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macroblog

August 12, 2014

Are We There Yet?

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

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

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

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

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

Chart 1: Progress toward Objectives: U-3 Gap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


August 12, 2014 in Economics, Employment, Federal Reserve and Monetary Policy, Inflation, Labor Markets, Monetary Policy, Pricing, Unemployment | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

August 08, 2014

Getting There?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Atlanta Fed Labor Market Spider Chart

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

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

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

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

Total Private Earnings, year/year % change, sa

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

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

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

'Trends' in the June Core PCE

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

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

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

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


August 8, 2014 in Economic conditions, Economics, Employment, Federal Reserve and Monetary Policy, GDP, Inflation, Labor Markets | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

August 05, 2014

What’s Driving the Part-Time Labor Market? Results from an Atlanta Fed Survey

A subtle shift appears to be emerging in the public discussion of part-time employment in the United States. In monetary policy circles, elevated levels of part-time employment have generally been taken as a signal of lingering weakness in the labor market. (See, for example, here and here.) In this view, the rise in the use of part-time workers is a response to weak economic conditions, and the rate of part-time utilization will return to something approaching the prerecession average as firms respond to strengthening demand by increasing the hours of some of part-time staff who want more hours (thus reducing the number and share of part-time workers who would like full-time work) and by creating more full time jobs for those who want them (thus reducing the share of involuntary part-time workers).

But some labor market observers interpret the recent rise in the share of part-time jobs as more structural in nature—and hence less likely to be remedied by demand-inducing strategies such as monetary stimulus. If the arithmetic of having full-time or part-time workers has changed (for example, we frequently hear about increased compensation costs resulting from health care changes associated with the Affordable Care Act), then employers might lean more on part-time workers, at least while they can. Employers might be more able to do so while there is an ample supply of unemployed people and fewer full-time job opportunities, or if technology has made it sufficiently easy to manage workers’ hours. Virginia Postrel at BloombergView recently wrote an essay about how technology is helping firms better manage part-time employees. From that essay:

For many part-time workers in the post-crash economy, life has become like endless jury duty. Scheduling software now lets employers constantly optimize who’s working, better balancing labor costs and likely demand.

Perhaps the “demand” aspect of that passage refers to the level of overall spending in the economy (a point made in another BloombergView piece that Postrel’s column cites). But there is an undeniable technological slant to this story—one that is not so obviously about the condition of the economy. And based on recent legislative proposals out of Congress, some lawmakers seem to see an issue that is likely to persist beyond the current business cycle.

So is our issue insufficient demand, about which monetary policy can arguably do something, or is it a change in the nature of work in the United States, which is arguably impervious to the effects of changes in monetary policy?

Both of these questions seem valid, and reasonable perspectives support both of them (see, for example, here and here). So as we try to sort this out, we turned to the Atlanta Fed’s Regional Economic Information Network of business contacts and went to the source: employers themselves.

First, though, let’s review a few facts. During the recession, full-time employment fell substantially while the number working part-time actually increased. Today, there are about 12 percent more people working part-time than before the recession and about 2 percent fewer people working full-time hours. As the chart below shows, this slow rebound in full-time employment—and the sustained level of part-time employment—has resulted in a greater share of employed working part-time: 19 percent of employed people are working fewer than 35 hours compared with 17 percent of all employed before the recession began.

Number of People Employed Full-Time and Part-Time

To delve more deeply into these facts, we collected the responses of 339 firms with at least 20 employees to two questions: “Compared to before the recession, is your current mixture of part-time and full-time employees different? Do you think your current mixture will change over the next couple of years?” The responses (presented in the chart below) are weighted by national firm size and industry distributions.

Change in Firms' Mixture of Part-Time and Full-Time Employees

About two-thirds of firms indicated their mixture of full-time and part-time employees was not currently different than before the recession began. One quarter of firms said they currently have a higher share of part-time employees, and 8 percent have a smaller share. Looking forward, 31 percent believe their workforce will possess a greater share of part-time workers in two years than it does now.

