macroblog

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The Atlanta Fed's macroblog provides commentary on economic topics including monetary policy, macroeconomic developments, financial issues and Southeast regional trends.

Authors for macroblog are Dave Altig and other Atlanta Fed economists.


July 17, 2015


Getting to the Core of Goods and Services Prices

In yesterday's macroblog post, I highlighted an aspect of a recent Wall Street Journal article that concerns how households perceive inflation. Today, I'm going back to the same well to comment on another aspect of that story, which correctly notes that service-sector prices are rising at a faster clip than the price of goods.

Of course, this isn't just a recent event. Core services prices have outpaced core goods prices over the past 50 years, save a few short-lived deviations. What's unusual about the current recovery, as the chart below shows, is how low services inflation has been.

Core Goods and Services Prices

In the nearly six years since the end of the 2007–09 recession, core services prices have risen at an annualized pace of 2.1 percent, a full percentage point below their average during the last expansion. Conversely, the annualized growth rate in core goods prices during the recovery has been 0.5 percent, compared to a decline of 0.6 percent during the last expansion (see the chart below).

Core Goods and Services Prices

To see how broad-based the slowdown across core services prices has been relative to that of core goods prices, let's take a deeper dive into the components. The chart below compares the difference between a particular component's annualized growth rate during the current expansion and its growth rate during the previous expansion. A negative number here means that a component's price is growing more slowly now than it did prior to the recession.


It's evident that the slowdown in core services prices is fairly broad-based (17 of 22 components are exhibiting disinflation relative to their growth rate over the previous expansion). For core goods components, that number is just five of 15 components. So, if we accept the premise of the WSJ article—that trends in services prices more closely reflect "unused domestic capacity"—then it's possible we could be farther away than we think.


July 17, 2015 in Inflation | Permalink

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July 16, 2015


Different Strokes for Different Folks

A recent Wall Street Journal article offered an interesting conjecture. The author stated,"[b]ecause consumers pay service bills more often than they buy most goods other than food and gasoline, perceptions of inflation skew on the high side."

Research supports the idea that inflation perceptions are unusually influenced by particular prices. For example, some authors have noted that inflation expectations appear to be unusually influenced by movements in gasoline prices.

This research by Georganas, Healy, and Li shows that inflation perceptions are affected by how frequently people buy a particular good—so that nondurable goods prices like gasoline affect inflation perceptions more than durable goods.

And recent work by Johannsen at the Federal Reserve Board shows that demographic groups who have a more disperse set of inflation experiences also tend to hold more disperse inflation expectations. One thing I think we can say is that different demographic groups appear to have different inflation experiences, as this research by Hobjin, Mayer, Stennis, and Topa indicates.

For example, let's take a look at the difference between the inflation experiences of two households. The first is a single older female (over 55 years of age) who rents her home and has a relatively low income (less than $30,000 a year). The second is a young couple (younger than 35 years old) who own their home and have a high income (over $70,000 annually). Both households have high school educations. Recently, the difference between the inflation experiences of these two demographic groups has opened up to a sizable 2.0 percentage points (see the chart). Why?

Different Inflation Experiences

Well, the spending habits of these two groups contain a few striking differences. For example, the older female spends a lot more of her household income on food at home, rent, and medical care than the young couple does (see the table). Also, the young couple appears to spend a larger fraction of their income on transportation (a large portion of which is gasoline).

Comparison of myCPI Weights

Average of the previous five years (through December 2014)

 

A young couple, homeowner, high income, high school education

Older female, renter, low income, high school education

Food at home

7.2

14.4

Food away from home

5.4

2.8

Shelter

23.2

39.8

Utilities

6.4

8.5

Household operations

1.0

1.2

Household furnishings and equipment

2.8

1.3

Apparel

2.2

1.7

Transportation

23.5

7.5

Medical care

4.1

11.3

Recreation

5.1

3.6

Education

0.7

0.2

Other

18.2

7.7

Note: "Other" includes personal care, alcohol, tobacco, reading, and miscellaneous goods and services
Source: Author's calculations based on the BLS's Consumer Expenditure Survey

What's the inflation experience for someone in your particular demographic group? Let's find out. We've developed a tool called myCPI. It allows users to track a measure of the cost of living that captures some of the variation that occurs between demographic groups. In less than a minute, you can answer a few questions about your demographic category, and we'll show you the cost-of-living trends for "your" group. And if you want, we'll send you updates of your demographic group's inflation with every consumer price index (CPI) report.

