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August 18, 2014

Are You Sure We're Not There Yet?

In recent macroblog posts, our colleagues Dave Altig and John Robertson have posed the questions Getting There? and Are We There Yet?, respectively. "There" in these posts refers to "full employment." Dave and John conclude that while we may be getting there, we're not there yet.

Not everyone agrees with that assessment, of course. Among the recent evidence some observers cite in defense of an approaching full-employment and growing wage pressures is the following chart. It shows a rather strong correlation between survey data from the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) on the proportion of firms planning to raise worker compensation over the next three months and lagged wage and salary growth (see the chart). (This recent post from the Dismal Scientist blog and this short article from the Dallas Fed also discuss this assessment.)

Businesses' Response to Tightening Job Market

OK, no people brave enough to weigh in on this issue are actually saying they know for certain where the line is that separates rising wage pressures from just more of the same. But if you are looking for a sign of impending wage pressure, the chart above certainly looks compelling. Well, except that a pretty large gap has opened up between the behavior of the NFIB survey data and the actual growth trend in compensation since 2011. We'll have more on that in a moment.

The Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta also conducts a survey of businesses, and among the things we occasionally ask our panel is how much they expect to adjust their compensation of workers (including benefits) in the year ahead. But our survey data aren't showing the same rise in compensation expectations that we see in the NFIB survey data (see the tables).

Firm's Compensation Expectations

Of the 210 business respondents who answered the compensation question in our August survey, 81 percent expect to increase compensation over the next 12 months, compared with 4 percent who expect to reduce compensation for the next 12 months. In other words, on net, 77 percent of the businesses in our panel expect to raise compensation during the next 12 months. This share is a shade less than the proportion of firms that expected to increase compensation in May 2013.

Our survey data are not directly comparable to the NFIB since the NFIB survey asks firms about their plans during the next three months, and we ask about plans during the coming 12 months. Moreover, the NFIB surveys small businesses—roughly 75 percent of the businesses in the NFIB survey employ fewer than 20 workers, and about 60 percent employ fewer than 10.

So we cut our survey to isolate the smaller firms. The first observation we note is that as the size of the firm shrinks, so does the proportion of small firms planning to increase wages. This result isn't especially surprising since the small firms in our panel report considerably worse prevailing business conditions than do the large firms. But more to the point, we still fail to pick up a rise in expected wage pressure. On net in August, 53 percent of the firms in our panel that employ fewer than 20 workers expect to raise worker compensation during the next 12 months. That percent is down from 69 percent of similarly sized firms in May 2013.

Further, the average amount that firms expect to increase wages (2.7 percent) is also about unchanged from 15 months ago (2.8 percent), and this result is rather consistent by firm size and industry. If anything, our panel of businesses reports less expected compensation pressure in the year ahead than when we last asked them in May 2013. So no matter how we cut our panel data, we have trouble confirming the story that firms are anticipating significantly more wage pressure today than a year or so ago.

But maybe this is missing the big point of the figure that kicked off this post. Since about 2011, there appears to be a growing discrepancy between the recent trend in the NFIB survey on compensation increases and actual compensation increases. One could interpret that observation in two very different ways. The first is that the growing gap between the NFIB survey data and actual wage growth suggests pressure on compensation that will soon break loose. Perhaps. But another interpretation is that the relationship between the NFIB survey and actual wage increases has broken down recently. Correlation is different than causation, and many correlations coming from the labor market in recent years appear to be deviating from their historical norms. Isn't that the takeaway of the two earlier macroblog posts?

We're not brave enough to say that we know for certain that the economy isn't on the verge of an accelerated pace of compensation growth. But, if we were brave enough, we'd say our survey data indicate that such acceleration is unlikely.

Photo of Mike Bryan

Photo of Brent Meyer

Photo of Nicholas Parker


August 18, 2014 in Employment, Inflation Expectations, Labor Markets | Permalink

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June 25, 2013

Getting Back to Normal?