What did employers cite as the reason for the increase in part-time employment? Firms that currently have a higher share of part-time employees gave about equal weighting to cyclical and structural factors, as the chart below indicates. Most chose the options “Full-time employee compensation costs have increased relative to those of part time employees” and “Business conditions (sales) are not yet strong enough to justify converting part-time jobs to full-time” as either somewhat important or very important. These firms saw the other options—“Technology has made it easier to manage part-time employees” and “More job candidates are willing to take part-time jobs”—as less important.

Reasons for Increasing Share of Part-Time Employees since the Beginning of the Recession

The next chart shows that structural factors are on the minds of employers, especially among firms who haven’t yet increased their share of part-time employees. Expectations of increases in the compensation cost of full-time employees relative to part-time workers were cited as the most important factor for all firms, but the difference in the relative importance among expected compensation costs and other factors was greater among firms that have not yet increased their part-time share of employment. Expected weak sales and future ample supply of people willing to work part-time were also seen as somewhat important factors for many firms.

Reasons for Increasing or Maintaining a Higher Share of Part-Time Employees Over the Next Two Years

Do firms anticipate a return to their prerecession mix of part-time and full-time employment? Although we didn’t ask this question directly, the next chart constructs an answer based on their responses to our other two questions.

Anticipated Change in Share Working Part-Time Two Years from Now Compared with Prerecession Share

Compared with prerecession levels, 34 percent of firms indicated they expect the share of part-time employees in their firm to be higher in two years. This segment includes the vast majority (90 percent) of the 25 percent of firms who already have a higher share now than before the recession and 12 percent of other firms who currently have the same share but anticipate increases during the next two years. Surprisingly, only about 2 percent of firms currently have a higher share of part-time workers and anticipate decreases over the next two years (they are represented in the above chart in the “no change” category).

To sum up, the results have something for people on either side of the cyclical-versus-structural debate. Weak business conditions and the increase in the relative cost of full-time employees have been about equally important drivers of the increase in the use of part-time employees thus far. Thinking about the future, firms mostly cite an expected rise in the relative cost of full-time workers as the reason for shifting toward more part-time employees. So while there are some clear structural forces at work, a large amount of uncertainty around the future cost of health care and the future pace of economic growth also exists. The extent to which these factors will ultimately affect the share working part-time remains to be seen.

Photo of Ellyn TerryBy Ellyn Terry, an economic policy analysis specialist in the Atlanta Fed’s research department


August 5, 2014 in Economic conditions, Employment, Labor Markets | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)

August 01, 2014

What's behind Housing's June Swoon?

The housing market appears to have endured a particularly cruel month in June. Fairly good numbers on existing home sales provided some antidote to a second consecutive monthly decline in housing starts and a sharp decline in new home sales. But that palliative is less comforting than it might otherwise be given the fact that existing sales were still 2.3 percent below the June 2013 rate, and budding optimism diminished further with this week's unexpected drop off in the pace of pending home sales.

In her recent remarks before the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs and before the House Committee on Financial Services, Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen took particular note of ongoing weakness in residential real estate:

The housing sector, however, has shown little recent progress. While this sector has recovered notably from its earlier trough, housing activity leveled off in the wake of last year's increase in mortgage rates, and readings this year have, overall, continued to be disappointing.

The statement following the conclusion of this week's meeting of the Federal Open Market Committee provided an exclamation point to Chair Yellen's commentary:

Information received since the Federal Open Market Committee met in June indicates that ... recovery in the housing sector remains slow.

The housing market was a bright spot in the economy from early 2012 to mid-2013, and there's no shortage of conjecture on why it has morphed into a source of concern. Reasonable hypotheses include reduced affordability brought on by higher mortgage rates and real estate prices, tighter lending conditions and ongoing balance sheet issues for households (think student debt), and supply constraints associated with rising construction costs and lot availability (at least in the most desirable locations, as examples here and here discuss).

In a March post in the Atlanta Fed's SouthPoint, affordability issues—specifically, interest rates and prices—constituted two of the top three explanations given by our broker and builder contacts in the Southeast for recent slower growth in the housing market. Earlier, we had examined the affordability issue in an Atlanta Fed Real Estate Research post. In it, we decomposed the affordability index that the National Association of Realtors (NAR) produces each month. We used our decomposition to show that the rebound in housing prices in 2012 served as a huge drag on affordability and, after six years of contributing to affordability, mortgage interest rates became a drag in mid-2013.