Why not get your myCPI report? And when tomorrow's CPI report is released, we'll send you a note telling your how your group's cost-of-living adjustment compares to the average urban consumer in the headline CPI.


July 16, 2015 in Inflation | Permalink

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May 27, 2015


myCPI: Getting More Personal with Inflation

Last Friday's inflation report was interesting. The consumer price index (CPI) rose only 1.2 percent in April, as falling energy and flat food prices helped to keep the overall index in check.

Does a 1.2 percent (annualized) rise in the cost of living sound about right to you? No? Well, the performance of the CPI reflects the buying habits of the average urban consumer, which is a way to say it sort of reflects the buying habits of everyone, but isn't likely to reflect the buying habits of anyone in particular.

Are you a dapper guy? Good news for you—the cost of men's suits, sport coats, and outerwear fell 4.5 percent (monthly) in April. Fitness buff? Not such good news for you—sporting goods prices jumped 0.9 percent last month. Did you spent a lot of time in the emergency room in April? Even worse news for you: the cost of hospital services rose 1.9 percent last month, their biggest jump in about 25 years! Are you a big blue monster that lives on Sesame Street? Then you had a really good month in April—cookie prices fell 2.4 percent.

OK, you get the idea: different people, different experiences with costs. And of course the folks over at the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) recognize that "it is unlikely that your experience will correspond precisely with either the national indexes or the indexes for specific cities or regions." (Here are some helpful facts about the CPI.)

But that got us wondering if we could take some of the same building blocks that the BLS uses to construct the CPI and create somewhat more individualized price indexes that reflect a wider variety of price change experiences.

So we created 144 individualized market baskets that attempt to capture some of the variation that occurs across different demographic characteristics including age, income, gender, size of household, education, and whether or not you are a homeowner. (You can find greater detail on the construction of these indexes here.) The resulting indexes—we're calling this myCPI—may yield a closer approximation to your cost of living experience than one based on the apocryphal average consumer.

For example, suppose you are a single female who is over 55 years old, rents her place, has an income of more than $70,000, and didn't attend college. In April, your myCPI rose at an annualized rate of 1.4 percent, pretty close to the official CPI growth rate of 1.2 percent for the month. However, your myCPI has risen 1.1 percent over the past year, whereas the official CPI has fallen 0.2 percent.

Are you a male, under 35 years old, married, and without a college degree, but you own your home and make more than $70,000 annually? Your myCPI was virtually flat in April, and people matching your description have seen their cost of living decline by 1.0 percent over the past year.

 

April 2015

 

1-month percent change (annualized rate)

Year-over-year percent change

Official CPI

1.2

-0.2

Female, over 55, without college degree, renter, high income

1.4

1.1

Couple, less than 35 years, without college degree, homeowner, high income

0.1

-1.0

Family (3+ persons); head of household 35–55 years old, homeowner, college degree, middle income

0.6

-0.1

We don't know exactly what you are buying, where you shop, and what prices you are paying, so we can't know how closely your particular circumstance matches any of the 144 indexes we came up with. But within some (perhaps large) margin of error, we can construct a market basket based on the spending habits of people who fit your description in rather broadly defined terms, and we can apply the major price components of the CPI to that particular basket of things. So if you want an idea of the rise (or fall) in the cost of living for someone like yourself (and you know you do), head on over to our website, answer a few questions, and sign up. Every month we'll send you an e-mail update on your myCPI shortly after every CPI release.


May 27, 2015 in Inflation | Permalink

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Comments

Would really love to download the mycpi data series that results! Thanks.

Posted by: Steve Roth | May 27, 2015 at 06:32 PM

Extremely cool!

Posted by: Squeeky Wheel | May 28, 2015 at 09:29 AM

I like the down to earth fundamental comparisons. I seem to remember that one FR CEO commented that he could determine the state of the economy by observing activity at Pawn Shops. That is a pretty good barometer for the average person.

