December 19, 2013
Labor Force Participation Rates Revisited
In an earlier macroblog post, our colleague Julie Hotchkiss examined the decline in labor force participation from the onset of the Great Recession into early 2012, concluding that cyclical factors likely accounted for most of the drop. In this post, we examine how labor force participation has changed since the start of 2012 (and admittedly, we’re much less ambitious in our analysis than Julie). Motivating our analysis, in part, is the observation that much of the recent decline in the labor force participation rate (LFPR) is related to rising retirements (see the November 19 Research Rap by Shigeru Fujita). This is not surprising, as the percentage of individuals aged 65 and older in the population has been increasing sharply over the last half decade. That said, our approach indicates that the LFPR of prime-age workers (ages 25–54) continues to fall, and this is an important source of the overall decline in LFPR in the recent data. Such declines in LFPR in these age categories should be less related to retirement decisions, keeping on the table the possibility that a weak overall labor market remains a key drag on labor force participation.
A straightforward decomposition illustrates that the decline in LFPR among prime-age workers is a major contributor to the overall decline in LFPR. To see this, we separate the change in LFPR into three components: one that measures the change due to shifts in the LFPR within age groups—the within effect; one that measures changes due to population shifts across age groups—the between effect; and one that allows for correlation across the two effects—a covariance term. It works out the covariance term is always very close to zero, so we will omit discussion of that term here. The analysis breaks the data down into five age groups: 16–24, 25–34, 35–44, 45–54, and 55+.
The chart presents the decomposition from Q1 2012 to Q3 2013. Over this period, the overall LFPR declined by half a percentage point, from 63.8 percent to 63.3 percent. The blue areas represent the change due to within-age-group effects, and the green areas represent the change due to between-age-group effects. The sum of the bars is equal to the overall change in labor force participation.
Three key results emerge. First, increases in labor force participation for the youngest age group boosted overall labor force participation by 0.075 percentage points. Second, the growing population share of the 55+ age group reduced LFPRs over the period by 0.21 percentage points, accounting for roughly 40 percent of the overall decline. Third, labor force participation for prime-age workers continued to fall. The combined within effect for the prime-age individuals (25–34, 35–44, and 45–54) reduced the participation rate by 0.28 percentage points—or a little over half of the overall decline in labor force participation. Additional declines in labor force participation were associated with the reduction in population shares of prime age workers.
From an accounting standpoint, the analysis shows that the fall in the LFPR for prime-age workers is a main contributing factor to the recent decline in labor force participation. Indeed, the LFPR of prime-age workers fell from 81.6 to 81.0 from Q1 2012 to Q3 2013, with similar declines for both men and women. Given that prime-age workers make up more than half of the population, it is not surprising that the drop in the LFPR for these age groups accounts for a substantial fraction of the overall decline.
To put this in perspective, we present the same decomposition from Q1 2010 to Q4 2011, where the decline in the LFPR is 0.8 percentage point. While the magnitude of the overall change is different, the decomposition results are quite similar. The decline in participation rates for prime-age workers accounts for a little over 60 percent of the overall decline, with a substantial drag from the rise in the share of older workers (accounting for a third of the drop). In short, the changes in participation due to within and between effects over the first two years look quite similar to that of the second two years of the labor market recovery.
A corollary to this analysis is that these sources of decline in labor force participation have allowed the unemployment rate to decline more sharply than expected, given the moderate employment growth observed. We will not take a stand on whether these are “wrong” or “right” reasons for unemployment rate declines. Rather, we note that the patterns observed early in the recovery are still in place (more or less) in the recent data.
By Timothy Dunne, a research economist and policy adviser,
and Ellie Terry, an economic policy analysis specialist, both in the research department of the Atlanta Fed
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October 09, 2013
Delving into Labor Markets
Though never far from the headlines, the Federal Reserve's dual mandate comes front and center again with the announcement today of President Obama's nomination of Fed Vice Chair Janet Yellen as the next chair of the Board of Governors. Inevitably, analysis will turn to discussions of who is a hawk and who is a dove, who cares relatively more about inflation, and who cares relatively more about growth and employment.
That's unfortunate, because such characterizations really do miss the point. The debate among different policymakers is not about whether person A is more concerned about jobs and unemployment than person B, but about legitimate and longstanding conversations about what accounts for the performance of labor markets and what role monetary policy might have in the event that performance is judged to be subpar.
As it happens, the Atlanta Fed's most recent contribution to this discussion came last week in the form of the annual employment conference sponsored by the Bank's Center for Human Capital Studies. Organized, as in past years, by Richard Rogerson (Princeton University), Robert Shimer (University of Chicago), and Melinda Pitts (Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta), the conference explored the causes of the continued weak labor market recovery in the United States. The existing literature has suggested a number of possibilities: wage rigidities, mismatch between workers' skills and the skills required by new jobs, extended unemployment insurance benefits and other government policy changes, and firms' reorganizing and asking workers to do more. The papers sought to analyze and document the importance of these factors for the slow recovery.