How—and why—has the affordability index changed since we last checked? The chart below provides an update through May 2014 (the latest date for which we have the data necessary for our decomposition):


On a year-over-year basis, affordability has fallen as a result of rising prices and last summer's uptick in interest rates. Still, affordability remains high by precrisis standards. And given that we have recently passed the anniversary of the first "taper talk," the impact of the interest rate component should fade if rates remain stable and thus become similar to, if not below, year-ago levels. Likewise, house price growth has decelerated and will continue to be less of a drag on affordability as measured by NAR.

It may be fair to attribute some of the recent softness in housing to affordability. But in light of the still relatively high readings of our index, it seems likely that the main culprits are one or more of the other factors discussed above.

Photo of Carl HudsonBy Carl Hudson, director of the Atlanta Fed's Center for Real Estate Analytics, and

 

Photo of Jessica DillJessica Dill, senior economic research analyst in the Atlanta Fed's research department

 


August 1, 2014 in Housing, Real Estate | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

July 21, 2014

GDP Growth: Will We Find a Higher Gear?

We are still more than a week away from receiving the advance report for U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) from April through June. Based on what we know to date, second-quarter growth will be a large improvement over the dismal performance seen during the first three months of this year. As of today, our GDPNow model is reading an annualized second-quarter growth rate at 2.7 percent. Given that the economy declined by 2.9 percent in the first quarter, the prospects for the anticipated near-3 percent growth for 2014 as a whole look pretty dim.

The first-quarter performance was dominated, of course, by unusual circumstances that we don't expect to repeat: bad weather, a large inventory adjustment, a decline in real exports, and (especially) an unexpected decline in health services expenditures. Though those factors may mean a disappointing growth performance for the year as a whole, we will likely be willing to write the first quarter off as just one of those things if we can maintain the hoped-for 3 percent pace for the balance of the year.

Do the data support a case for optimism? We have been tracking the six-month trends in four key series that we believe to be especially important for assessing the underlying momentum in the economy: consumer spending (real personal consumption expenditures, or real PCE) excluding medical services, payroll employment, manufacturing production, and real nondefense capital goods shipments excluding aircraft.

The following charts give some sense of how things are stacking up. We will save the details for those who are interested, but the idea is to place the recent performance of each series, given its average growth rate and variability since 1990, in the context of GDP growth and its variability over that same period.

140721a


140721b


140721c


140721d


What do we learn from the foregoing charts? Three out of four of these series appear to be consistent with an underlying growth rate in the range of 3 percent. Payroll employment growth, in fact, is beginning to send signals of an even stronger pace.

Unfortunately, the series that looks the weakest relates to consumer spending. If we put any stock in some pretty basic economic theory, spending by households is likely the most forward-looking of the four measures charted above. That, to us, means a cautious attitude is the still the appropriate one. Or, to quote from a higher Atlanta Fed power:

... it will likely be hard to confirm a shift to a persistent above-trend pace of GDP growth even if the second-quarter numbers look relatively good.

This experience suggests to me that we can misread the vital signs of the economy in real time. Notwithstanding the mostly positive and encouraging character of recent data, we policymakers need to be circumspect when tempted to drop the gavel and declare the case closed. In the current situation, I feel it's advisable to accrue evidence and gain perspective. It will take some time to validate an outlook that assumes above-trend growth and associated solid gains in employment and price stability.

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

 

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

 


July 21, 2014 in Data Releases, Economic Growth and Development, Forecasts, GDP | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

July 18, 2014

Part-Time for Economic Reasons: A Cross-Industry Comparison

With employment trends having turned solidly positive in recent months, attention has focused on the quality of the jobs created. See, for example, the different perspectives of Mortimer Zuckerman in the Wall Street Journal and Derek Thompson in the Atlantic. Zuckerman highlights the persistently elevated level of part-time employment—a legacy of the cutbacks firms made during the recession—whereas Thompson points out that most employment growth on net since the end of the recession has come in the form of full-time jobs.

