The Atlanta Fed's macroblog provides commentary on economic topics including monetary policy, macroeconomic developments, financial issues and Southeast regional trends.
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February 20, 2015
Business as Usual?
Each month, we ask a large panel of firms to compare their current sales with "normal times." In our February survey, the firms in our panel reported their sales were approaching normal. Indeed, on average, larger firms (those with 100 or more employees) tell us sales levels this month were right at normal. But smaller firms, although improving, are still lagging their larger counterparts (see the chart).
These qualitative assessments suggest a continuation of the trend we've seen in our quarterly quantitative data (these data are compiled at the end of each quarter). In December, our panel of firms reported sales levels about 2.7 percent below normal—virtually identical to the Congressional Budget Office's estimate of the output gap. Here, too, our survey data show that on average, sales of the larger firms in our panel were essentially back to normal, but smaller firms were still reporting ample slack (see the chart).
Our next quantitative assessment of slack in U.S. business is due for release on March 20.
February 17, 2015
What's (Not) Up with Wage Growth?
In recent months, there's been plenty of discussion of the surprisingly sluggish growth in hourly wages. It certainly has the attention of our boss, Atlanta Fed President Dennis Lockhart, who in a speech on February 6 noted that
The behavior of wages and prices, in contrast, remains less encouraging, and, frankly, somewhat puzzling in light of recent growth and jobs numbers.
So what's up—or not up—with wage growth? Using samples of matched worker-level wage data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics' Current Population Survey, chart 1 plots the annual time series of median 12-month growth rates in per-hour wages. Like most wage growth measures, this chart indicates that wage growth has been gradually increasing since the end of the recession, but growth remains quite a bit lower than before the recession began. Prior to the recession, the median growth rate of wages was around 4 percent a year. This growth rate declined to 1.7 percent in 2010 (as the incidence of wage freezes become much more prevalent, as shown in this research) and increased to 2.5 percent in 2014. For comparison, the chart also shows the annual growth in the Employment Cost Index's measure of wages. The trends in the two measures are broadly similar.
A previous macroblog post discussed details about the method of constructing the median wage growth data.
It's well known that wage growth varies across job characteristics such as occupation, industry, and hours worked as well as across worker characteristics such as education and age. For example, younger workers tend to experience higher hourly wage growth than older workers (even though their hourly wage tends to be lower), and part-time workers tend to have lower wage growth than full-time workers. We thought it might be interesting to look at wage growth for various job and worker characteristics. Are there any bright spots where the median growth in wages has approached prerecession levels?
The answer seems to be no, at least not for the set of characteristics we examined.
The following charts plot the annual time series of the median 12-month growth rate in the wages of workers with a given characteristic (occupation, age, etc.). Chart 2 depicts workers across three broad occupation groups: general-services jobs, production-oriented occupations discussed in our last macroblog post, and a category encompassing managerial, professional, and technical occupations (labeled “professional” in the chart).
Chart 3 shows the median year-over-year wage growth of workers employed in goods-producing versus service-producing industries.
Chart 4 shows the median growth in the wages of individuals working full-time versus those working part-time.
Chart 5 shows the median wage growth of workers with less than an associate degree and those with at least an associate degree.
Chart 6 shows the median growth in the wages of individuals between 16 and 35 years of age, those 36 to 55 years of age, and those over 55 years of age.
We can sum up our findings by saying that median wage growth is higher for some characteristics than others, and the recent trend in wage growth is generally positive across characteristics. But none of the characteristic-specific median growth rates we looked at are close to returning to prerecession levels. Lower-than-normal wage growth appears to be a very widespread feature of the labor market since the end of the recession.
February 12, 2015
Are We Becoming a Part-Time Economy?
Compared with 2007, the U.S. labor market now has about 2.5 million more people working part-time and about 2.2 million fewer people working full-time. In this sense, U.S. businesses are more reliant on part-time workers now than in the past.
But that doesn't necessarily imply we are moving toward a permanently higher share of the workforce engaged in part-time employment. As our colleague Julie Hotchkiss pointed out, almost all jobs created on net from 2010 to 2014 have been full-time. As a result, from 2009 to 2014, the part-time share of employment has declined from 21 percent to 19 percent and is about halfway back to its prerecession level.