One notable policy change in the recent recession was the unprecedented expansion of unemployment insurance (UI) benefits to as long as 99 weeks for a very large fraction of UI-eligible workers. Did this increase play an important role in high levels of unemployment? Two papers from the conference addressed this question from different perspectives. "Do Extended Unemployment Benefits Lengthen Unemployment Spells? Evidence from Recent Cycles in the U.S. Labor Market," by Henry S. Farber and Robert G. Valetta, assessed the extent to which extended UI benefits result in higher unemployment because workers choose to remain unemployed longer. They find a statistically significant effect of longer UI durations on the duration of unemployment spells, but they conclude that the overall contribution to the unemployment rate was less than half a percentage point. Because the aggregate unemployment rate rose by more than 5 percent, this effect accounts for less than 10 percent of the overall increase.
"Unemployment Benefits and Unemployment in the Great Recession: The Role of Macro Effects," by Marcus Hagedorn, Fatih Karahan, Iourii Manovskii, and Kurt Mitman, offered a different perspective. The authors look at the evolution of unemployment rates in counties that are adjacent but lie in different states. They use the fact that the timing of extended benefits occurs at different times across states to identify the effect of extended UI durations on country-level unemployment. They find that the effects are sufficiently large that the increase in UI duration can account for virtually all of the increase in unemployment.
While seemingly at odds, the results of these two studies are consistent. The first paper shows that the decrease in the job-finding rate for workers with relatively longer benefits did not increase that much compared with the rate for workers with shorter-duration benefits, holding the overall unemployment rate constant. The second paper argues that the job-finding rate decreases for everyone when benefits are extended. The authors find that when some workers have access to longer-duration UI benefits, being unemployed is not as painful for them, which puts upward pressure on wages. To the extent that firms cannot target their job openings toward workers without access to UI, firms may be less likely to create jobs, making it harder for all workers to get job offers. The impact on uninsured workers may be as large as the impact on insured workers, and so the microeconomic estimates in Farber and Valetta will not necessarily uncover UI's total impact on the unemployment rate.
The possible role of wage rigidities has figured prominently in many accounts of the large increase in unemployment during the recent recession. Two papers considered the importance of this explanation. "Wage Adjustment in the Great Recession," by Michael Elsby, Donggyun Shin and Gary Solon, used microdata from the U.S. Census Bureau's Current Population Survey to examine the extent to which wages are sticky. The paper finds that there has been less response in average real wages during the recent recession than in previous recessions, perhaps suggesting that real wage rigidity contributed to the large increase in unemployment. However, they also show that wages at the individual level are really quite flexible. Specifically, relatively few individuals have zero nominal wage growth from one year to the next, and many people experience decreases in nominal wage rates.
A key issue in the theoretical literature is the extent to which wage stickiness affects new hires versus existing workers. In "How Sticky Wages in Existing Jobs Can Affect Hiring," authors Mark Bils, Yongsung Chang and Sun-Bin Kim show that even if wages for new hires are completely flexible, they may nonetheless have large effects on unemployment fluctuations when one allows for an "effort decision" for existing workers. This decision means that in response to negative shocks, firms require existing workers to expend more effort given that their wage is fixed, decreasing the need to hire new workers. The authors show that this effect is quantitatively significant and can come close to resolving the unemployment volatility puzzle, which relates to the large fluctuations in unemployment relative to productivity.
An empirical regularity that has appeared in the last few years is an outward shift in the Beveridge curve, which relates the unemployment rate to the level of vacancies. One interpretation of this upward shift is that the matching of unemployed workers and vacancies has worsened. Yet there is a lot of variety in the job-search effort by workers with different characteristics, such as the length of unemployment, whether they are on temporary layoff, and so on. In "Measuring Matching Efficiency with Heterogeneous Jobseekers," Robert Hall and Sam Schulhofer-Wohl devise a method for incorporating this heterogeneity into the analysis and show that there has indeed been a decrease in the matching rate for workers during the last few years. It will be important for future research to determine how much this decrease reflects a decline in search intensity or whether the lower job-finding rates represent a decrease for a given level of search intensity.
Related to the two issues of nominal rigidities and mismatch, in the paper "Labor Mobility within Currency Unions," Emmanuel Farhi and Ivan Werning study the role of labor mobility in diminishing the effects associated with nominal rigidities. For example, some researchers have suggested that a key difference between the apparent success of the United States relative to the euro zone is U.S. labor is more mobile. Farhi and Werning argue that one should not assume the mobility necessarily reduces the effects of nominal rigidities. In particular, they conclude that mobility eases the effects of nominal rigidities only if goods markets are well integrated.
Two papers focused on the nature of worker mobility across firms in the recent recession. In "Worker Flows over the Business Cycle: The Role of Firm Quality," Lisa Kahn and Erika McEntarfer examine recent changes in flows of workers between firms that offer jobs of differing quality. They find that that lower-quality firms decreased both hiring and separations by large and equal amounts, whereas high-quality firms have much smaller declines in both hiring and separations. The net result is that the fraction of workers in lower-quality jobs tends to increase during recessions.