Posted by: Hilton T. Meadows | June 02, 2015 at 11:24 AM

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February 23, 2015


Are Oil Prices "Passing Through"?

In a July 2013 macroblog post, we discussed a couple of questions we had posed to our panel of Southeast businesses to try and gauge how they respond to changes in commodity prices. At the time, we were struck by how differently firms tend to react to commodity price decreases versus increases. When materials costs jumped, respondents said they were likely to pass them on to their customers in the form of price increases. However, when raw materials prices fell, the modal response was to increase profit margins.

Now, what firms say they would do and what the market will allow aren't necessarily the same thing. But since mid-November, oil prices have plummeted by roughly 30 percent. And, as the charts below reveal, our panelists have reported sharply lower unit cost observations and much more favorable margin positions over the past three months...coincidence?



photo of Mike Bryan
By Mike Bryan, vice president and senior economist,
photo of Brent Meyer
Brent Meyer, economist, and
photo of Nicholas Parker
Nicholas Parker, economic policy specialist, all in the Atlanta Fed's research department

February 23, 2015 in Energy, Inflation, Pricing | Permalink

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January 09, 2015


Gauging Inflation Expectations with Surveys, Part 3: Do Firms Know What They Don’t Know?

In the previous two macroblog posts, we introduced you to the inflation expectations of firms and argued that the question you ask matters a lot. In this week's final post, we examine another important dimension of our data: inflation uncertainty, a topic of some deliberation at the last Federal Open Market Committee meeting (according to the recently released minutes).

Survey data typically measure only the inflation expectation of a respondent, not the certainty surrounding that prediction. As a result, survey-based measures often use the disagreement among respondents as a proxy for uncertainty, but as Rob Rich, Joe Tracy, and Matt Ploenzke at the New York Fed caution in this recent blog post, you probably shouldn't do this.

Because we derive business inflation expectations from the probabilities that each firm assigns to various unit cost outcomes, we can measure the inflation uncertainty of a respondent directly. And that allows us to investigate whether uncertainty plays a role in the accuracy of firm inflation predictions. We wanted to know: Do firms know what they don't know?

The following table, adapted from our recent working paper, reports the accuracy of a business inflation forecast relative to the firm's inflation uncertainty at the time the forecast was made. We first compare the prediction accuracy of firms who have a larger-than-average degree of prediction uncertainty against those with less-than-average uncertainty. We also compare the most uncertain firms with the least uncertain firms.

On average, firms provide relatively accurate, unbiased assessments of their future unit cost changes. But the results also clearly support the conclusion that more uncertain respondents tend to be significantly less accurate inflation forecasters.

Maybe this result doesn't strike you as mind-blowing. Wouldn't you expect firms with the greatest inflation uncertainty to make the least accurate inflation predictions? We would, too. But isn't it refreshing to know that business decision-makers know when they are making decisions under uncertainty? And we also think that monitoring how certain respondents are about their inflation expectation, in addition to whether the average expectation for the group has changed, should prove useful when evaluating how well inflation expectations are anchored. If you think so too, you can monitor both on our website's Inflation Project page.

January 9, 2015 in Business Inflation Expectations, Forecasts, Inflation, Inflation Expectations | Permalink

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January 07, 2015


Gauging Inflation Expectations with Surveys, Part 2: The Question You Ask Matters—A Lot

In our previous macroblog post, we discussed the inflation expectations of firms and observed that—while on average these expectations look similar to that of professional forecasters—they reveal considerably more variation of opinion. Further, the inflation expectations of firms look very different from what we see in the household survey of inflation expectations.

The usual focal point when trying to explain measurement differences among surveys of inflation expectations is the respondent, or who is taking the survey. In the previous macroblog post, we noted that some researchers have indicated that not all households are equally informed about inflation trends and that their expectations are somehow biased by this ignorance. For example, Christopher Carroll over at Johns Hopkins suggests that households update their inflation expectations through the news, and some may only infrequently read the press. Another example comes from a group of researchers at the New York Fed and Carnegie Mellon They've suggested that less financially literate households tend to persistently have the highest inflation expectations.

But what these and related research assume is that whom you ask the question of is of primary significance. Could it be that it's the question being asked that accounts for such disagreement among the surveys?

