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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.

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


August 9, 2013 in Employment, Labor Markets | Permalink

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Can you remake your animated gif adjusted for inflation? I think it's hard to see the distribution changes from the initial data that are all compressed at the low end of the scale. Using a percentage scale relative to the max would also do it.

Posted by: Tom in MN | August 10, 2013 at 11:28 AM

We have 11M workers completely unaccounted for, since they are forced into the underground economy by tax codes and work visa necessities. Also, many folks, even legal residents, are independent contractors, perhaps with income off the books, another way of avoiding things such as the 12.5% payroll tax and now the health care issues. 12.5% is $1.25 at $10 an hour, a quite substantial amount to many at that level. Adding these in would likely raise the actual wages in the lower end. Many skilled construction workers and landscapers are making far abover $10 an hour off the books.

Posted by: pete | August 14, 2013 at 05:00 AM

I was think the same as Tom: I think an inflation-adjusted scale would be more useful. Another option is showing percentage pay-increase in each sector.

Posted by: BTN | August 30, 2013 at 10:00 AM

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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):

Job growth and unemployment rates as of July 2013 (June 2013) employment reports


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:

Unemployment rates under the assumption of 162,000 jobs created per month going forward


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.

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


August 2, 2013 in Data Releases, Employment, Labor Markets, Monetary Policy | Permalink

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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:

Macroblog_2013-07-05A

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:

Macroblog_2013-07-05B

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:

Macroblog_2013-07-05C

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.

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


July 5, 2013 in Economics, Employment, Federal Reserve and Monetary Policy, Forecasts, Labor Markets | Permalink

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The analysis describing the decline in the unemployment rate to 6.25-percent in July 2015 assumes that "the labor force participation rate stays at 63.5 percent."

Other than spring 2013, the last time the LFPR was lower than 63.5-percent was in May 1979 ... 34 years ago.  So I don't challenge your arithmetic, but find it highly improbable that the LFPR will stabilize at current levels as the economy expands. People flood into the labor market when jobs become easier to find.

The last time the unemployment rate was at (about) 6.25-percent was in October 2008, at which time the LFPR stood at 66-percent.  In the previous business cycle, the LFPR remained above 67-percent for an extended period between 1997 and 2001.

According to the Jobs Calculator, monthly job growth of 190,000 and a LFPR of 66% would bring the unemployment rate down to 6.25-percent about 94 months from now ... in mid-2021.

Posted by: Thomas Wyrick | July 08, 2013 at 09:33 PM

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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.

Photo of Melinda PittsBy M. Melinda Pitts, director, Center for Human Capital Studies, and

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

June 10, 2013 in Employment, Labor Markets | Permalink

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I really like the labor market spider chart  (frbatlanta.org/chcs/labormarket)

I believe Ed Lazear's comments about the Fed focusing on the unemployment rate can be traced to the statement --- reported to have been issued by the FOMC --- that QE would continue until the unemployment rate has fallen to 6.5%.  That might cause him and other observers to believe that other labor market indicators are of academic interest to the Fed but not directly relevant to policy makers.

Do you use spider charts for other purposes?  For example, one could be used to graph the status of all 10 leading indicators for different reference periods.  Perhaps a spider chart could also be used with various inflation measures, with the orange and green rings defining the Fed's targets (say 1-3%).  A third could include 'bubble' indicators (gold price, CPI inflation, PCE inflation, housing price index), with the outer ring reflecting the value of each indicator in January 2008 (or some other reference date). 

Tables of data or a series of bar charts could convey the same information, but the spider chart makes it far easier to spot trends and make comparisons.

Thanks.

Posted by: Thomas Wyrick | June 11, 2013 at 11:12 PM

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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?

Employment to Firm Size; Indexed to Q1-2008=1

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.

Changes in Size of Workforce--Q1 2012 to Q1 2013

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.

Actual Pace of Hiring and Expected Pace of Hiring

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.

MHiring Expectations Diffusion Index

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.

Change in Sales

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.