In closely related work, "Did the Job Ladder Fail after the Great Recession?" by Giuseppi Moscarini and Fabien Postel-Vinay, uses data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics' Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey (JOLTS) to study the hiring and separation patterns across firms of different sizes. They determine that the pattern of firm growth across size classes was different during this recession than in previous recessions. In particular, they find that following the Lehman Brothers collapse, smaller firms actually fared worse than larger firms, perhaps because financing constraints had more severe consequences for smaller firms.
As the provisions in the Affordable Care Act (ACA) take effect in the coming months, there may be large effects not only on the market for health care but also on the labor market. In particular, the ACA will implicitly introduce taxes and subsidies that will differ across firms and workers of different types. In "Effects of the Affordable Care Act on the Amount and Composition of Labor Market Activity," Trevor Gallen and Casey Mulligan develop a framework to think about how these provisions will influence labor market outcomes across different sectors and worker types, and they use a calibrated version of the model to quantify the effects. The authors predict that the ACA will substantially reduce the return to market work for low-skilled individuals and that a large number of individuals who currently receive health insurance through their employers will end up purchasing insurance through the exchanges established as part of the ACA.
The conference also featured a presentation by Ed Lazear, "The New Normal? Productivity and Employment during the Recession and Recovery." The talk highlighted three themes from Lazear's recent research. First, productivity did not decline in the recent recession—as it typically had done in previous recessions—perhaps reflecting that workers expend more effort during periods of high unemployment since they fear unemployment more in a weak labor market. Second, the unemployment rate is a less useful indicator of the overall state of the labor market during the current recovery (in recent years the decline in the unemployment rate has not been accompanied by an increase in the employment-to-population ratio, since labor force participation has declined). The third theme is that the deterioration in labor market outcomes during the recent recession should be interpreted as cyclical rather than structural and, hence, a labor market recovery is likely once GDP growth is stronger.
We certainly wouldn't claim that the conference put to rest any of the relevant questions that will confront the Federal Open Market Committee and its new chair going forward. But we do believe that continuing to support the dissemination of the type of research presented at this conference gives us a fighting chance.
By Richard Rogerson of Princeton University and Robert Shimer of the University of Chicago, both advisers to the Atlanta Fed's Center for Human Capital Studies, and Melinda Pitts, director of the Atlanta Fed's Center for Human Capital Studies
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September 17, 2013
The ABCs of LFPR
As the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) meets amid much speculation about the next steps for monetary policy, it does so in in the context of an August 2013 Employment Situation report that was generally viewed as a mixed bag. The employment numbers undershot the consensus among most market observers, while the unemployment rate edged down again. But even the drop in the unemployment rate—a cumulative 0.8 percentage point over the past 12 months—failed to impress everyone. Martin Feldstein, for instance:
The official unemployment rate has declined sharply (to 7.3% last month from 10% in October 2009) only because so many people have stopped looking for work or are working part-time.
Part of what Professor Feldstein is referring to, of course, is the labor force participation rate (LFPR), which measures the share of the adult population that is in the labor force. LFPR includes those who are employed and those who are unemployed but looking for a job, but not those who are unemployed and are not looking for a job (which includes retirees and discouraged workers).
We generally refrain from direct commentary about issues related to monetary policy in the time surrounding FOMC meetings. I won't break with that tradition but am more than happy to highlight a resource that can help you draw your own conclusions about all things having to do with the labor market, including the LFPR.
Our Center for Human Capital Studies' Federal Reserve Human Capital Compendium is a collection of Federal Reserve System research published on topics related to employment, unemployment, and workforce development. Our latest update offers several entries that address the LFPR and its implications for the labor market. Two recent additions:
Will a Surge in Labor Force Participation Impede Unemployment Rate Improvement? Researchers at the Richmond Fed concluded that, in the short run, the LFPR and the unemployment rate are negatively correlated. This conclusion is derived from the fact that unemployed participants in the labor force are more likely to leave the labor force than those who are employed. Also, movement from unemployed non-participant to employed participant (basically skipping the unemployed-participant phase) is more likely in an improving labor market. They concluded that movements in the LFPR lag six months behind movements in the unemployment rate.
Cyclical versus Secular: Decomposing the Recent Decline in U.S. Labor Force Participation. Researchers at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston found that since 2008, the decline in the LFPR largely reflects demographic effects of an aging population. Furthermore, the cyclical response of the LFPR during the latest recession and recovery period has been smaller than expected, so the unemployment rate would have been three-quarters of a percent lower if the LFPR had followed historical norms. They conclude that going forward, the unemployment rate should give an accurate read on labor market conditions and that further cyclical declines in the LFPR are unlikely if the labor market continues to improve.
But much more information on the LFPR and other topics including wages and earnings, outsourcing, and productivity is available. If you're looking for something to do while you await the FOMC's decision, one option is building a little human capital of your own with our Human Capital Compendium.