We know, for example, that professional forecasters are asked to predict a particular inflation statistic, while households are simply asked about the behavior of "prices in general" and prices "on the average." To an economist, these amount to pretty much the same thing. But are they the same thing in the minds of non-economists?

You may be surprised, but the answer is no (as a recent Atlanta Fed working paper discussed). When we asked our panel of firms to predict by how much "prices will change overall in the economy"—essentially the same question the University of Michigan asks households—business leaders make the same prediction we see in the survey of households: Their predictions seem high relative to the trend in the inflation data, and the range of opinion among businesses on where prices "overall in the economy" are headed is really, really wide (see the table).

150107a

But what if we ask businesses to predict a particular inflation statistic, as the Philly Fed asks professional forecasters to do? We did that, too. And you know what? Not only did a majority of our panelists (about two-thirds) say they were "familiar" with the inflation statistic, but their predictions looked remarkably similar to that of professional forecasters (see the table).

150107b

So when we ask firms to answer the same question asked of professional forecasters, we got back something that was very comparable to responses given by professional forecasters. But when you ask firms the same question typically asked of households, we got back responses that looked very much like what households report.

Moreover, we dug through the office file cabinets, remembering a related table adapted from a joint project between the Cleveland Fed and the Ohio State University that was highlighted in a 2001 Cleveland Fed Economic Commentary. In August 2001, a group of Ohio households were asked to provide their perception of how much the Consumer Price Index (CPI) had increased over the last 12 months, and we compared it with how much they thought "prices" had risen over the past 12 months.

The households reported that the CPI had risen 3 percent—nearly identical to what the CPI actually rose over the period (2.7 percent). However, in responding to the vaguely worded notion of "prices," the average response was nearly 7 percent (see the table). So again, it seems that the loosely defined concept of "prices" is eliciting a response that looks nothing like what economists would call inflation.

150107c

So it turns out that the question you ask matters—a lot—more so, evidently, than to whom you ask the question. What's the right question to ask? We think it's the question most relevant to the decisions facing the person you are asking. In the case of firms (and others, we suspect), what's most relevant are the costs they think they are likely to face in the coming year. What is unlikely to be top-of-mind for business decision makers is the future behavior of an official inflation statistic or their thoughts on some ambiguous concept of general prices.

In the next macroblog post, we'll dig even deeper into the data.

photo of Mike Bryan
By Mike Bryan, vice president and senior economist,
photo of Brent Meyer
Brent Meyer, economist, and
photo of Nicholas Parker
Nicholas Parker, economic policy specialist, all in the Atlanta Fed's research department

January 7, 2015 in Business Inflation Expectations, Forecasts, Inflation, Inflation Expectations | Permalink

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January 05, 2015


Gauging Inflation Expectations with Surveys, Part 1: The Perspective of Firms

Inflation expectations matter. Just ask any central banker (such as the Federal Reserve, the European Central Bank, the Bank of England, or the Bank of Japan).

Central bankers measure inflation expectations in more than a few ways, which is another way of saying no measure of inflation expectations is entirely persuasive.

Survey data on inflation expectations are especially hard to interpret. Surveys of professional economists, such as the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia's Survey of Professional Forecasters, reveal inflation expectations that, over time, track fairly close to the trend in the officially reported inflation data. But the inflation predictions by professional forecasters are extraordinarily similar and call into question whether they represent the broader population.

The inflation surveys of households, however, reveal a remarkably wide range of opinion on future inflation compared to those of professional forecasters. Really, really wide. For example, in any particular month, 13 percent of the University of Michigan's survey of households predicts year-ahead inflation to be more than 10 percent, an annual inflation rate not seen since October 1981. Even in the aggregate, the inflation predictions of households persistently track much higher than the officially reported inflation data (see the chart). These and other curious patterns in the household survey data call into question whether these data really represent the inflation predictions on which households act.

Household Expectations Overshoot Inflation Measures

Even if you're unfamiliar with the literature on this subject, the above observations may not strike you as particularly hard to believe. Economists are, presumably, expert on inflation, while households experience inflation from their own unique—some would suggest even uninformed—perspectives.

