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July 07, 2016
Is the Labor Market Tossing a Fair Coin?
How important is tomorrow's June employment report? In isolation, the answer would surely be not much. The month-to-month swings in job gains can be quite large, and one month does not a trend make.
And yet, there seemed to be a pretty significant reaction to the May employment number, a reaction that did not escape the attention of MarketWatch's Caroline Baum:
So yes, the Fed does seem to be altering its macro view on potential growth (slower) and the neutral funds rate (close to zero) as a hangover from the Great Recession becomes an increasingly inadequate explanation for persistent 2% growth.
What comes across to the observer is a bad case of one-number-itis. The monthly jobs report does contain a lot of important information, including hiring, wages and a proxy for output (aggregate hours index). But the Fed talks out of both sides of its mouth, cautioning against putting too much weight on a single economic report, and then doing just that.
I get it. I don't speak for the Fed, of course—above my rank—but I am in fact one of those who regularly cautions against putting excessive weight on one number. And I am also one of those taken aback by the May employment report, so much so that my view of the economy changed materially as a result of that report.
Let me check that. My view of the risks to the economy, or more specifically the risks to my assessment of the strength of the economy, changed materially.
Here's an analogy that I find useful. Flip what you assume to be a fair coin. The probability of getting a heads, as we all know, is 50 percent. And if you weren't too traumatized by the statistics courses in your past, you will recall that the probability of two heads in a row is 25 percent, dropping to just about 13 percent of the coin coming up heads three times in a row.
Now, 13 percent is not zero, but it may be getting low enough for you to begin to wonder about your assumption that the coin is actually fair. If you have some stake in whether it is or isn't, you might want to take one more toss to get a little more evidence (since the odds of getting four heads in a row is, while not impossible, pretty improbable).
The point is that it wasn't just the May statistic that was striking in last month's report, but also the fact that the March and April numbers were revised downward to the tune of nearly 60,000 jobs. And if you step back a bit, you will see that the rolling three-month average of monthly job gains has been declining through the first half of the year (as the chart shows), even adjusting the May number for the Verizon strike:
Strike-adjusted, the May job gains were the lowest since December 2013. The three-month average (again strike-adjusted) was the lowest since the middle of 2012. In other words, although the year-over-year pace of jobs gains has been holding up, momentum in the labor market is decidedly softer—at least when measured by payroll employment gains.
I have been assuming that the U.S. economy will, for a while yet, continue to create jobs at a pace greater than necessary to maintain the unemployment rate at a more or less constant level. That pace is generally believed to be about 80,000 to 140,000 jobs per month, depending on your assumptions about the labor force participation rate. Another jobs report (including revisions to past months) that counters that assumption would, I think, cause a reasonable person to reassess his or her position.
Based on today's ADP report, the odds look good for some decent news tomorrow. On the other hand, if the June employment number does tick up, some observers will no doubt note that it is a pre-Brexit statistic. It may take a few more flips of the coin to determine if that consideration matters.
July 06, 2016
When It Rains, It Pours
Seasonally adjusted nonfarm payroll employment increased by only 38,000 jobs in May, according to the initial reading by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), and the total increase for the prior two months was revised down by a cumulative 59,000. Although the May increase was depressed by 35,100 striking workers at Verizon Communications, observers widely anticipated this distortion (the strike started April 13). Nonetheless, the median forecast of the May payroll gain from a Bloomberg survey of economists was 160,000, still well above the official estimate. The disappointing employment gain in May, I believe, is statistically related to the downward revisions to the seasonally adjusted gains made over the prior two months.
In contrast to the revision to the seasonally adjusted data, the nonseasonally adjusted level of payroll employment in April was only revised down by 3,000 in the May report. So most of the downward revision to the seasonally adjusted March and April employment gains was the result of revised seasonal factors (the difference between 59,000 and 3,000). In the chart below, the green diamond (toward the left) is the downward revision of 56,000 that resulted from the revised seasonal factors plotted against the Bloomberg survey forecast error for May (the difference between the actual estimate of 38,000 and the forecast of 160,000). The other diamonds represent corresponding points for reports from January 2006 through April 2016. The data points indicate a clear positive relationship and—based on the May Bloomberg forecast error—a simple linear regression would have almost exactly predicted the total downward revision to the March and April employment gains coming from revised seasonal factors.
To gain some insight into the positive relationship in the above chart, I used a model to seasonally adjust the last 10 years of nonfarm payroll employment data (excluding decennial census workers). Note that although I followed the BLS's procedure of accounting for whether there are four or five weeks between consecutive payroll surveys, I did not seasonally adjust the detailed industry employment data and sum them up, as the BLS does.
According to my seasonal adjustment model, the seasonally adjusted April employment level using data from the May employment report is 60,000 below the seasonally adjusted April employment level estimated with data from the April report. My seasonal adjustment model only using data through April from the May report predicts a nonseasonally adjusted increase of 789,000 jobs in May instead of the BLS's estimated increase of 651,000 jobs. The difference between these two estimates is similar to the Bloomberg survey forecast error noted above.
Further, when I replace the BLS's nonseasonally adjusted estimate for May with the model's forecast, the estimate of seasonally adjusted April employment is only 2,000 less than the model estimated with data from the April employment report. Hence, almost all of the model's downward revision to seasonally adjusted April employment appears to be the result of adding fewer jobs in May than the model expected.
The above analysis illustrates that, when it comes to looking at seasonally adjusted employment data, the number of jobs next month will affect the estimate of the number of jobs this month. This is not a very appealing notion, but when using seasonally adjusted data, it comes with the territory. Fortunately, analyzing the nonseasonally adjusted data allows us to gauge the impact of a surprise in the current estimate of seasonally adjusted employment growth on revisions to the prior two months. So when the June report is released on Friday, we will be paying close attention to both the seasonally adjusted headline numbers as well as the revisions to the nonadjusted data.
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.
- What’s Moving the Market’s Views on the Path of Short-Term Rates?
- Lockhart Casts a Line into the Murky Waters of Uncertainty
- How Will Employers Respond to New Overtime Regulations?
- How Good Is The Employment Trend? Decide for Yourself
- Is the Labor Market Tossing a Fair Coin?
- When It Rains, It Pours
- 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
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