By Whitney Mancuso, a senior economic analyst in the Atlanta Fed's research department
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September 13, 2013
Job Reallocation over Time: Decomposing the Decline
One of the primary ways an economy expands is by quickly reallocating resources to the places where they are most productive. If new and productive firms are able to quickly grow and unproductive firms can quickly shrink, then the economy as a whole will experience faster growth and the many benefits (such as lower unemployment and higher wages) that are associated with that growth. Certain individuals may experience unemployment spells from this reallocation, but economists, starting with Joseph Schumpeter, have found that reallocation is associated with economic growth and wage growth, particularly for young workers.
Recently, a number of prominent economists such as John Haltiwanger have expressed concern that falling reallocation rates in the United States are a major contributor to the slow economic recovery. One simple way to quantify the speed of reallocation is to examine the job creation rate—defined as the number of new jobs in expanding firms divided by the total number of jobs in the economy—and the destruction rate, defined likewise but using the number of jobs lost by contracting firms. Chart 1 plots both the creation and the destruction rates of the U.S. economy starting in 1977. These measures track each other closely with creation rates exceeding destruction rates during periods of economic growth and vice versa during recessions. The most recent recession saw a particularly sharp decline in job creation (you can highlight the creation rate by clicking on the line), but it is clear this decline is part of a larger trend that far predates the current period. A decline in these rates could indicate less innovation or less labor market flexibility, both of which are likely to retard economic growth. Feel free to explore the measures for yourself using the figure’s interactivity.
To better understand these important trends we create a common variable called reallocation, which is defined as total jobs created plus total jobs destroyed, divided by total jobs in the economy. This formula creates one measure that describes how quickly jobs are moving from shrinking firms to expanding firms. Using data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Business Dynamic Statistics, we examine differences in this variable across sectors and across states. Furthermore, using some basic data visualization tools, we can see how reallocation has evolved over time across these dimensions.
Chart 2 plots reallocation rates by industry from 1977 to 2011. The plot highlights the reallocation rate for all industries, but you can also select or deselect any industry to more clearly view how it has changed over time. Scrolling over the lines allows you to view the exact rates by industry in any time period. A few interesting patterns emerge. First, sectors have different levels of job reallocation in the cross section. Manufacturing stands out as having particularly low reallocation rates, probably the result of the large fixed-cost capital requirements required in production. Second, not all industries experienced sharp declines during this period. If you highlight the finance, insurance, and real estate sector, it is evident that reallocation rates actually increased for this sector until the most recent recession. Retail and construction, on the other hand, have experienced steady and significant declines during the past 35 years.
Chart 3 maps reallocation rates across states for the year 1977. This figure provides us with a cross sectional view of geographical differences in reallocation rates. States with the highest reallocation rates are dark brown, and states with the lowest rates are light brown. You can click through the years to visually capture how these rates have changed overtime for each state. Compare the color of the map in 1977 with the color in 2011. Scroll the mouse over any state to view that state’s reallocation rate in the particular year.
As with industries, states display clear cross sectional differences in their reallocation rates. The highest rates are found in western states, Florida, and Texas, and the lowest are in the Midwest. Scrolling through the years shows that the decline in reallocation rates is common to the entire country.
Overall, these figures display a stark trend. The economy is reallocating jobs at much slower rates than 20 or even 10 years ago, and this decline is, with only a few exceptions, common across states and industries. Economists are just now starting to explore the causes of this trend, and a single, compelling explanation has yet to emerge. But some explanation is clearly in order and clearly important for economic policymakers, monetary and otherwise.
By Mark Curtis, a visiting scholar in the Atlanta Fed's research department
Please note that the charts and maps in this post were updated and improved on November 27, 2013.
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August 16, 2013
GDP, Jobs, and Growth Accounting
The latest on productivity, from the Associated Press via USA Today:
U.S. worker productivity accelerated to a still-modest 0.9% annual pace between April and June after dropping the previous quarter.
The second-quarter gain...reversed a decline in the January-March quarter, when the Labor Department's revised numbers show productivity shrank at a 1.7% annual pace.
Labor costs rose at a 1.4% annual pace from April through June, reversing a revised 4.2% drop the previous quarter.
Productivity measures output per hour of work. Weak productivity suggests that companies may have to hire because they can't squeeze more work from their existing employees....
Productivity growth has been weaker recently, rising 1.5% in 2012 and 0.5% in 2011.
Annual productivity growth averaged 3.2% in 2009 and 3.3% in 2010. In records dating back to 1947, it's been about 2%.
Though not quite in the category of spectacular—and coming off revisions that if anything made things look weaker than previously thought—last quarter's uptick is a welcome development. Earlier this week, in a speech to the Atlanta Kiwanis club, Atlanta Fed President Dennis Lockhart laid out several scenarios with materially different implications for how the GDP and employment picture might play out over the next several years:
As a matter of arithmetic, healthy employment growth coupled with tepid GDP growth implies weak labor productivity growth. And in fact, productivity growth in recent quarters has been significantly below historical norms.