We have yet another survey of inflation expectations, one from the perspective of businesses leaders. We think this may be an especially useful perspective on future inflation since business leaders, after all, are the price setters. Our survey has been in the field for a little more than three years now—just long enough, we think, to step back and take stock of what business inflation expectations look like, especially in comparison to the other survey data.

Our initial impressions are reported in a recent Atlanta Fed working paper, and the next few macroblog posts will share some of our favorite observations from this research.

We have been asking firms to assign probabilities to possible changes in their unit costs over the year ahead. From these probabilities, we compute how much firms think their costs are going to change in the coming year and how certain they are of that change (see the table). What we find is that the inflation expectations of firms, on average, look something like the inflation predictions of professional forecasters, but not so much like the predictions of households.

Summary Descriptive Statistics: Inflation Expectations (Oct. 2011 - Dec. 2014)

But we also find that there is a significant range of opinion among firms, more so than the range of opinions that forecasting professionals express. Some of the variation among firms appears to be related to their particular industries and are broadly correlated with the uneven cost pressures shown in similar industrial breakdowns of the Producer Price Index from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (see the table).

Own Unit Cost Expectations by Industry and Firm Size (Oct. 2011 - Dec. 2014)
(enlarge)

So what we have now are three surveys of inflation expectations, each yielding very different inflation predictions. What accounts for the variation we see across the surveys? Our survey allows us to experiment a bit, which was one of the motivations for conducting it. We didn't just want to measure the inflation expectations of firms; we wanted to learn about those expectations. In the next few macroblog posts, we'll tell you a few of the things we've learned. And we think some of our initial findings will surprise you.


January 5, 2015 in Business Inflation Expectations, Forecasts, Inflation, Inflation Expectations | Permalink

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November 04, 2014


Data Dependence and Liftoff in the Federal Funds Rate

When asked "at which upcoming meeting do you think the FOMC [Federal Open Market Committee] will FIRST HIKE its target for the federal funds rate," 46 percent of the October Blue Chip Financial Forecasts panelists predicted that "liftoff" would occur at the June 2015 meeting, and 83 percent chose liftoff at one of the four scheduled meetings in the second and third quarters of next year.

Of course, this result does not imply that there is an 83 percent chance of liftoff occurring in the middle two quarters of next year. Respondents to the New York Fed's most recent Primary Dealer Survey put this liftoff probability for the middle two quarters of 2015 at only 51 percent. This more relatively certain forecast horizon for mid-2015 is consistent with the "data-dependence principle" that Chair Yellen mentioned at her September 17 press conference. The idea of data dependence is captured in this excerpt from the statement following the October 28–29 FOMC meeting:

[I]f incoming information indicates faster progress toward the Committee's employment and inflation objectives than the Committee now expects, then increases in the target range for the federal funds rate are likely to occur sooner than currently anticipated. Conversely, if progress proves slower than expected, then increases in the target range are likely to occur later than currently anticipated.

If the timing of liftoff is indeed data dependent, a natural extension is to gauge the likely "liftoff reaction function." In the current zero-lower bound (ZLB) environment, researchers at the University of North Carolina and the St. Louis Fed have analyzed monetary policy using shadow fed funds rates, shown in figure 1 below, estimated by Wu and Xia (2014) and Leo Krippner.

Unlike the standard fed funds rate, a shadow rate can be negative at the ZLB. The researchers found that the shadow rates, particularly Krippner's, act as fairly good proxies for monetary policy in the post-2008 ZLB period. Krippner also produces an expected time to liftoff, estimated from his model, shown in figure 1 above. His model's liftoff of December 2015 is six months after the most likely liftoff month identified by the aforementioned Blue Chip survey.

I included Krippner's shadow rate (spliced with the standard fed funds rate prior to December 2008) in a monthly Bayesian vector autoregression alongside the six other variables shown in figure 2 below.

The model assumes that the Fed cannot see contemporaneous values of the variables when setting the spliced policy—that is, the fed funds/shadow rate. This assumption is plausible given the approximately one-month lag in economic release dates. The baseline path assumes (and mechanically generates) liftoff in June 2015 with outcomes for the other variables, shown by the black lines, that roughly coincide with professional forecasts.