Q1 2013 Sales Forecasts of Firms

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

June 7, 2013 in Data Releases, Employment, Labor Markets, Small Business | Permalink

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While expected "sales" may be a hender in hiring for small firms, the "Affordable Healthcare Act" is having a far more dramatic effect than anyone will admit. Why, is a mystery.

Posted by: Tom Damson | June 10, 2013 at 03:39 PM

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May 23, 2013

A Subtle View of Labor Market Improvement

In a speech delivered Tuesday to the Japan Society in New York City, Federal Reserve Bank of New York President William Dudley offered his view on how he might assess the appropriate pace of the Federal Open Market Committee's (FOMC) current $85 billion per month asset purchase program:

Let me give a few examples of how my own thinking may evolve. In terms of our asset purchase program, I believe we should be prepared to adjust the total amount of purchases to that needed to deliver a substantial improvement in the labor market outlook in the context of price stability. In doing this, we might adjust the pace of purchases up or down as the labor market and inflation outlook changes in a material way. For me, the base case forecast is not the sole consideration—how confident we are about that outcome is also important.

Because the outlook is uncertain, I cannot be sure which way—up or down—the next change will be. But at some point, I expect to see sufficient evidence to make me more confident about the prospect for substantial improvement in the labor market outlook. At that time, in my view, it will be appropriate to reduce the pace at which we are adding accommodation through asset purchases. Over the coming months, how well the economy fights its way through the significant fiscal drag currently in force will be an important aspect of this judgment.

My own boss, Atlanta Fed President Dennis Lockhart, expressed a similar view in a speech to the Birmingham, Alabama, Kiwanis Club last month:

The key word in the phrase "substantial improvement in the outlook for the labor market" is outlook. For my part, a critical consideration in judging how much longer asset purchases should continue will be confidence in the positive outlook. Confidence that is solidly grounded in improving economic data, accumulated over a sufficient span of time, will help me conclude that the work of the large-scale asset purchase program, as a temporary supplement to conventional interest-rate policy, is complete.

And there is this, from the minutes of the latest meeting of the FOMC (emphasis added):

Participants also touched on the conditions under which it might be appropriate to change the pace of asset purchases. Most observed that the outlook for the labor market had shown progress since the program was started in September, but many of these participants indicated that continued progress, more confidence in the outlook, or diminished downside risks would be required before slowing the pace of purchases would become appropriate.

Neither President Dudley nor President Lockhart (nor the minutes) indicates where we are on the confidence scale at the moment. But at least outside the Fed, there is some evidence confidence in the labor market forecast is increasing. The following chart shows year-over-year averages of the interquartile range of four-quarter-ahead unemployment rate forecasts from the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia's Survey of Professional Forecasters:

130523

The interquartile range is essentially the difference between the most optimistic one-fourth of the forecasts in the Philadelphia Fed's panel and the most pessimistic one-fourth of forecasts. It is thus a measure of dispersion, or forecast disagreement.

The trend in this measure of forecast disagreement is clearly—very clearly—downward. That doesn't exactly say that each individual forecaster is becoming more confident about his or her individual outlook (though this type of dispersion measure is often used as a proxy for overall uncertainty). Even less does it mean that forecast uncertainty has fallen to the level President Dudley, President Lockhart, or any other Fed official would deem sufficient to alter policy in any way. The FOMC minutes, for example, include this...

A number of participants expressed willingness to adjust the flow of purchases downward as early as the June meeting if the economic information received by that time showed evidence of sufficiently strong and sustained growth; however, views differed about what evidence would be necessary and the likelihood of that outcome.

... and following his congressional testimony Wednesday, Chairman Bernanke engaged in a Q&A, and ABC News summed up the state of the policy discussion this way:

When asked by Kevin Brady, the Panel's chairman, whether the Federal Reserve could start winding it back before before September's Labour Day holiday, Mr Bernanke responded, "I don't know. It's going to depend on the data."