But the decline in part-time utilization is not uniform across industries and occupations. In particular, the decline is much slower for occupations that tend to have an above-average share of people working part-time. This portion of the workforce includes general-service jobs such as food preparation, office and administrative support, janitorial services, personal care services, and sales.
The following chart compares the share of part-time employment for these general-service occupations with the share for production-type occupations (such as machine operators, fabricators, construction workers, and truck drivers).
The above chart suggests that if you talk to retailers or restaurateurs, they will say that they always relied pretty heavily on part-time workers. Their utilization increased during the recession, and it really hasn't changed much since then. But manufacturers or construction firms are more likely to say that part-time work is not that common, and although they did increase their utilization of part-time workers during the recession by quite a lot, things have been gradually returning to normal.
Why is the part-time share of employment declining more slowly in general-service occupations? The economy has been generating full-time general-service jobs at a much slower pace than in the past. Of the approximately 7.6 million full-time jobs created between 2010 and 2014, only about 17 percent have been in general-service occupations, versus about 32 percent of the 7.8 million full-time jobs created between 2003 and 2007. At the current rate of full-time job creation in general-service occupations, it would take more than 10 years for the part-time share of employment in general-service occupations to return to its prerecession average.
From the workers' perspective, a relevant question is whether these part-time utilization rates are desirable. Some people work part-time and do not currently want or are not available for full-time work (so-called part-time for noneconomic reasons, PTNER). Others are available and want full-time work but are working part-time because of slack business conditions or the unavailability of full-time jobs (so-called part-time for economic reasons, PTER). The following chart shows the share of employment in the general-service and production occupation groupings that is PTER and PTNER.
The chart indicates that most of the movement in the part-time share of employment is coming from people who want full-time work. In both cases, the share of involuntary part-time employment rose during the recession, but for general-service occupations it has been more persistent than for production jobs.
Why has the demand for full-time workers in general-service occupations been more subdued than for other jobs? As the following chart shows, wage growth for these occupations has been quite weak in the past few years, suggesting that employers have not been experiencing much tightness in the supply of workers to fill vacancies for these occupations. Presumably, then, the firms generally find it acceptable to have a greater share of part-time workers than in the past.
The overall share of the workforce employed in part-time jobs is declining and is likely to continue to decline. But the decline is not uniform across industries and occupations. Working part-time has become much more likely in general-service occupations than in the past—and a greater share of those workers are not happy about it.
By John Robertson, vice president and senior economist, and
Ellie Terry, an economic policy analysis specialist, both of the Atlanta Fed's research department
January 15, 2015
Contrasting the Financing Needs of Different Types of Firms: Evidence From a New Small Business Survey
The National Federation of Independent Business's (NFIB) small business optimism index surpassed 100 in December, a sign that small business' outlook on the economy has now reached "normal" long-run average levels. But that doesn't mean that everything is moonlight and roses for small firms. One question from the NFIB's survey (one that is not used in its overall optimism index) concerns a firm's ability to obtain credit. The survey asks, "During the last three months, was your firm able to satisfy its borrowing needs?" The chart below shows the net percent (those responding "yes" minus those saying "no") of firms reporting improving credit access.
The chart suggests that credit access has improved significantly since the end of the recession but that conditions still appear to be tougher than typical. Given the importance of small firms to employment growth, we at the Atlanta Fed have been particularly interested in monitoring financing conditions for small businesses. For this reason, we've conducted a regular survey of small businesses in the Southeast since 2010. In the fall of 2014, we joined forces with the New York, Philadelphia, and Cleveland Feds to expand and refine the small business data collection effort. The results of that survey are now available on our website and include downloadable data tabulations by different types of firms. Specifically, data are available by criteria including states, industries, firm size (in terms of revenue), and firm development stage.
Our previous small business surveys have focused on the experiences of young firms, so I found the new survey's tabulation by firm development stage of particular interest. For example, here's a summary of the experience of startups' ability to access financing markets versus that of mature firms.