[I] believe that the recent low growth of productivity is probably just a temporary downdraft after the rather strong productivity growth when the economy emerged from recession.
If productivity growth rebounds to more typical levels, the coincidence of job gains at a pace of around 190,000 per month in recent months and GDP growth below 2 percent cannot persist. Again, it's a matter of arithmetic. Either GDP growth will rise to levels consistent with recent employment growth, or employment growth will fall to levels more consistent with the weak GDP data we've been witnessing.
I've got a working assumption on this question, and it is captured in the Atlanta Fed's baseline forecast for the second half of this year and 2014. This outlook calls for a pickup in real GDP growth over the balance of 2013, with a further step-up in economic activity as we move into 2014.
You can get a sense of this outlook by considering the output of one particular model that we use here at the Atlanta Fed. The model, which is purely statistical, gives us a view into how productivity, GDP, employment, and the unemployment rate might move together (along with other labor market variables like labor force participation and average hours worked). Here is the bottom line of an exercise that assumes GDP growth through 2015 comes in at about the central tendency of the projections from the Federal Reserve's June 2013 Summary of Economic Projections.
For this exercise, we have adjusted the 2013 growth forecast down slightly due to the weaker-than-expected growth in the first half of the year. Additionally, we have plugged in assumptions for productivity growth—1.5 percent per quarter (SAAR), the average gain over the past eight years—and nonfarm business output growth. We then let the model forecast the remaining variables, all of which are for the labor market:
The model forecasts employment gains in the neighborhood of what the economy has been generating over the past several years, and a steadily declining unemployment rate.
Now consider two "stall" scenarios in which GDP growth fails to get beyond 2.3 percent. The first of these scenarios is the one noted in the Lockhart Kiwanis speech, with productivity recovering but job growth falling off the pace:
From a policy perspective, this one may not cause too much handwringing about the appropriate course of action. The weak GDP growth is accompanied by a failure to make the type of progress on the unemployment rate that the FOMC has clearly articulated as the necessary condition for adjustments in policy rates:
[T]he Committee decided to keep the target range for the federal funds rate at 0 to 1/4 percent and currently anticipates that this exceptionally low range for the federal funds rate will be appropriate at least as long as the unemployment rate remains above 6-1/2 percent, inflation between one and two years ahead is projected to be no more than a half percentage point above the Committee's 2 percent longer-run goal, and longer-term inflation expectations continue to be well anchored.
Absent unforeseen issues with inflation, staying the course would seem to be in order.
But there is a second stall scenario in which productivity and GDP growth remain tepid, even as labor market indicators improve:
The difference in this experiment is that the expectations of those that President Lockhart referred to in his speech as the "innovation pessimists" are correct. Recent weakness in productivity growth reflects a fall in trend productivity growth. In this case, essentially identical labor market outcomes would nonetheless correspond to an economy that can't seem to hit "escape" velocity.
If it is clear that this configuration of outcomes is associated with a structural break in productivity growth, an argument against monetary policy stimulus would have some weight. After all, in most cases we don't expect the tools of monetary policy to fix structural efficiency problems.
But, alas, such clarity rarely arrives in real time. The experiments above give some sense of how difficult it can be to discover the right branch to follow on the policy decision tree.
By Dave Altig, executive vice president and research director of the Atlanta Fed
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August 09, 2013
Myth and Reality: The Low-Wage Job Machine
In the wake of the July employment report released last week, an interesting graphic appeared in a Wall Street Journal article with the somewhat distressing title "Low Pay Clouds Job Growth." The graphic juxtaposed average wages by sector (as of July 2013) with changes in the numbers of jobs created by sector (from July 2011 through July 2013). I've reproduced that chart below, with a few enhancements:
For the 17 sectors, the red circles represent the five sectors with the lowest average wage as of July. The green circles represent the five sectors with the highest average wages, and the blue circles represent those with average wages between the high and low groups. The size of each of the circles in the chart represents the share of employment in that sector during the July 2011 to July 2013 period.
The clear implication of the article is that things are even worse than you think:
Employers added a seasonally adjusted 162,000 jobs in July, the fewest since March, the Labor Department said Friday, and hiring was also weaker in May and June than initially reported. Moreover, more than half the job gains were in the restaurant and retail sectors, both of which pay well under $20 an hour on average.
That situation may indeed be something worth worrying about, but if so it is nothing new. The following chart shows the percentages of job gains sorted by low-wage, middle-wage, and high-wage sectors for each of the U.S. expansion periods dating back to 1970:
I've dated the current recovery from March 2010: the month that employment gains turned positive. It should also be noted that the cross-recovery comparisons are not quite apples-to-apples given changes in the way sectoral employment is reported by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (There are only 11 sectors, for example, in the recovery periods prior to 1991.)
But I don't think this materially alters the basic picture: The lowest-wage sectors have consistently produced 40 percent to 50 percent of the job gains in recent recoveries. Though the percentage was slightly higher in July, it was not materially so. And this recovery does not look at all unusual when taken as a whole.