Central to any discussion about monetary policy is the degree to which the economy is underperforming relative to its potential, or in more ordinary language, how much slack exists. OK, so how much slack is there, and how long will it take to be absorbed? Well, if you ask the Congressional Budget Office (and a lot of people do), they would have told you last February (their latest estimate) that the economy was underperforming just a shade more than 4 percent relative to its potential last summer, and that slack was likely to increase a little by this summer (to around 4.7 percent). Go to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and they tell a very similar story in their April World Economic Outlook. The IMF estimates that the amount of slack in the U.S. economy was about 4.2 percent last year, and they expected it would rise a little to about 4.4 percent this year.

As devotees of our Business Inflation Expectations survey know (and you know who you are), the Atlanta Fed has a quarterly, subjective measure of economic slack in the economy as seen by business leaders. This month, businesses told us something pretty interesting—the amount of slack they think they have narrowed pretty sharply between March and June.

Last March, the panel told us that their unit sales were 7.7 percent below "normal"—similar to their assessments in December and September. This month, however, the group cut their estimate of slack to 4.3 percent below normal, on average (see the table).

130625a

What we find most encouraging about this assessment (well, besides the speed at which the slack was being taken up) is that the improvement was most prominent among small and medium-sized firms. These are firms that, according to our survey and other reports (like this one from the National Federation of Independent Business), have been lagging behind in the recovery. Indeed, in June, mid-sized firms indicated that unit sales were only 1.5 percent below normal, a shade better than the big firms in our panel (see the table).

130625b

A look at the industry composition of our survey reveals that the pickup of slack was relatively broadly based too. Only the firms in the mining and utilities, and the professional and business services areas reported more slack relative to March (and the amounts were pretty small at that). Elsewhere, the amount of slack appears to have narrowed quite a bit.

OK, so slack is shrinking, and according to these estimates, it shrank quite a bit between March and June. Does that mean we should be anticipating growing price pressure? Well, we can turn to our panelists again for an answer, and they say no. Projecting over the year ahead, our panelists report little change in either their inflationary sentiment or their inflation uncertainty (see the table).

130625c

Last Wednesday, at the conclusion of its June meeting, the Federal Open Market Committee said that the recovery is proceeding and the labor market is improving, but inflation expectations remain stable. Our June poll of business leaders appears to have also endorsed this view of the economy.

Photo of Mike BryanBy Mike Bryan, vice president and senior economist,

Photo of Brent MeyerBrent Meyer, economist, and

Photo of Nicholas ParkerNicholas Parker, senior economic research analyst, all in the Atlanta Fed's research department

 

June 25, 2013 in Business Inflation Expectations, Federal Reserve and Monetary Policy, GDP, Inflation, Inflation Expectations | Permalink

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May 16, 2013

Labor Costs, Inflation Expectations, and the Affordable Care Act: What Businesses Are Telling Us

The Atlanta Fed’s May survey of businesses showed little overall concern about near-term inflation. Year-ahead unit cost expectations averaged 2 percent, down a tenth from April and on par with business inflation expectations at this time last year.

OK, we’re going to guess this observation doesn’t exactly knock you off your chair. But here’s something we’ve been keeping an eye on that you might find interesting. When we ask firms about what role, if any, labor costs are likely to play in their prices over the next 12 months, an increasing proportion have been telling us they see a potential for upward price pressure coming from labor costs (see the chart).



To investigate further, we posed a special question to our Business Inflation Expectations (BIE) panel regarding their expectations for compensation growth over the next 12 months: “Projecting ahead over the next 12 months, by roughly what percentage do you expect your firm’s average compensation per worker (including benefits) to change?”

We got a pretty large range of responses, but on average, firms told us they expect average compensation growth—including benefits—of 2.8 percent. That’s about a percent higher than the average over the past year (as estimated by either the index of compensation per hour or the employment cost index). But a 2.8 percent rise is also about a percentage point below average compensation growth before the recession. We’re included to read the survey as a confirmation that labor markets are improving and expected to improve further over the coming year. But we’re not inclined to interpret the survey data as an indication that the labor market is nearing full employment.

We’ve also been hearing more lately about the potential for the Affordable Care Act (ACA) to have a significant influence on labor costs and, presumably, to provide some upward price pressure. Indeed, several of our panelists commented on their concern about the influence of the ACA when they completed their May BIE survey. So can we tie any of this expected compensation growth to the ACA, a significant share of which is scheduled to go into effect eight months from now?