First, what constitutes a startup? For comparison purposes, we draw the line (somewhat arbitrarily) at less than five years old. For mature firms, they not only have to be at least five years old, but they also must have at least 10 employees and hold some debt. When I picture a startup, I imagine a new restaurant owner purchasing tables and chairs, or a tech company manufacturing a prototype to market to potential investors. These types of firms are unproven and risky and tend to need relatively small amounts of money. Which begs the question: where are they going to get funds they need to grow? Before answering that question, let's examine the recent business performance of startups in the survey. About half of startups operated at a loss during the previous 12 months, but only about 20 percent had shrinking revenues. Most were either increasing the size of their workforce or had the same number of employees as a year ago. The top challenge reported by these young businesses was nearly tied between "difficulty attracting customers" (reported by 27 percent of firms) and "lack of credit availability" (reported by 26 percent of firms).
So how do those behind startups fund their businesses? In 2013, nearly half relied primarily on personal savings, whereas about 18 percent primarily used retained business earnings. Without a solid revenue history to prove their creditworthiness, financing was understandably difficult to come by. Only about 38 percent of startups received at least some financing, compared with 93 percent of mature firms. Many startups assumed it would be a fruitless endeavor—about one-fifth of them assumed they would be turned down, the cost would be too high, or the search would be too time consuming. The number of people who sought financing was about equal to those who were discouraged, and most were seeking less than $250,000.
Where did they apply? Their search was much broader than used by their counterparts at mature firms. Although both types of firms sought mostly loans and lines of credit, applications for products backed by the Small Business Administration, credit cards, and equity investments were notably higher for younger firms compared to mature firms. When it came to loans and lines of credit, there were large differences not only in what types of insitutions they submitted applications to, but also where they were most successful. Startups were mostly likely to apply at large regional and large national banks, but their approval rates were higher with smaller banks and online lenders (see the table).
The differences between young firms and mature ones is only one way to look at the data. The full report details variations by firm size, industry, and state. For more on general business and finance conditions of small firms, visit the small business trends dashboard.
January 09, 2015
Gauging Inflation Expectations with Surveys, Part 3: Do Firms Know What They Don’t Know?
In the previous two macroblog posts, we introduced you to the inflation expectations of firms and argued that the question you ask matters a lot. In this week's final post, we examine another important dimension of our data: inflation uncertainty, a topic of some deliberation at the last Federal Open Market Committee meeting (according to the recently released minutes).
Survey data typically measure only the inflation expectation of a respondent, not the certainty surrounding that prediction. As a result, survey-based measures often use the disagreement among respondents as a proxy for uncertainty, but as Rob Rich, Joe Tracy, and Matt Ploenzke at the New York Fed caution in this recent blog post, you probably shouldn't do this.
Because we derive business inflation expectations from the probabilities that each firm assigns to various unit cost outcomes, we can measure the inflation uncertainty of a respondent directly. And that allows us to investigate whether uncertainty plays a role in the accuracy of firm inflation predictions. We wanted to know: Do firms know what they don't know?The following table, adapted from our recent working paper, reports the accuracy of a business inflation forecast relative to the firm's inflation uncertainty at the time the forecast was made. We first compare the prediction accuracy of firms who have a larger-than-average degree of prediction uncertainty against those with less-than-average uncertainty. We also compare the most uncertain firms with the least uncertain firms.
On average, firms provide relatively accurate, unbiased assessments of their future unit cost changes. But the results also clearly support the conclusion that more uncertain respondents tend to be significantly less accurate inflation forecasters.Maybe this result doesn't strike you as mind-blowing. Wouldn't you expect firms with the greatest inflation uncertainty to make the least accurate inflation predictions? We would, too. But isn't it refreshing to know that business decision-makers know when they are making decisions under uncertainty? And we also think that monitoring how certain respondents are about their inflation expectation, in addition to whether the average expectation for the group has changed, should prove useful when evaluating how well inflation expectations are anchored. If you think so too, you can monitor both on our website's Inflation Project page.
January 07, 2015
Gauging Inflation Expectations with Surveys, Part 2: The Question You Ask Matters—A Lot
In our previous macroblog post, we discussed the inflation expectations of firms and observed that—while on average these expectations look similar to that of professional forecasters—they reveal considerably more variation of opinion. Further, the inflation expectations of firms look very different from what we see in the household survey of inflation expectations.
