value of 12-month average hourly earnings growth (2.26 percent) is the 23rd percentile of its distribution. This means that 23 percent of the other monthly observations on hourly earnings growth since March 1994 are lower than it is.
I chose May 2004 and November 2015 because they had the last employment situation reports before "liftoffs" of the federal funds rate. November 2015 appears to be stronger than May 2004 for some indicators (job openings, unemployment rate, and initial claims) and weaker for others (hires rate, work part-time for economic reasons, and the 12-month growth rate of the Employment Cost Index).
The average percentile ranks of the variables for these two months are similar, as the chart below depicts:
Also shown in the chart is the Kansas City Fed's Level of Activity Labor Market Conditions Indicator. It is a sum of 24 not equally weighted labor market indicators, standardized over the period from 1992 to the present. In spite of its methodological and source-data differences with the average percentile rank measure plotted above, it tracks quite closely, especially since 2004. However, as shown in the spider chart that I referred to above, there is quite a bit of variation within the indicators that may provide additional information to our analysis of the average trends.
We made a number of other changes to the spider chart to ensure it reflects current labor market issues. These changes are documented in the FAQs and "Indicators" sections of the new spider chart page. Of particular note, users can choose not only the years for which they wish to track information, but also the period of reference that provides the basis of the spider chart. The payroll employment variable is now the three-month average change rather than a level. Temporary help services employment has been dropped, and two measures of 12-month compensation growth and the employment-population ratio (EPOP) for "prime-age workers" (25 to 54 years) have been added.
Some care should be taken when comparing recent labor market data values with those 10 or more years ago as structural changes in the labor market might imply that a "normal" value today is different than a "normal" value in, say, 2004. The variable choices for the refined spider chart were made to mitigate this problem to some extent. For example, we use the prime-age EPOP as a crude adjustment for population aging, putting downward pressure on the labor force participation rate and EPOP over the past 10 years (roughly 2 percentage points). This doesn't entirely resolve the comparability issue since, within the prime-age population, the self-reporting rate of illness or disability as a reason for not wanting a job has increased about 1.5 percentage points since 1998 (see the macroblog posts here and here and the CHCS Labor Force Participation Dynamics webpage). If this increase in disability reporting is partly structural—and a Brookings study by Fed economist Stephanie Aaronson and others concludes it is—some of the decline in the prime-age EPOP since the late 1990s may not be a result of a weaker labor market per se.
Other variables in the spider chart may have had structural changes as well. For example, a study by San Francisco Fed economists Rob Valleta and Catherine van der List concludes that structural factors explain just under half of the rise in the share of workers employed part-time for economic reasons over the 2006 to 2013 period.
To partially account for structural changes in trends, we allow the user to select one of 11 time periods over which the distributions are calculated. The default period is March 1994 to present, which is what was used in the example above, but users can choose a window as short as five years where, presumably, structural changes are less important. A trade-off with using a short window is that a "normal" value may not produce a result close to the median. For example, the median unemployment rate is 5.6 percent since March 1994 and 7.3 percent since February 2011. The latter value is much farther away from the most recent estimates of the natural rate of unemployment from the Congressional Budget Office and the Survey of Professional Forecasters (both 5.0 percent).
In our June 2013 macroblog post introducing the spider chart, we wrote that we would reevaluate our tools and determine a more appropriate way to monitor the labor market when "the labor market has turned a corner into expansion." The new spider chart is our response to the stronger labor market. We hope users find the tool useful.
- Pay As You Go: Yes or No?
- Was May's Drop in Labor Force Participation All Bad News?
- Wage Growth for Job Stayers and Switchers Added to the Atlanta Fed's Wage Growth Tracker
- Experts Debate Policy Options for China's Transition
- It’s Not Just Millennials Who Aren't Buying Homes
- After the Conference, Another Look at Liquidity
- Moving On Up
- Putting the Wage Growth Tracker to Work
- Can Two Wrongs Make a Right?
- Are People in Middle-Wage Jobs Getting Bigger Raises?
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