The alternative scenarios span the range of eight possible outcomes for low inflation/baseline inflation/high inflation and low growth/baseline growth/high growth in the figures above. For example, in figure 2 above, the high growth/low inflation scenario coincides with the green lines in the top three charts and the red lines in the bottom three charts. Forecasts for the spliced policy rate are conditional on the various growth/inflation scenarios, and "liftoff" in each scenario occurs when the spliced policy rate rises above the midpoint of the current target range for the funds rate (12.5 basis points).

The outcomes are shown in figure 3 below. At one extreme—high growth/high inflation—liftoff occurs in March 2015. At the other—low growth/low inflation—liftoff occurs beyond December 2015.

One should not interpret these projections too literally; the model uses a much narrower set of variables than the FOMC considers. Nonetheless, these scenarios illustrate that the model's forecasted liftoffs in the spliced policy rate are indeed consistent with the data-dependence principle.

Photo of Pat HigginsBy Pat Higgins, senior economist in the Atlanta Fed's research department

November 4, 2014 in Economics, Employment, Federal Reserve and Monetary Policy, Forecasts, Inflation, Monetary Policy | Permalink

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August 12, 2014


Are We There Yet?

Editor’s note: This macroblog post was published yesterday with some content inadvertently omitted. Below is the complete post. We apologize for the error.

Anyone who has undertaken a long road trip with children will be familiar with the frequent “are we there yet?” chorus from the back seat. So, too, it might seem on the long post-2007 monetary policy road trip. When will the economy finally look like it is satisfying the Federal Open Market Committee’s (FOMC) dual mandate of price stability and full employment? The answer varies somewhat across the FOMC participants. The difference in perspectives on the distance still to travel is implicit in the range of implied liftoff dates for the FOMC’s short-term interest-rate tool in the Summary of Economic Projections (SEP).

So how might we go about assessing how close the economy truly is to meeting the FOMC’s objectives of price stability and full employment? In a speech on July 17, President James Bullard of the St. Louis Fed laid out a straightforward approach, as outlined in a press release accompanying the speech:

To measure the distance of the economy from the FOMC’s goals, Bullard used a simple function that depends on the distance of inflation from the FOMC’s long-run target and on the distance of the unemployment rate from its long-run average. This version puts equal weight on inflation and unemployment and is sometimes used to evaluate various policy options, Bullard explained.

We think that President Bullard’s quadratic-loss-function approach is a reasonable one. Chart 1 shows what you get using this approach, assuming a goal of year-over-year personal consumption expenditure inflation at 2 percent, and the headline U-3 measure of the unemployment rate at 5.4 percent. (As the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics defines unemployment, U-3 measures the total unemployed as a percent of the labor force.) This rate is about the midpoint of the central tendency of the FOMC’s longer-run estimate for unemployment from the June SEP.

Chart 1: Progress toward Objectives: U-3 Gap

Notice that the policy objective gap increased dramatically during the recession, but is currently at a low value that’s close to precrisis levels. On this basis, the economy has been on a long, uncomfortable trip but is getting pretty close to home. But other drivers of the monetary policy minivan may be assessing how far there is still to travel using an alternate road map to chart 1. For example, Atlanta Fed President Dennis Lockhart has highlighted the role of involuntary part-time work as a signal of slack that is not captured in the U-3 unemployment rate measure. Indeed, the last FOMC statement noted that

Labor market conditions improved, with the unemployment rate declining further. However, a range of labor market indicators suggests that there remains significant underutilization of labor resources.

So, although acknowledging the decline in U-3, the Committee is also suggesting that other labor market indicators may suggest somewhat greater residual slack in the labor market. For example, suppose we used the broader U-6 measure to compute the distance left to travel based on President Bullard’s formula. The U-6 unemployment measure counts individuals who are marginally attached to the labor force as unemployed and, importantly, also counts involuntarily part-time workers as unemployed. One simple way to incorporate the U-6 gap is to compute the average difference between U-6 and U-3 prior to 2007 (excluding the 2001 recession), which was 3.9 percent, and add that to the U-3 longer-run estimate of 5.4 percent, to give an estimate of the longer-run U-6 rate of 9.3 percent. Chart 2 shows what you get if you run the numbers through President Bullard’s formula using this U-6 adjustment (scaling the U-6 gap by the ratio of the U-3 and U-6 steady-state estimates to put it on a U-3 basis).