The usual focal point when trying to explain measurement differences among surveys of inflation expectations is the respondent, or who is taking the survey. In the previous macroblog post, we noted that some researchers have indicated that not all households are equally informed about inflation trends and that their expectations are somehow biased by this ignorance. For example, Christopher Carroll over at Johns Hopkins suggests that households update their inflation expectations through the news, and some may only infrequently read the press. Another example comes from a group of researchers at the New York Fed and Carnegie Mellon They've suggested that less financially literate households tend to persistently have the highest inflation expectations.
But what these and related research assume is that whom you ask the question of is of primary significance. Could it be that it's the question being asked that accounts for such disagreement among the surveys?
We know, for example, that professional forecasters are asked to predict a particular inflation statistic, while households are simply asked about the behavior of "prices in general" and prices "on the average." To an economist, these amount to pretty much the same thing. But are they the same thing in the minds of non-economists?You may be surprised, but the answer is no (as a recent Atlanta Fed working paper discussed). When we asked our panel of firms to predict by how much "prices will change overall in the economy"—essentially the same question the University of Michigan asks households—business leaders make the same prediction we see in the survey of households: Their predictions seem high relative to the trend in the inflation data, and the range of opinion among businesses on where prices "overall in the economy" are headed is really, really wide (see the table).
But what if we ask businesses to predict a particular inflation statistic, as the Philly Fed asks professional forecasters to do? We did that, too. And you know what? Not only did a majority of our panelists (about two-thirds) say they were "familiar" with the inflation statistic, but their predictions looked remarkably similar to that of professional forecasters (see the table).
So when we ask firms to answer the same question asked of professional forecasters, we got back something that was very comparable to responses given by professional forecasters. But when you ask firms the same question typically asked of households, we got back responses that looked very much like what households report.
Moreover, we dug through the office file cabinets, remembering a related table adapted from a joint project between the Cleveland Fed and the Ohio State University that was highlighted in a 2001 Cleveland Fed Economic Commentary. In August 2001, a group of Ohio households were asked to provide their perception of how much the Consumer Price Index (CPI) had increased over the last 12 months, and we compared it with how much they thought "prices" had risen over the past 12 months.The households reported that the CPI had risen 3 percent—nearly identical to what the CPI actually rose over the period (2.7 percent). However, in responding to the vaguely worded notion of "prices," the average response was nearly 7 percent (see the table). So again, it seems that the loosely defined concept of "prices" is eliciting a response that looks nothing like what economists would call inflation.
So it turns out that the question you ask matters—a lot—more so, evidently, than to whom you ask the question. What's the right question to ask? We think it's the question most relevant to the decisions facing the person you are asking. In the case of firms (and others, we suspect), what's most relevant are the costs they think they are likely to face in the coming year. What is unlikely to be top-of-mind for business decision makers is the future behavior of an official inflation statistic or their thoughts on some ambiguous concept of general prices.
In the next macroblog post, we'll dig even deeper into the data.
January 05, 2015
Gauging Inflation Expectations with Surveys, Part 1: The Perspective of Firms
Central bankers measure inflation expectations in more than a few ways, which is another way of saying no measure of inflation expectations is entirely persuasive.
Survey data on inflation expectations are especially hard to interpret. Surveys of professional economists, such as the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia's Survey of Professional Forecasters, reveal inflation expectations that, over time, track fairly close to the trend in the officially reported inflation data. But the inflation predictions by professional forecasters are extraordinarily similar and call into question whether they represent the broader population.
The inflation surveys of households, however, reveal a remarkably wide range of opinion on future inflation compared to those of professional forecasters. Really, really wide. For example, in any particular month, 13 percent of the University of Michigan's survey of households predicts year-ahead inflation to be more than 10 percent, an annual inflation rate not seen since October 1981. Even in the aggregate, the inflation predictions of households persistently track much higher than the officially reported inflation data (see the chart). These and other curious patterns in the household survey data call into question whether these data really represent the inflation predictions on which households act.
Even if you're unfamiliar with the literature on this subject, the above observations may not strike you as particularly hard to believe. Economists are, presumably, expert on inflation, while households experience inflation from their own unique—some would suggest even uninformed—perspectives.