What is more striking—at least relative to the earlier recoveries in the chart—is the growing disparity between the average wages across sectors, as this animation clearly illustrates:
Importantly, the animation also clearly illustrates that the growing wage disparity is a trend, not a unique feature of the postcrisis period. There are lots of interesting things being written about the reasons for this trend, and it is a vitally important topic. But I'm pretty sure the answers to the important policy questions lie well beyond the current business cycle.
By Dave Altig, executive vice president and research director of the Atlanta Fed
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August 02, 2013
What a Difference a Month Makes? Maybe Not Much
By most accounts, the July employment report released this morning was something of a disappointment, perhaps more because it fell short of expectations than for any absolute signal it sends about the state of the economy. To be sure, the 162,000 net jobs created in July were below June’s 12-month average, which itself ticked down a bit as a result of negative revisions to the May and June statistics.
“Ticked down a bit” is the operative phrase, as the average monthly jobs gain from May 2012 through June 2013 now registers at 189,000 as opposed to the 191,000 reported last month. With this month’s new data, the 12-month average gains (from June 2012 to July 2013) clock in at 190,000 jobs per month, still right on the trend that has prevailed over the past couple of years. In other words, not much has changed in the longer view of things.
Our interests here at macroblog run to the policy implications, of course. Not too surprisingly, focal points are 1) the 7 percent unemployment rate neighborhood that Chairman Bernanke has associated with Federal Open Market Committee forecasts of what will prevail around the time that the Fed’s current asset purchase program might be ending and 2) the benchmark 6 1/2 percent unemployment that the statement following this week’s FOMC meeting continued to identify as the earliest possible point at which adjustments to the Committee’s interest rate target will be considered.
Following last month’s employment report I offered up calculations from the Atlanta Fed’s Jobs Calculator™ regarding the dates at which these unemployment thresholds might be reached, under the assumptions that jobs gains average 191,000 per month going forward, the participation rate remains constant at the reported June level, and there will be no change in the relationship between employment statistics from the payroll (or establishment) survey (whence comes the headline jobs number) and the employment statistics from the household survey (statistics used to calculate the unemployment rate). All of these figures change month to month, so it may be useful to update that exercise with current statistics (with last month’s calculations noted parenthetically):
Not much change there. In fact, the unemployment rates in these calculations fall a little faster than last month’s calculations suggested, in part due to the ancillary assumptions on participation rates and the payroll-employment /household-employment ratio.
In the spirit of pessimism—an economist’s university-given right—I’ll ask: what if the latest 162,000-job-gain number is closer than the trailing 12-month average to what we will experience going forward? Easiest enough to explore:
I will leave it to you to decide whether the differences imply important policy distinctions.
Side note: For a broader look at labor market conditions, take a look at the Atlanta Fed’s spider chart, updated as of today’s employment report.
By Dave Altig, executive vice president and research director of the Atlanta Fed
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July 05, 2013
A Quick Independence Day Weekend, Post-Employment Report Update
From what I gather, a lot of people took notice of this statement, from Chairman Bernanke’s June 19 press conference:
If the incoming data are broadly consistent with this forecast, the Committee currently anticipates that it would be appropriate to moderate the monthly pace of purchases later this year. And if the subsequent data remain broadly aligned with our current expectations for the economy, we would continue to reduce the pace of purchases in measured steps through the first half of next year, ending purchases around midyear. In this scenario, when asset purchases ultimately come to an end, the unemployment rate would likely be in the vicinity of 7 percent, with solid economic growth supporting further job gains, a substantial improvement from the 8.1 percent unemployment rate that prevailed when the Committee announced this program.
That 7 percent assessment to which the Chairman was referring comes, of course, from the outlook summarized in the Summary of Economic Projections, published following the June 18–19 meeting of the Federal Open Market Committee.
Here are the unemployment forecasts specifically:
The highlighted numbers represent the “central tendency” projections for the average fourth quarter unemployment rate in 2013, 2014, and 2015 (in blue) and the “longer run” (in green). Naturally enough, getting to a 6.5 percent to 6.8 percent unemployment rate in the fourth quarter of 2014 is pretty likely to imply the unemployment rate crossing 7 percent sometime around roughly the middle of next year.
So, how do things look after the June employment report? As is our wont, we turn to our Jobs Calculator to answer such questions, and come up with the following. If the U.S. economy creates 191,000 jobs per month (the average for the past 12 months), and the labor force participation rate stays at 63.5 percent (its June level), and all the other important assumptions (such as the ratio of establishment survey to household survey employment) remain the same, then the economy’s schedule looks like this:
Note also the implication of this statement...
[T]he Committee decided to keep the target range for the federal funds rate at 0 to 1/4 percent and currently anticipates that this exceptionally low range for the federal funds rate will be appropriate at least as long as the unemployment rate remains above 6-1/2 percent , inflation between one and two years ahead is projected to be no more than a half percentage point above the Committee's 2 percent longer-run goal, and longer-term inflation expectations continue to be well anchored.