Because a disproportionate impact from the ACA will fall on firms that employ 50 or more workers, we separated our panel into firms with 50 or more employees, and those employing fewer than 50 workers. What we see is that average expected compensation growth is the same for the bigger employers and smaller employers. Moreover, the big firms in our sample report the same inflation expectation as the smaller firms.

But the data reveal that the bigger firms are a little more uncertain about their unit cost projections for the year ahead. OK, it’s not a big difference, but it is statistically significant. So while their cost and compensation expectations are not yet being affected by the prospect of the ACA, the act might be influencing their uncertainty about those potential costs.



Photo of Mike BryanBy Mike Bryan, vice president and senior economist,

Photo of Brent MeyerBrent Meyer, economist, and

Photo of Nicholas ParkerNicholas Parker, senior economic research analyst, all in the Atlanta Fed’s research department


May 16, 2013 in Business Inflation Expectations, Economics, Health Care, Inflation Expectations, Labor Markets, Pricing | Permalink

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Maybe we're finally reaching the point where firms can no longer expropriate productivity gains. If you look at the total hourly compensation for non-supervisory workers vs. productivity, the last 40 years have more or less seen the gains made during the Great Compression utterly obliterated. Now that we're back to Gilded-Age levels of income distribution, it may be that we've reached an equilibrium.

Posted by: Valerie Keefe | May 19, 2013 at 12:22 PM

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April 16, 2013

Improvement in the Outlook? The BIE Panel Thinks So

Earlier this month, Dennis Lockhart, the Atlanta Fed’s top guy, gave his assessment of the economy and monetary policy to the Kiwanis Club of Birmingham, Alabama. Here’s the essential takeaway:

There are encouraging developments in the economy, to be sure, but the evidence of sustainable momentum that will deliver “substantial improvement in the outlook for the labor market” is not yet conclusive. ... How will I, as one policymaker, determine that the balance has shifted and the time for a policy change has come? Well, one key consideration is the array of risks to the economic outlook and my degree of confidence in the outlook.

To help the boss assess the risks to the outlook, we reached out to our Business Inflation Expectations (BIE) panel to get a sense of how they view the outlook for their businesses and, notably, how they assess the risks to that outlook. Specifically, we asked:

Projecting ahead, to the best of your ability, please assign a percent likelihood to the following changes to UNIT SALES LEVELS over the next 12 months.

The table below summarizes the answers and compares them to the responses we got to this statement last November.

First, the business outlook of our panel has improved decidedly since last November. On average, our panel sees unit sales growth averaging 1.8 percent. OK, not a spectacular number, but, to our eyes at least, much improved from the 1.2 percent the group was expecting when we queried five months ago.

And how about the assessment of the risks President Lockhart indicated was also a key consideration? Here again, the sentiment in our panel appears to have shifted favorably. Last November, our panel put the likelihood that their year-ahead unit sales growth would be 1 percent or less at 50 percent. The group now puts the chances of a downshift in business activity at 37 percent. Meanwhile, the upside potential for their sales has grown. Last November, the panel put the chances of a “significant” improvement in unit sales at about 20 percent; this month, the group thinks the likelihood is 30 percent.

And this improved sentiment isn’t centered in just a few industries—it’s spread across a wide swath of the economy. Firms in construction and real estate, which were, on average, projecting 12-month unit sales growth of 1.1 percent last November, now put that growth number at 1.8 percent. The average sales outlook of general-services firms has risen from 1 percent to 2.2 percent; finance and insurance companies went from 0.5 percent to 1.3 percent; and retailers/wholesalers’ unit sales projections rose from 1.5 percent to 2 percent. And manufacturers, who posted relatively strong expectations last November, reported about the same sales outlook this month as they did five months ago.

To be clear, President Lockhart’s recent comments—and the Federal Open Market Committee statement on which they are based—indicate he is looking for a substantial improvement in the outlook for the labor market, not sales. But we’re going to assume that it’s unlikely to have one without the having the other. And is our panel’s unit sales forecast “substantially” improved? Well, what constitutes “substantial” is in the eye of the beholder, but if this isn’t a substantial improvement in the outlook, it’s certainly a move in that direction.