We have yet another survey of inflation expectations, one from the perspective of businesses leaders. We think this may be an especially useful perspective on future inflation since business leaders, after all, are the price setters. Our survey has been in the field for a little more than three years now—just long enough, we think, to step back and take stock of what business inflation expectations look like, especially in comparison to the other survey data.
Our initial impressions are reported in a recent Atlanta Fed working paper, and the next few macroblog posts will share some of our favorite observations from this research.
We have been asking firms to assign probabilities to possible changes in their unit costs over the year ahead. From these probabilities, we compute how much firms think their costs are going to change in the coming year and how certain they are of that change (see the table). What we find is that the inflation expectations of firms, on average, look something like the inflation predictions of professional forecasters, but not so much like the predictions of households.
But we also find that there is a significant range of opinion among firms, more so than the range of opinions that forecasting professionals express. Some of the variation among firms appears to be related to their particular industries and are broadly correlated with the uneven cost pressures shown in similar industrial breakdowns of the Producer Price Index from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (see the table).
So what we have now are three surveys of inflation expectations, each yielding very different inflation predictions. What accounts for the variation we see across the surveys? Our survey allows us to experiment a bit, which was one of the motivations for conducting it. We didn't just want to measure the inflation expectations of firms; we wanted to learn about those expectations. In the next few macroblog posts, we'll tell you a few of the things we've learned. And we think some of our initial findings will surprise you.
December 23, 2014
Chances of Finding Full-Time Employment Have Improved
Today's sharp upward revision to the third-quarter GDP reading reinforces the view that the underlying strength of the U.S. economy has been sufficient to support more rapid improvement in the labor market. Last week we noted the solid and broad-based recent improvement in the involuntary part-time work (part-time for economic reasons or PTER) situation over the last year, noting significant declines in the stock of PTER workers across industrial sectors and occupational categories.
In this post we look at labor market improvement over the last year in terms of worker flows. Because the Current Population Survey is set up as a rotating panel, many of the people in the survey in any given month were in the survey a year earlier as well. This allows us to ask the question: if you were an unemployed prime-age individual (25–54 years old) or working PTER one year ago, what are you doing today? Have your chances of becoming employed full-time improved? Chart 1 shows the distribution of labor market outcomes of prime-age workers who were PTER one year earlier. Chart 2 shows the distribution of outcomes for those who were unemployed one year earlier. The data are 12-month moving averages to smooth out seasonal variation.
For both PTER workers and the unemployed, the chances of becoming employed full-time are up from a year earlier (and the chances of being unemployed are down). In November 2013 there was about a 45 percent chance of someone who was PTER a year earlier having a full-time job. In November 2014 that had improved to about a 48 percent chance. This full-time employment flow rate is still much lower than the prerecession average of around 55 percent, and the improvement appears to have stalled a bit in recent months, but it is a notable improvement from a year earlier nonetheless. For PTER workers, the picture along other dimensions is more mixed. The chances of becoming unemployed appear to have returned to around prerecession levels, which is good, but the likelihood of remaining PTER is still quite elevated.
For the unemployed, there has been an even more marked improvement in the full-time finding rate over the last year. In November 2013 there was around a 32 percent chance of someone who was unemployed a year earlier having a full-time job. In November 2014 the chances improved to close to 36 percent. Moreover, the improvement in the rate of finding full-time work is responsible for the similar-sized decline in the chances of remaining unemployed. The only negative here is that the likelihood of an unemployed worker becoming PTER, while low, remains elevated compared with before the recession.
All in all, we think these developments are encouraging and add to the view that the pace of labor market improvement has picked up over the last year.
December 19, 2014
Exploring the Increasingly Widespread Decline in Involuntary Part-Time Work
We at the Atlanta Fed have been arguing for some time that the unusually large number and share of workers employed part-time but wanting full-time work (counted in the Current Population Survey as part-time for economic reasons, or PTER) partly reflects slack in the labor market that is not reflected in the official unemployment statistics. We are in good company. Chair Yellen reiterated this view in her prepared remarks during Wednesday’s Federal Open Market Committee press conference. The good news is that the stock of PTER workers has declined by around 900,000 during the last year compared with a decline of fewer than 200,000 in 2013. Moreover, the CPS data suggest the decline is primarily because these workers have either found full-time work or are no longer wanting full-time work (that is, are working part-time for noneconomic reasons), and not because they have become unemployed or have joined the ranks of the discouraged outside of the formal labor market. Even better news is that the recent decline has been very broad based (see the charts).