It really need not be emphasized that I don't know either. But the narrowing of opinions of where things are headed must signify some sort of progress.

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

 

May 23, 2013 in Employment, Federal Reserve and Monetary Policy, Labor Markets, Monetary Policy | Permalink

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The units in your chart are not displayed correctly. The "10" should be "1.0"

Posted by: glenn | May 24, 2013 at 10:52 AM

Thanks Glenn. Actually this is a case of not labeling/explaining things precisely. I used the Philadelphia Fed's D3 measure of dispersion, which is the log difference of the levels. So the units are the percent differences between the 75th percentile and the 25th percentile.

Posted by: Dave | May 30, 2013 at 03:19 PM

thanks..

Posted by: Aldex | July 01, 2014 at 07:23 AM

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May 16, 2013

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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



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

Photo of Brent MeyerBrent Meyer, economist, and

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


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

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

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

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May 13, 2013

Labor Force Participation and the Unemployment Threshold

On Friday, my colleague Julie Hotchkiss shared in this space the results of her new research (with Fernando Rios-Avila, a Georgia State University colleague) on the recent and prospective behavior of the labor force participation rate (LFPR). The punch line, from my point of view, is this:

Our results suggest that relative to the average LFPR over the years 2010–12, the average LFPR over the years 2015–17 will rise by about a third of a percentage point—again, if the labor market returns to prerecession conditions. (Italics original)

As Julie notes:

[T]he Federal Open Market Committee has substantially raised the stakes on disentangling...movements in labor force participation...by introducing into its policy deliberations concepts like unemployment thresholds and qualitative assessments on "substantial" labor market improvement.

Though the meaning of "substantial labor market improvement"—a condition for adjusting the FOMC's current large-scale asset purchase program—is somewhat ambiguous, the unemployment threshold for considering moving the federal funds rate off the near-zero mark is less so. As the Committee indicated in its May press release:

[T]he Committee decided to keep the target range for the federal funds rate at 0 to ¼ 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 6½ 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.

It is widely understood (a sign of the times, no doubt) that changes in the unemployment rate are not entirely independent of what is happening with the participation rate. We have discussed this issue before here in macroblog. But in light of the new research coming from our own shop (and other research cited in Julie's post), it seems like a good time for a refresher.

First, a step back. Multiple upward revisions to the employment situation since the December jobs report—you can follow the trail courtesy of Calculated Risk here, here, here, here, and here—have led to a more robust picture of the labor market than certainly I was thinking. Here is what the record looks like for most of the recovery:

With an assist from the Atlanta Fed Jobs Calculator, we can provide further perspective on these numbers. In particular, under the assumption that the labor force participation rate will remain at its current level of 63.3 percent (among other things held constant), we can map the recent job growth numbers to a rough date when the unemployment rate will reach 6½ percent.

That looks interesting, but then taking the Hotchkiss and Rios-Avila research onboard means the assumption of a constant labor force participation rate may not be justified. So, turning again to the Jobs Calculator, the following table answers this question: If we continue on the 208,000-per-month pace of job creation of the last six months, and the labor force participation rate is X, what would the unemployment rate be by June of next year? For reference, the first row of the table replicates the earlier result under the assumption that the participation rate will maintain its current level; the second row takes into account the Hotchkiss and Rios-Avila research; and the third assumes an even larger bounce back in participation:

It is probably worth noting that the full increase in the Hotchkiss and Rios-Avila estimates happens in the 2015–17 timeframe, raising the interesting possibility that the threshold for considering interest rate increases could occur sometime before the unemployment rate moves back above the threshold.

Also, it is not at all obvious that rising labor force participation would necessarily arrive along with a rising unemployment rate. From 1996 through 1999, for example, the participation rate rose by nearly by 0.7 percentage point (the difference between the rates in the first and third rows in the table above), even as the unemployment rate fell by just over 1½ percentage points. The key was the strong employment growth over that period—almost 260,000 payroll jobs per month on average.