...which certainly aids in understanding this information, from the last Summary of Economic Projections:
I will leave it to the principals to articulate whether today’s report materially changes anything contained in last month’s projections. In the meantime, enjoy your weekend.
By Dave Altig, executive vice president and research director of the Atlanta Fed
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June 10, 2013
Casting a Web over Jobs Data
Writing in the Wall Street Journal prior to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics' Friday release of the May employment data, Ed Lazear (Stanford professor and former chair of George W. Bush's Council of Economic Advisers) made a plea for an expansive interpretation of labor market conditions:
...when Friday's jobs report is released, the unemployment rate and the number of new jobs will come in for close scrutiny. Then again, they always attract the most attention. Even the Federal Reserve focuses on the unemployment rate...
Yet the unemployment rate is not the best guide to the strength of the labor market, particularly during this recession and recovery. Instead, the Fed and the rest of us should be watching the employment rate. There are two reasons.
First, the better measure of a strong labor market is the proportion of the population that is working, not the proportion that isn't…
Second...There is another highly relevant measure that captures what is going on in the economy. "U6" counts those marginally attached to the workforce—including the unemployed who dropped out of the labor market and are not actively seeking work because they are discouraged, as well as those working part time because they cannot find full-time work...
The striking deficiency in jobs is borne out by the Bureau of Labor Statistics' Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey. Despite declining unemployment rates, the number of hires during the most recent month (March 2013) is almost the same as it was in January 2009, the worst month for job losses during the entire recession (4.2 million then, 4.3 million now).
Faithful readers of macroblog will recognize that, contrary to the narrow focus that Professor Lazear suggests preoccupies the Federal Reserve, one of the Fed's consistent themes has been to cast our intellectual nets over a broad swath of labor market indicators. In fact, one of our favorite blog topics over the past six months has been the construction of "spider charts" to visualize the status of the labor market beyond what can be gleaned from simply looking at the standard unemployment and employment statistics.
Internally, these spider charts have become one of our primary tools for evaluating the status of the labor market. Because we have also found this tool to be an effective means of communicating the overall labor market picture, we are pleased to announce that the labor market spider chart has been added to our portfolio of labor market tools available on the Atlanta Fed's Center for Human Capital Studies' web pages (a portfolio that includes the Jobs Calculator and the Human Capital Compendium, which is a repository of human capital-related products from throughout the Federal Reserve System). The spider chart is presented both in simple levels that were first introduced in macroblog on January 13, 2013, as well as in rates, which were discussed in macroblog last April.
As we have mentioned before, the spider chart contains four groups of labor market indicators:
- Employer behavior includes indicators related to the hiring activities of employers.
- Confidence includes indicators of employer and worker confidence in the labor market.
- Utilization includes measures related to available labor resources.
- Leading indicators shows data that typically provide insight into the future direction of overall labor market activity.
The inner circle of the chart represents the labor market conditions that existed when the unemployment rate peaked in the fourth quarter of 2009. The outer circle represents the labor market conditions that existed just before the recession began.
A section on the website titled Indicators explains the details behind each of the variables included in the groups noted above, and another section, Surveys, details the data sources. A Frequently Asked Questions section offers details on the construction of the indicators and the reference points, as well as the rationale for this approach and answers to other questions that have arisen.
The spider chart allows one to chart the progress on all these dimensions using the most recent three months of data, compared to that level (or rate) for the same time period over the last three years, while the reference points remain fixed. So one could have a spider chart that shows just the data for the three-month period ending in May 2013, or a chart that encompasses the data for May 2013, May 2012, and May 2011.
The increase in the unemployment rate in last Friday's jobs report, amid an otherwise strong report that included a 175,000 increase in payroll employment, supports this strategy of using a variety of indicators to monitor labor market conditions rather than to simply focus on the unemployment rate. The increase in the labor force participation rate this month worked to drive up the unemployment rate, but by all other accounts this was a solid report. In fact, all seven of the indicators from the employment situation report release increased from the April readings in both the "levels" and "rates" spider charts.
Our current focus is still on the recovery of the labor market, and as long as this is the case, we will use the information in these charts to help us determine if the labor market has achieved substantial improvement. When the labor market has turned a corner into expansion, we will reevaluate our tools and determine a more appropriate way to monitor the labor market. But, for now, rest assured that our policy deliberations are not stuck in a single-indicator rut.
By M. Melinda Pitts, director, Center for Human Capital Studies, and
Patrick Higgins, senior economist, both in the Atlanta Fed's research department
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June 07, 2013
The Hiring Forecasts of Small Firms: Will the Pace of Employment Growth Pick Up?
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) announced today that the U.S. labor market added 175,000 payroll jobs in May, continuing a trend of steady but disappointingly slow employment growth. The employment recovery has been even slower among small firms. Will it pick up in the coming 12 months? Results from the Atlanta Fed's latest survey of small businesses in the Southeast suggest that employment growth among small firms will continue but not necessarily at a faster pace.