In measuring labor market slack, the part-time issue boils down to how much of the elevated level of part-time employment represents underutilized labor resources. The U-6 measure of unemployment, produced by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, counts as unemployed people who say they want to and are able to work a full-time schedule but are working part-time because of slack work or business conditions, or because they could find only part-time work. These individuals are usually referred to as working part-time for economic reasons (PTER). Other part-time workers are classified as working part-time for non-economic reasons (PTNER). Policymakers have been talking a lot about U-6 recently. See for example, here and here.

The "lollipop" chart below sheds some light on the diversity of the share of employment that is PTER and PTNER across industries. The "lolly" end of the lollipop denotes the average mix of employment that is PTER and PTNER in 2013 within each industry, and the size of the lolly represents the size of the industry. The bottom of the "stem" of each lollipop is the average PTER/PTNER mix in 2007. The red square lollipop is the percent of all employment that is PTER and PTNER for the United States as a whole. (Note that the industry classification is based on the worker's main job. Part-time is defined as less than 35 hours a week.)


The primary takeaways from the chart are:

  1. The percent of the workforce that is part time varies greatly across industries (compare for example, durable goods manufacturing with restaurants).
  2. All industries have a greater share of PTNER workers than PTER workers (for example, the restaurant industry in 2013 had 32 percent of workers who said they were PTNER and about 13 percent who declared themselves as PTER).
  3. All industries had a greater share of PTER workers in 2013 than in 2007 (all the lollipops point upwards).
  4. Most industries have a lower share of PTNER workers than in the past (most of the lollipops lean to the left).
  5. Most industries have a greater share of part-time workers (PTER + PTNER) than in the past (the increase in PTER exceeds the decline in PTNER for most industries).

Another fact that is a bit harder to see from this chart is that in 2007, industries with the largest part-time workforces did not necessarily have the largest PTER workforces. In 2013, it was more common for a large part-time workforce to be associated with a large PTER workforce. In other words, the growth in part-time worker utilization in industries such as restaurants and some segments of retail has bought with it more people who are working part-time involuntarily.

So the increase in PTER since 2007 is widespread. But is that a secular trend? If it is, then the increase in the PTER share would be evident since the recession as well. The next lollipop chart presents evidence by comparing 2013 with 2012:


This chart shows a recent general improvement. In fact, 25 of the 36 industries pictured in the chart above have experienced a decline in the share of PTER, and 21 of the 36 have a smaller portion working part-time in total. Exceptions are concentrated in retail, an industry that represents a large share of employment. In total, 20 percent of people are employed in industries that experienced an increase in PTER from 2012 to 2013. So while overall there has been a fairly widespread (but modest) recent improvement in the situation, the percent of the workforce working part-time for economic reasons remains elevated compared with 2007 for all industries. Further, many people are employed in industries that are still experiencing gains in the share that is PTER.

Why has the PTER share continued to increase for some industries? Are people who normally work full-time jobs still grasping those part-time retail jobs until something else becomes available, has there been a shift in the use of part-time workers in those industries, or is there a greater demand for full-time jobs than before the recession? We'll keep digging.

Photo of John RobertsonBy John Robertson, a vice president and senior economist, and

 

Photo of Ellyn TerryEllyn Terry, a senior economic analyst, both of the Atlanta Fed's research department

 


July 18, 2014 in Data Releases, Employment, Labor Markets, Unemployment | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)

July 10, 2014

Introducing the Atlanta Fed's GDPNow Forecasting Model

The June 18 statement from the Federal Open Market Committee opened with this (emphasis mine):

Information received since the Federal Open Market Committee met in April indicates that growth in economic activity has rebounded in recent months.... Household spending appears to be rising moderately and business fixed investment resumed its advance, while the recovery in the housing sector remained slow. Fiscal policy is restraining economic growth, although the extent of restraint is diminishing.

I highlighted the business fixed investment (BFI) part of that passage because it contracted at an annual rate of 1.2 percent in the first quarter of 2014. Any substantial turnaround in growth in gross domestic product (GDP) from its dismal first-quarter pace would seem to require that BFI did in fact resume its advance through the second quarter.

We won't get an official read on BFI—or on real GDP growth and all of its other components—until July 30, when the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) releases its advance (or first) GDP estimates for the second quarter of 2014. But that doesn't mean we are completely in the dark on what is happening in real time. We have enough data in hand to make an informed statistical guess on what that July 30 number might tell us.