All of that, as should be clear by now, embeds a whole bunch of assumptions, which may make this the most important part of the FOMC's decision criteria:

In determining how long to maintain a highly accommodative stance of monetary policy, the Committee will also consider other information, including additional measures of labor market conditions...

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

May 13, 2013 in Employment, Labor Markets, Monetary Policy | Permalink

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May 10, 2013

Behavior’s Place in the Labor Force Participation Rate Debate

It's not often that the mainstream media is interested in the nuances of labor market statistics, so last week’s debate over the meaning of labor force participation rates (LFPR) in the pages of the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal was music to this labor economist's ears.

Sparked by an article by Ben Casselman in his April 29 Wall Street Journal Outlook column, the ensuing back and forth (here, here, here, and here) between Casselman and the Post’s Jim Tankersley focused on what has become a central preoccupation in assessing the likely course of the labor market: Is the recent decline in the labor force participation rate the result of structural factors (e.g., an aging population) or cyclical ones (such as weak economic conditions)? Almost contemporaneously, Bill McBride declared in his recent Calculated Risk blog, "…most of the [recent] decline in the participation rate was due to changing demographics...as opposed to economic weakness."

The changing pattern of labor force participation has been a topic of discussion among economists for some time—for example, see my Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta Economic Review article—and both Tankersley and Casselman agree that the long-run secular decline in participation is a matter worthy of independent concern. But the Federal Open Market Committee has substantially raised the stakes on disentangling longer-run trends from short-run cyclical (and presumably temporary) movements in labor force participation. It’s done this by introducing into its policy deliberations concepts like unemployment thresholds and qualitative assessments on “substantial” labor market improvement.

Casselman, in an October 2012 WSJ article, cites work by my colleagues at the Chicago Fed, who find that while more than two-thirds of the decline in LFPR between 1999 and 2011 is accounted for by changes in the age distribution of the population, "…over the 2008-2011 period...only one-quarter of the...decline of actual LFPR...can be attributed to demographic factors."

This conclusion—that three-quarters of the decline in the LFPR since the beginning of the Great Recession can be attributed to cyclical factors—is supported by other research. Colleagues at the Kansas City Fed and at the Board of Governors concur that the vast majority of the decline in the LFPR since 2008 is the result of cyclical factors. Even economists outside the Federal Reserve System acknowledge the significant role of cyclical factors in the LFPR decline (for example, see the analysis by economists at the Deutsche Bank).

But there is a critical third piece to the LFPR puzzle that most of these studies ignore. In addition to changing demographics (which have, for example, been associated with a rising share of retirement-age individuals in the total population) and cyclical effects (for example, the tendency for participation to fall when wage growth is tepid or job opportunities scarce), there are also behavioral changes afoot—a point Casselman makes in his final installment of the Post/WSJ debate. For example, individuals of near-retirement age may extend their participation as a result of significant, unexpected declines in wealth. Or women with young children—a demographic group typically less likely to participate in the labor market—may increase participation if a partner loses a job during an economic downturn. In both cases, participation rates for these demographic groups would not fall by as much as expected in response to high unemployment rates alone.

Work that I've done with Fernando Rios-Avila, a colleague at Georgia State University, finds that more than 100 percent of the fall in the LFPR since 2008 is accounted for by the condition of the labor market (cyclical factors), but these particularly strong cyclical forces were countered by increased tendencies to participate (behavioral changes). In other words, if individuals hadn't stepped up to the plate and exhibited even stronger labor force participation behavior than before the recession, the LFPR would be even lower than it is.

To illustrate the role that changing behavior played in the LFPR decline during the Great Recession, the chart below illustrates how this decline can be separated into a trend component (demographics), a cyclical component (strength of the labor market), and a behavioral component. The solid black line reflects the actual LFPR in March of each year calculated using the Current Population Survey, which is the survey data used by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics to calculate the monthly labor force statistics. The orange line reflects the trend estimate of the LFPR using only demographic data (such as the age distribution of the population) through 2007, projecting out to 2012. As many others have pointed out, changing demographics—the aging of the baby-boom generations, if you will—explains only about 30 percent (in this example) of the actual post-2007 decline in LFPR.