Since the recession began, changes in employment have been asymmetric across firm size. In contrast to large firms, employment at small and medium sized businesses began decreasing earlier, declined more, and, by last March, was a little further from its prerecession level. As of the first quarter of 2012, employment at firms with fewer than 500 employees was 5 percent below prerecession levels, compared to just 2 percent for firms with more than 500 employees. So why is employment at small firms not recovering as quickly as employment at large firms? Is it poised to accelerate and perhaps catch up?
While the Business Employment Dynamics data series from the BLS only go through first-quarter 2012 (chart 1), we can use our semi-annual survey of small business in the Southeast to find out a little more about the experiences of small firms through first-quarter 2013 as well look at their forecasts through the first quarter of 2014. Four-hundred-seventy-eight firms across the industry and age spectrum participated in the first-quarter 2013 survey, which was conducted during the first three weeks in April. Although the survey is not a random sample, the results are weighted to make them more representative of a national distribution.
When asked about changes in employment over the period Q1 2012 to Q1 2013, employer firms on net said there was almost no change. Slightly more than 40 percent of firms said they had not altered employment levels. The remainder of the responses were distributed pretty evenly between "expansion" and "contraction". As you can see in chart 2, the distribution of firms creating jobs was almost a mirror image of the distribution of firms shedding jobs in terms of the magnitude of change.
In addition to asking about changes during the past 12 months, the survey probed small firms about their expectations for the coming 12 months. Using the power of our panel data set, we can compare the expectations of firms that took the survey exactly one year ago with their actual hiring activity during that time period to determine how accurately firms predict what the future holds and whether these hiring plans are indeed good forecasts of future activity.
As it turns out, the 184 firms participating in both surveys came pretty close to meeting their hiring expectations. However, they did tend to overestimate the extent to which employment would increase (or underestimate the extent to which it would decrease), regardless of how well firms were performing at the time they made their forecast (see chart 3). For example, firms that had recently experienced reductions in their workforce expected the greatest positive change in the pace of hiring, and in fact went on to report the highest actual change during this period. Firms that had not changed their employment levels recently or had changed them by up to 10 percent expected very little growth—on average, they achieved just slightly less than expected. Regardless of how well the firm had recently performed (in terms of employment growth in the previous period), the degree to which hiring increased or downsizing decreased was less pronounced than anticipated.
Small firms are reasonably good at predicting the direction and relative magnitude of their employment growth, but on average tend to overestimate. For this reason, it might be useful to examine changes in the hiring expectations index (as opposed to changes in the pace of employment growth) when trying to understand how the forecast of firms participating in the survey might translate into actual employment growth of small firms in the Southeast.
Chart 4 shows the hiring index of firms across four broad industry groups. In the first quarter of 2013, the index for hiring in the coming 12 months was essentially unchanged from the Q3 2012 survey, and significantly below that of the Q1 2012 survey. The only industry whose employment forecast was notably positive was the construction and real estate industry. Firms in that category have been steadily increasing their hiring forecasts since the third quarter of 2011.
The fact that hiring expectations did not improve in the first-quarter survey leads to another, perhaps more important question: Why didn't they?
One contributing factor that could be having a particularly large impact on hiring expectations is rocky sales. Firms may be less willing to hire if they are uncertain about the future or if they do not expect consistent sales growth. Indeed, by looking at the experiences of firms in the past 12 months, we can tell that there is a clear correlation between rising sales and rising employment. As chart 5 shows, half of employer firms reported a recent rise in sales, and the more sales had risen, the more likely firms were to have increased their workforce.
A couple of questions that arise from chart 5 are: What about the firms that recently experienced sales growth but didn't hire? Are they planning to hire in the coming 12 months? About one-third of firms say "yes". One driving factor in that decision appears to be sustained sales growth; another is reduced uncertainty. As chart 6 makes apparent, the sales expectations of firms in this group is higher on average for the one-third of firms that say they do plan to hire in the coming 12 months than for the two-thirds who do not. All the firms in the hiring group also expect sales growth to continue, with the most common response being greater than 10 percent growth. In contrast, while 77 percent of firms in the not-hiring group anticipate sustained sales growth, the group’s most common response was lower than that of the hiring group: 1 percent to 5 percent.
Another factor that may be related to hiring is reduced uncertainty. Employer firms experiencing sales growth in the past 12 months are more likely to anticipate hiring if they perceive a decrease in uncertainty compared to six months ago. Seventy percent of firms that had a recent increase in sales and decreased uncertainty concerns relative to six months ago anticipate hiring in the coming year. In contrast, 46 percent of those who had experienced a recent increase in sales but also perceived heightened uncertainty anticipate hiring.
For now, the results suggest that uncertainty and rocky sales growth are negatively affecting the hiring plans of small firms and, unfortunately, that small firms are not likely to increase their rate of hiring in the next 12 months. However, if uncertainty eases and sales growth continues, small firms will likely revisit their hiring plans and the pace of hiring just might improve.
By Ellyn Terry, a senior economic analyst in the Atlanta Fed's research department
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