The BEA's data-construction machinery for estimating GDP is laid out in considerable detail in its NIPA Handbook. Roughly 70 percent of the advance GDP release is based on source data from government agencies and other data providers that are available prior to the BEA official release. This information provides the basis for what have become known as "nowcasts" of GDP and its major subcomponents—essentially, real-time forecasts of the official numbers the BEA is likely to deliver.

Many nowcast variants are available to the public: the Wall Street Journal Economic Forecasting Survey, the Philadelphia Fed Survey of Professional Forecasters, and the CNBC Rapid Update, for example. In addition, a variety of proprietary nowcasts are available to subscribers, including Aspen Publishers' Blue Chip Publications, Macroeconomic Advisers GDP Tracking, and Moody's Analytics high-frequency model.

With this macroblog post, we introduce the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta's own nowcasting model, which we call GDPNow.

GDPNow will provide nowcasts of GDP and its subcomponents on a regularly updated basis. These nowcasts will be available on the pages of the Atlanta Fed's Center for Quantitative Economic Research (CQER).

A few important notes about GDPNow:

  • The GDPNow model forecasts are nonjudgmental, meaning that the forecasts are taken directly from the underlying statistical model. (These are not official forecasts of either the Atlanta Fed or its president, Dennis Lockhart.)
  • Because nowcasts are often based on both modeling and judgment, there is no reason to expect that GDPNow will agree with alternative forecasts. And we do not intend to present GDPNow as superior to those alternatives. Different approaches have their pluses and minuses. An advantage of our approach is that, because it is nonjudgmental, our methodology is easily replicable. But it is always wise to avoid reliance on a single model or source of information.
  • GDPNow forecasts are subject to error, sometimes substantial. Internally, we've regularly produced nowcasts from the GDPNow model since introducing an earlier version of it in an October 2011 macroblog post. A real-time track record for the model nowcasts just before the BEA's advance GDP release is available on the CQER GDPNow webpage, and will be updated on a regular basis to help users make informed decisions about the use of this tool.

So, with that in hand, does it appear that BFI in fact "resumed its advance" last quarter? The table below shows the current GDPNow forecasts:


We will update the nowcast five to six times each month following the releases of certain key economic indicators listed in the frequently asked questions. Look for the next GDPNow update on July 15, with the release of the retail trade and business inventory reports.

If you want to dig deeper, the GDPNow page includes downloadable charts and tables as well as numerical details including the model's nowcasts for GDP, its subcomponents, and how the subcomponent nowcasts are built up from both the underlying source data and the model parameters. This working paper supplies the model's technical documentation. We hope economy watchers find GDPNow to be a useful addition to their information sets.

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


July 10, 2014 in Data Releases, Economic Growth and Development, Forecasts, GDP | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)

June 30, 2014

The Implications of Flat or Declining Real Wages for Inequality

A recent Policy Note published by the Levy Economics Institute of Bard College shows that what we thought had been a decade of essentially flat real wages (since 2002) has actually been a decade of declining real wages. Replicating the second figure in that Policy Note, Chart 1 shows that holding experience (i.e., age) and education fixed at their levels in 1994, real wages per hour are at levels not seen since 1997. In other words, growth in experience and education within the workforce during the past decade has propped up wages.

Chart 1: Actual and Fixed Real Wages, 1994-2013

The implication for inequality of this growth in education and experience was only touched on in the Policy Note that Levy published. In this post, we investigate more fully what contribution growth in educational attainment has made to the growth in wage inequality since 1994.

The Gini coefficient is a common statistic used to measure the degree of inequality in income or wages within a population. The Gini ranges between 0 and 100, with a value of zero reflecting perfect equality and a value of 100 reflecting perfect inequality. The Gini is preferred to other, simpler indices, like the 90/10 ratio, which is simply the income in the 90th percentile divided by the income in the 10th percentile, because the Gini captures information along the entire distribution rather than merely information in the tails.