But the chart also reveals something that may be underappreciated. Including a measure of labor market conditions in the projection of the LFPR, as well as a depiction of prerecession behavior (the green line), indicates that the LFPR should be much lower than it actually is. The message from this exercise is that the actual LFPR in 2012 was above what would have been projected had each demographic group exhibited the same labor force participation behavior after the recession as before the recession.

As it turns out, women, ethnic minorities, older people, and individuals with small children were much more likely to participate in the labor market after the recession than before it. These workers are often referred to as "added workers," or workers who join the labor force to make up for lost income elsewhere in the household. As I noted above, if these demographic groups had not increased their participation in the labor force, the aggregate LFPR would be much lower than it is.

What the chart tells us is that the cyclical factors affecting labor force participation are even more important than generally imagined. However, it is also true that the inevitable march of time will continue to put powerful downward pressure on labor force participation. Indeed, our research predicts only a modest rise in the LFPR if labor markets rebound to prerecession conditions. Our results suggest that relative to the the average LFPR over the years 2010–12, the average LFPR over the years 2015–17 will rise by about a third of a percentage point—again, if the labor market returns to prerecession conditions. Though higher than today, this level would still leave the LFPR considerably lower than it was before the recession, primarily reflecting the continued downward pressures of aging baby boomers.

Photo of Julie HotchkissBy Julie Hotchkiss, a research economist and policy adviser in the Atlanta Fed’s research department


May 10, 2013 in Economics, Labor Markets | Permalink

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Your analsysis is right. In 2008, we published in the Journal of Applied Economic Sciences a paper that predicted the LFPR fall in 2010 (http://ideas.repec.org/a/ush/jaessh/v3y2008i3(5)_fall2008p203-222.html). We based our prediction on demography. Currently, the same model shows that the LFPR should return to 64% in 2013-2014 (http://mechonomic.blogspot.co.at/2013/05/the-rate-of-participation-in-labor.html) .

Posted by: kio | May 14, 2013 at 04:41 AM

That there are wildly differing takes on the underlying cause for the decline in the LFPR is no big deal. But when Fed economists differ so drastically something seems amiss. See, for example, the linked Philly Fed article from Nov. 2013, which attributes the entire drop in the LFPR since the beginning of 2012 to demographics.

http://philadelphiafed.org/research-and-data/publications/research-rap/2013/on-the-causes-of-declines-in-the-labor-force-participation-rate.pdf

Posted by: Peter Thom | May 10, 2014 at 07:06 AM

LFPR is 62.8 in April 2014, a 36 year low mark, not since 1978. If the LFPR were that of April 2000, then U3 unemployment rate would be around 12.5%. over 20 million workers would be unemployed instead of 9.753 million. That said, Japan, Italy, France and Germany have much lower rates. I wonder if the median household living costs, basic needs, has pushed the LFPR up in this country. The Economic Policy Institute publishes a Basic Family Budget Calculator showing Topeka, Kansas, at the median, a four person household needs $63,364 to get by. The median income for a working age family is $63,967 in 2010, down from $69,233 in 2000, a drop of 7.6%. (This from State of Working America, Income) Half of working age families, therefore, do not have the basic income to meet their basic family expenses. That would drive up LFPR. Though the U.S. has the highest disposable income per capita, $40,045, it does not distribute well the abundance, driving more than would be normal into the labor force. What would be normal? Preferences change as do needs.

Posted by: Ben Leet | May 13, 2014 at 02:51 PM

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April 05, 2013

Labor Market Update: Muddy Waters Continue to Run Deep

Earlier this week, Atlanta Fed President Dennis Lockhart gave a speech in Birmingham, Alabama, focused on labor markets, risks to the outlook, and current monetary policy. One of the things President Lockhart noted was that the picture for the labor market remained muddy. Specifically:

"The fact is that conditions in the broad labor market are quite mixed. While some indicators of labor market health have improved a lot since the recession, others have not improved much at all or have even worsened. As I said, net job creation is picking up. Initial claims for unemployment insurance have fallen. But the official rate of unemployment remains high, many discouraged workers have left the labor force, and there are many people working part-time jobs who want to work full time."