Photo of Mike BryanBy Mike Bryan, vice president and senior economist, and

Photo of Nick ParkerNick Parker, economic research analyst, both in the Atlanta Fed’s research department

April 16, 2013 in Business Inflation Expectations, Economics, Inflation, Inflation Expectations | Permalink

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November 20, 2012

Rose-Colored Glasses Make the Future Look Blurry: Sales Uncertainty as Seen by the November BIE

Uncertainty is widely cited as being a significant contributor to the economy's subpar growth. Reddy and Thurm report in yesterday's Wall Street Journal that "half of the nation's 40 biggest publicly traded corporate spenders have announced plans to curtail capital expenditures this year or next," in large measure because of rising economic uncertainty. But how uncertain is the current economic outlook? A few economists have attempted to measure business uncertainty, often by using the degree of disagreement between various forecasts, the volatility of certain economic indicators, or some combination of the two. (Two such approaches can be found here and here.)

We thought we'd use our Business Inflation Expectations (BIE) survey to see if we could gauge the degree of business uncertainty directly. Last week, we asked our panel to assign probabilities to various sales outcomes for their businesses for the coming year. (This methodology is the same one we have been using to measure inflation uncertainty, except in this case our business panel was asked to reveal their expectations for unit sales growth over the year ahead.)

Specifically, we put to our panel the following statement:

Projecting ahead, to the best of your ability, please assign a percent likelihood to the following changes to unit sales over the next 12 months.

Panelists were given the following five unit sales outcomes:

  1. down (less than –1 percent)
  2. about unchanged (–1 percent to 1 percent)
  3. up somewhat (1.1 percent to 3 percent)
  4. up significantly (3.1 percent to 5 percent)
  5. up very significantly (greater than 5 percent)

One hundred and ninety-four businesses responded, and here's what they told us: On average, firms expect unit sales growth of about 1.2 percent in the coming year. That's more pessimistic than the real gross domestic product (GDP) forecast of the consensus of economists for the year (about 2 percent). But the range of possible outcomes seemed, to our eyes a least, to be large and unbalanced.

Consider the chart below, which shows the probabilities the panel, on average, assigned to the various sales outcomes. They assigned a 48 percent chance that their unit sales will grow 1 percent or less in the coming year, balanced against only 23 percent likelihood that unit sales will grow more than 3 percent over the next 12 months. In other words, in the minds of our BIE panel, the range of likely sales outcomes over the year ahead is pretty wide, with a fairly weighty chance that unit sales growth may not move in a positive range at all.

121120b

Perhaps we are making a bit too much of the size of the uncertainty businesses are attaching to the outlook. After all, we don't know what uncertainties firms face even in the best of times (since this is the first time we've asked this question). But when we dug into the data a little deeper, we found something else of interest. The degree of economic uncertainty varies widely by firm. Moreover, the greatest uncertainty about the future was held by the panelists who have the most optimistic sales outlook.

Check out the table below. It shows the degree of sales forecast uncertainty on the basis of whether a firm's sales projection is high or low.

121120_tbl

Panelists with the most optimistic sales expectations (the 39 firms with the highest sales forecasts) predicted unit sales growth of a little more than 3.5 percent this year, compared with about a 0.5 percent decline in unit sales for the 39 most pessimistic panelists. But also note that those who are relatively optimistic about the coming year have much greater uncertainty about their future than those who are relatively pessimistic—in fact, they're almost twice as uncertain.

What the November BIE survey seems to be saying is that it isn't just that an uncertain business outlook is reining in our growth prospects, but that the outlook is especially uncertain for the firms that think they have the best opportunity for expansion. Apparently, those wearing rose-colored glasses are having trouble seeing through them.

Note: The regular November Business Inflation Expectations report will be released Wednesday morning.

Mike BryanBy Mike Bryan, vice president and senior economist,

Laurel GraefeLaurel Graefe, economic policy analysis specialist, and

Nicholas ParkerNicholas Parker, economic research analyst, all with the Atlanta Fed

 


November 20, 2012 in Business Inflation Expectations, Inflation, Inflation Expectations | Permalink

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But the coefficient of variation is far higher in the bottom quintile, right?

Posted by: Sebastien Turban (@PtitSeb) | November 21, 2012 at 02:21 PM

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September 27, 2012

How Big Is the Output Gap? More Perspectives from Our Business Inflation Expectations Survey

Opinions vary widely about how much slack there is in the economy these days. Some say a lot—some say not so much.