Chart 2: Progress toward Objectives: U-3 Gap versus U-6 Gap

What the chart says is that, up until about four years ago, it didn’t really matter at all what your preferred measure of labor market slack was; they told a similar story because they tracked each other pretty closely. But currently, your view of how close monetary policy is to its goals depends quite a bit on whether you are a fan of U-3 or of U-6—or of something in between. I think you can put the Atlanta Fed’s current position as being in that “in-between” camp, or at least not yet willing to tell the kids that home is just around the corner.

In an interview last week with the Wall Street Journal, President Lockhart effectively put some distance between his own view and those who see the economy as being close to full employment. The Journal’s Real Time Economics blog quoted Lockhart:

“I’m not ruling out” the idea the Fed may need to raise short-term interest rates earlier than many now expect, Mr. Lockhart said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal. But, at the same time, “I’m a little bit cautious” about the policy outlook, and still expect that when the first interest rate hike comes, it will likely happen somewhere in the second half of next year.

“I remain one who is looking for further validation that we are on a track that is going to make the path to our mandate objectives pretty irreversible,” Mr. Lockhart said. “It’s premature, even with the good numbers that have come in ... to draw the conclusion that we are clearly on that positive path,” he said.

Mr. Lockhart said the current unemployment rate of 6.2% will likely continue to decline and tick under 6% by the end of the year. But, he said, there remains evidence of underlying softness in the job sector, and, he also said, while inflation shows signs of firming, it remains under the Fed’s official 2% target.

Our view is that the current monetary policy journey has made considerable progress toward its objectives. But the trip is not yet complete, and the road ahead remains potentially bumpy. In the meantime, I recommend these road-trip sing-along selections.

Photo of John RobertsonBy John Robertson, a vice president and senior economist in the Atlanta Fed’s research department


August 12, 2014 in Economics, Employment, Federal Reserve and Monetary Policy, Inflation, Labor Markets, Monetary Policy, Pricing, Unemployment | Permalink

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Major problems with U6 include the fact that someone working 34 hours but wants to work 35 or more is considered unemployed (not partially unemployed) -- a very loose definition of an unemployed person. Also, some policymakers conflate marginally attached with discouraged workers. Only one-third of the marginally attached are discouraged about job prospects (the other two-thirds didn't look for work because of illness, school, etc. -- i.e., for reasons monetary policy cannot address). So there are very good reasons for President Bullard's objective function to be based on U3 rather than U6. Additionally, what policymakers should consider, to follow through with your analogy, is when you arrive at your destination should you still have the accelerator pressed to the floor? Or does it not make sense to let off of the gas a bit as you approach your destination (to avoid driving the minivan right through your home).

Posted by: Conrad DeQuadros | August 14, 2014 at 12:57 PM

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August 08, 2014


Getting There?

To say that last week was somewhat eventful on the macroeconomic data front is probably an exercise in understatement. Relevant numbers on GDP growth (past and present), employment and unemployment, and consumer price inflation came in quick succession.

These data provide some of the context for our local Federal Open Market Committee participant’s comments this week (for example, in the Wall Street Journal’s Real Time Economics blog, with similar remarks made in an interview on CNBC’s Closing Bell). From that Real Time Economics blog post:

Although the economy is clearly growing at a respectable rate, Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta President Dennis Lockhart said Wednesday it is premature to start planning an early exit from the central bank’s ultra-easy policy stance.

“I’m not ruling out” the idea the Fed may need to raise short-term interest rates earlier than many now expect, Mr. Lockhart said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal. But, at the same time, “I’m a little bit cautious” about the policy outlook, and still expect that when the first interest rate hike comes, it will likely happen somewhere in the second half of next year.

“I remain one who is looking for further validation that we are on a track that is going to make the path to our mandate objectives pretty irreversible,” Mr. Lockhart said. “It’s premature, even with the good numbers that have come in...to draw the conclusion that we are clearly on that positive path,” he said.