Today's labor report did little to clarify improvement in labor market conditions, with March payrolls estimated to have grown by a much less than expected 88,000 workers and the jobless rate falling one-tenth of a percent, to 7.6 percent, on the back of a decline of 496,000 in the size in the labor force. Updated with today's data, below is the spider chart we have previously offered as one way to simultaneously track and visualize "conditions in the broad labor market."


As a reminder, we've taken the approach of dividing a set of 13 indicators of labor market conditions into four segments:

  • 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 circle at the perimeter of this chart represents labor market conditions that existed just before the recession. We have dated this as late 2007. The inner circle represents the state of affairs when payroll employment reached its trough in late 2009. The oddly shaped red figure inside the perimeter depicts where each of the indicators was in March 2011 relative to the benchmarks. The purple figure depicts the state of the labor market in March 2012. Finally, the blue figure shows where the indicators were as of March 2013. All of the indicators are scaled so that outward movement represents improvement. The progression of these point-in-time snapshots provides us with a picture of how labor market conditions have evolved over the past four years.

As you can see, substantial improvement has arguably been achieved in the leading indicator series. As a group, these data points are approaching their prerecession levels. Employer hiring behavior and confidence are slowly moving outward but remain quite weak relative to their prerecession benchmarks. Finally, the labor utilization measures are very weak and, notably, have hardly improved at all over the past two years.

In the macroblog post that introduced the spider chart, we noted that there are a couple of immediate issues that arise in using this graphic to interpret market improvement, substantial or otherwise:

First, a variable such as the level of payroll employment will eventually exceed its pre-recession level, and grow consistently over time as the population grows. A variable like "hiring plans"—which is the net percentage of firms in the National Federation of Independent Business survey expecting to hire employees in the next three months—cannot grow without bound....

Second, it is not obvious that 2007:IVQ levels are necessarily the best benchmarks for all (or even any) of the variables we are monitoring [in the spider chart].

Of these two issues, the second one is potentially the more problematic. The spider chart invites you to think of the inner circle as the starting point and the outer circle as the "goal," or a representation of "normal" labor market conditions. In assessing improvement in variables such as payroll employment, using the prerecession level as a reference point makes some sense as a minimal standard. But for some, "minimal" may be the operative word. If we are interested in questions of how employment is doing relative to some concept of "full employment," it might be appropriate to assess the data relative to some measure of trend. For example, payroll employment is still about 3 million below the prerecession peak, but the labor force, despite the drop in March, is by about 1 million higher than before the recession. When measured relative to the size of the labor market, progress on employment is less impressive than it would appear by just looking at growth in employment itself.

One way to address both of the caveats noted above is to scale variables that involve numbers of jobs or people—such as payroll employment or the number of unemployed—by the size of the population or the labor force. Doing so ensures that variables measured in numbers of jobs or people do not grow without bound. It also helps in assessing progress in these variables relative to a (back-of-the-envelope) measure of the trend in labor resources.

We take this approach in the following chart, which reproduces the spider chart but divides the variables that are counts of people by the size of the labor force. (The labor force has grown more slowly than the population since the end of the recession, but a generally similar picture emerges if the variables are instead deflated by the population.)


Not surprisingly, for most of the indicators, labor market progress is a bit more subdued relative to postrecession growth in the labor force than growth in the indicators alone would suggest. These adjustments definitely would not alter our view that the labor market picture is "quite mixed." President Lockhart's recent comments on CNBC—in which he said he would like to see more positive data before declaring that sustained improvement has taken hold—seem especially prescient in light of today's job numbers:

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

 

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

 

April 5, 2013 in Employment, Labor Markets | Permalink

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