Up until about a year ago, the overall decline in the number of PTER workers was driven primarily by those in middle-skill occupations in goods-producing industries and, to a lesser extent, in services-producing industries. But during 2014, the decline is also evident in services-producing industries among PTER workers in both low- and high-skill occupations—two categories that had not seen any material decline in their PTER ranks since the end of the recession. (A previous macroblog post discussed the various occupational skill categories.) There is still a ways to go, but these developments are very encouraging.
December 04, 2014
The Long and Short of Falling Energy Prices
Earlier this week, The Wall Street Journal asked the $1.36 trillion question: Lower Gas Prices: How Big A Boost for the Economy?
We will take that as a stand-in for the more general question of how much the U.S. economy stands to gain from a drop in energy prices more generally. (The "$1.36 trillion" refers to an estimate of energy spending by the U.S. population in 2012.)
It's nice to be contemplating a question that amounts to pondering just how good a good situation can get. But, as the Journal blog item suggests, the rising profile of the United States as an energy producer is making the answer to this question more complicated than usual.
The data shown in chart 1 got our attention:
As a fraction of total investment on nonresidential structures, spending on mining exploration, shafts, and wells has been running near its 50-year high over the course of the current recovery. As a fraction of total business investment in equipment and structures, the current contribution of the mining and oil sector is higher than any time since the early 1980s (and generally much higher than most periods during the last half century).
In a recent paper, economists Soren Andersen, Ryan Kellogg, and Stephen Salant explain why this matters:
We show that crude oil production from existing wells in Texas does not respond to current or expected future oil prices... In contrast, the drilling of new wells exhibits a strong price response...
In short, the investment piece really matters.
We've done our own statistical investigations, asking the following question: What is the estimated impact of energy price shocks in the second half of this year on investment, consumer spending, and gross domestic product (GDP)?
If you are interested, you can find the details of the statistical model here. But here is the bottom line: the estimated impact of energy price shocks is a very sizeable decline in investment in the mining and oil subsector relative to baseline and, more importantly, an extended period of flat to slightly negative growth in overall investment relative to baseline (see chart 2).
In our simulations, the "baseline" is the scenario without the ex-post energy price shocks occurring in the third and fourth quarters of 2014, while the "alternative" scenario incorporates the (estimated) actual energy price shocks that have occurred in the second half of this year. These shocks lead to a cumulative 8 percent drop in consumer energy prices and a 6 percent drop in producer energy prices by the fourth quarter of this year relative to baseline. By the fourth quarter of 2017, 2 percentage points of these respective energy price declines are reversed. In chart 2 above, each colored line represents the percentage point difference between the "alternative" scenario and the "baseline" scenario.
As for consumption and GDP? Like overall investment, there is a short-run drag before the longer-term boom, as chart 3 shows:
So is the recent decline in energy prices good news for the U.S. economy? Right now our answer is yes, probably—but we may have to be patient.
Note: We have updated this post since it was originally released, clarifying a sentence in the paragraph above chart 2 and providing the data for the charts. The original sentence stated: But here is the bottom line: the estimated impact of energy price shocks is a very sizeable decline in investment in the mining and oil subsector and, more importantly, an extended period of flat to slightly negative growth in overall investment (see chart 2).
- Signs of Improvement in Prime-Age Labor Force Participation
- Could Reduced Drilling Also Reduce GDP Growth?
- Are Shifts in Industry Composition Holding Back Wage Growth?
- Are Oil Prices "Passing Through"?
- Business as Usual?
- What's (Not) Up with Wage Growth?
- Are We Becoming a Part-Time Economy?
- Contrasting the Financing Needs of Different Types of Firms: Evidence From a New Small Business Survey
- Gauging Inflation Expectations with Surveys, Part 3: Do Firms Know What They Don’t Know?
- Gauging Inflation Expectations with Surveys, Part 2: The Question You Ask MattersA Lot
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