Last month, we reached out to members of our Business Inflation Expectations (BIE) panel for their take on the issue. The panel indicated they had more pricing power in August than they did last October. OK, that doesn't exactly gauge the amount of slack businesses think they have, but it does suggest that, however much slack there is, it's been shrinking.

Another detail revealed by our August inquiry was that retailers think they have more pricing power compared with manufacturers—a pretty good sign the latter is experiencing more slack than the former.

In this month's BIE survey we went fishing in the same murky waters, but this time we took a more direct approach. We asked our panel to provide a percentage estimate of how far their sales levels are above/below "normal." Here's what we found: On a gross domestic product (GDP)–weighted basis, the panel estimates that current sales are about 7.5 percent below normal. That's more slack than the conventional estimates, like the Congressional Budget Office's (CBO) measure of the GDP gap, which puts the economy about 6 percent under its potential.

120927_tbl

But perhaps a more interesting observation from our September survey is how widely current performance varies by sector and size within our panel. Retailers, for example, say their current sales are a little less than 2 percent below normal. And firms in the leisure/hospitality and the transportation/warehousing sectors—sectors where growth has been particularly robust in recent years—say they are operating at, or just a shade above, normal levels.

Compare these estimates with those from durable goods manufacturers, which report that their current sales levels are nearly 12 percent below normal, and finance and insurance companies, which say they are almost 17 percent below normal. And construction firms? Well, best not even ask them.

And the amount of slack firms are reporting isn't just a reflection of their sector of the economy—size also matters. Firms with more than 500 employees say their current sales levels are a little less than 5 percent below normal—half as much as the amount of slack being reported by small firms.

So we're led back to the question that kicked this blog post off. How big is the output gap? Some say a lot—some say not so much. And this difference in perspective is not just among policymakers. Within the economy, experience varies at least as widely; some firms' sales are still well below normal, while others are telling us that they are very nearly back to normal, and some are already there.

But here's the rub. If the economy represents a constellation of firms operating at widely varying levels of capacity, from what viewpoint should we consider the economy relative to its potential? Are aggregate measures, like the one provided by the CBO or by our "GDP-weighted" approach, appropriate perspectives? Indeed, given widely varying measures of economic performance across firms and industries, how meaningful is an aggregate assessment of economic slack?

Ah, we'll leave these questions for the November survey.

Mike BryanBy Mike Bryan, vice president and senior economist,

Laurel GraefeLaurel Graefe, economic policy analysis specialist, and

Nicholas ParkerNicholas Parker, economic research analyst, all with the Atlanta Fed

 


September 27, 2012 in Business Inflation Expectations, Inflation, Inflation Expectations | Permalink

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Normal relative to what? To levels at the height of the bubble? Is that really a measurement of the output gap?

Posted by: Dave Schuler | September 28, 2012 at 10:04 AM

"If the economy represents a constellation of firms operating at widely varying levels of capacity, from what viewpoint should we consider the economy relative to its potential?"

maybe a fair question, but one unlikely to be addressed by a survey. One can make the same point about inflation: At any one time, some prices are rising and some are falling, so how meaningful is an aggregate measure of the overall price level? That's the macro question for the ages. Also, you ignore the fact that the rate of growth (or rebound) and ability to add capacity is different for each industry. It could be, for example, that some industries will rebound faster or slower than the overall economy and have the ability to add capacity faster (so the measured degree of slack is essentially a function of the degree of fixed or sticky cost structure).

Overall it sounds to me that while the estimate is different than the CBO, the results are still broadly consistent subject to small sample error.


Posted by: dwb | October 01, 2012 at 08:35 PM

difference in perspective is not just among policymakers. Within the economy, experience varies at least as widely; some firms' sales are still well below normal, while others are telling us that they are very nearly back to normal, and some are already there.

Posted by: escort pigerne | October 22, 2012 at 03:26 AM

And the amount of slack firms are reporting isn't just a reflection of their sector of the economy—size also matters. Firms with more than 500 employees say their current sales levels are a little less than 5 percent below normal—half as much as the amount of slack being reported by small firms.

Posted by: sexpiger | February 16, 2014 at 04:27 PM

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