Why so “cautious”? Here’s the Atlanta Fed staff’s take on the state of things, starting with GDP:

With the annual benchmark revision in hand, 2013 looks like the real deal, the year that the early bet on an acceleration of growth to the 3 percent range finally panned out. Notably, fiscal drag (following the late-2012 budget deal), which had been our go-to explanation of why GDP appeared to have fallen short of expectations once again, looks much less consequential on revision.

Is 2014 on track for a repeat (or, more specifically, comparable performance looking through the collection of special factors that weighed on the first quarter)? The second-quarter bounce of real GDP growth to near 4 percent seems encouraging, but we are not yet overly impressed. Final sales—a number that looks through the temporary contribution of changes in inventories—clocked in at a less-than-eye-popping 2.3 percent annual rate.

Furthermore, given the significant surprise in the first-quarter final GDP report when the medical-expenditure-soaked Quarterly Services Survey was finally folded in, we’re inclined to be pretty careful about over-interpreting the second quarter this early. It’s way too early for a victory dance.

Regarding labor markets, here is our favorite type of snapshot, courtesy of the Atlanta Fed’s Labor Market Spider Chart:

Atlanta Fed Labor Market Spider Chart

There is a lot to like in that picture. Leading indicators, payroll employment, vacancies posted by employers, and small business confidence are fully recovered relative to their levels at the end of the Great Recession.

On the less positive side, the numbers of people who are marginally attached or who are working part-time while desiring full-time hours remain elevated, and the overall job-finding rate is still well below prerecession levels. Even so, these indicators are noticeably better than they were at this time last year.

That year-over-year improvement is an important observation: the period from mid-2012 to mid-2013 showed little progress in the broader measures of labor-market performance that we place in the resource “utilization” category. During the past year, these broad measures have improved at the same relative pace as the standard unemployment statistic.

We have been contending for some time that part-time for economic reasons (PTER) is an important factor in understanding ongoing sluggishness in wage growth, and we are not yet seeing anything much in the way of meaningful wage pressures:

Total Private Earnings, year/year % change, sa

There was, to be sure, a second-quarter spike in the employment cost index (ECI) measure of labor compensation growth, but that increase followed a sharp dip in the first quarter. Maybe the most recent ECI reading is telling us something that hourly earnings are not, but that still seems like a big maybe. Outside of some specific sectors and occupations (in manufacturing, for example), there is not much evidence of accelerating wage pressure in either the data or in anecdotes we get from our District contacts. We continue to believe that wage growth is most consistent with the view that that labor market slack persists, and underlying inflationary pressures (from wage costs, at least) are at bay.

Clearly, it’s dubious to claim that wages help much in the way of making forward predictions on inflation (as shown, for example, in work from the Chicago Fed, confirming earlier research from our colleagues at the Cleveland Fed). And in any event, we are inclined to agree that the inflation outlook has, in fact, firmed up. At this time last year, it was hard to argue that the inflation trend was moving in the direction of the Committee’s objective (let alone that it was not actually declining).

But here again, a declaration that the risks have clearly shifted in the direction of overshooting the FOMC’s inflation goals seems wildly premature. Transitory factors have clearly elevated recent statistics. The year-over-year inflation rate is still only 1.5 percent, and by most cuts of the data, the trend still looks as close to that level as to 2 percent.

'Trends' in the June Core PCE

We do expect measured inflation trends to continue to move in the direction of 2 percent, but sustained performance toward that objective is still more conjecture than fact. (By the way, if you are bothered by the appeal to a measure of core personal consumption expenditures in that chart above, I direct you to this piece.)

All of this is by way of explaining why we here in Atlanta are “a little bit cautious” about joining any chorus singing from the we’re-moving-on-up songbook. Paraphrasing from President Lockhart’s comments this week, the first steps to policy normalization don’t have to wait until the year-over-year inflation rate is consistently at 2 percent, or until all of the slack in the labor market is eliminated. But it is probably prudent to be fairly convinced that progress to those ends is unlikely to be reversed.

We may be getting there. We’re just not quite there yet.

Photo of Dave AltigBy Dave Altig, executive vice president and research director of the Atlanta Fed


August 8, 2014 in Economic conditions, Economics, Employment, Federal Reserve and Monetary Policy, GDP, Inflation, Labor Markets | Permalink

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