Chart 2 plots the Gini coefficient calculated for the actual real hourly wage distribution in the United States in each year between 1994 and 2013 and for the counterfactual wage distribution, holding education and/or age fixed at their 1994 levels in order to assess how much changes in age and education over the same period account for growth in wage inequality. In 2013, the Gini coefficient for the actual real wage distribution is roughly 33, meaning that if two people were drawn at random from the wage distribution, the expected difference in their wages is equal to 66 percent of the average wage in the distribution. (You can read more about interpreting the Gini coefficient.) A higher Gini implies that, first, the expected wage gap between two people has increased, holding the average wage of the distribution constant; or, second, the average wage of the distribution has decreased, holding the expected wage gap constant; or, third, some combination of these two events.

Chart 2: Wage Distribution Gini Coefficients over Time

The first message from Chart 2 is that—as has been documented numerous other places (here and here, for example)—inequality has been growing in the United States, which can be seen by the rising value of the Gini coefficient over time. The Gini coefficient’s 1.27-point rise means that between 1994 and 2013 the expected gap in wages between two randomly drawn workers has gotten two and a half (2 times 1.27, or 2.54) percentage points larger relative to the average wage in the distribution. Since the average real wage is higher in 2013 than in 1994, the implication is that the expected wage gap between two randomly drawn workers grew faster than the overall average wage grew. In other words, the tide rose, but not the same for all workers.

The second message from Chart 2 is that the aging of the workforce has contributed hardly anything to the growth in inequality over time: the Gini coefficient since 2009 for the wage distribution that holds age constant is essentially identical to the Gini coefficient for the actual wage distribution. However, the growth in education is another story.

In the absence of the growth in education during the same period, inequality would not have grown as much. The Gini coefficient for the actual real wage distribution in 2013 is 1.27 points higher than it was in 1994, whereas it's only 0.49 points higher for the wage distribution, holding education fixed. The implication is that growth in education has accounted for about 61 percent of the growth in inequality (as measured by the Gini coefficient) during this period.

Chart 3 shows the growth in education producing this result. The chart makes apparent the declines in the share of the workforce with less than a high school degree and the share with a high school degree, as is the increase in the shares of the workforce with college and graduate degrees.

Chart 3: Distribution of the Workforce across Educational Status

There is little debate about whether income inequality has been rising in the United States for some time, and more dramatically recently. The degree to which education has exacerbated inequality or has the potential to reduce inequality, however, offers a more robust debate. We intend this post to add to the evidence that growing educational attainment has contributed to rising inequality. This assertion is not meant to imply that education has been the only source of the rise in inequality or that educational attainment is undesirable. The message is that growth in educational attainment is clearly associated with growing inequality, and understanding that association will be central to the understanding the overall growth in inequality in the United States.

Photo of Jessica DillBy Julie L. Hotchkiss, a research economist and senior policy adviser at the Atlanta Fed, and

Fernando Rios-Avila, a research scholar at the Levy Economics Institute of Bard College


June 30, 2014 in Education, Employment, Inequality, Labor Markets | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)

June 26, 2014

Torturing CPI Data until They Confess: Observations on Alternative Measures of Inflation (Part 3)

On May 30, the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland generously allowed me some time to speak at their conference on Inflation, Monetary Policy, and the Public. The purpose of my remarks was to describe the motivations and methods behind some of the alternative measures of the inflation experience that my coauthors and I have produced in support of monetary policy.

This is the last of three posts on that talk. The first post reviewed alternative inflation measures; the second looked at ways to work with the Consumer Price Index to get a clear view of inflation. The full text of the speech is available on the Atlanta Fed's events web page.

The challenge of communicating price stability

Let me close this blog series with a few observations on the criticism that measures of core inflation, and specifically the CPI excluding food and energy, disconnect the Federal Reserve from households and businesses "who know price changes when they see them." After all, don't the members of the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) eat food and use gas in their cars? Of course they do, and if it is the cost of living the central bank intends to control, the prices of these goods should necessarily be part of the conversation, notwithstanding their observed volatility.

In fact, in the popularly reported all-items CPI, the Bureau of Labor Statistics has already removed about 40 percent of the monthly volatility in the cost-of-living measure through its seasonal adjustment procedures. I think communicating in terms of a seasonally adjusted price index makes a lot of sense, even if nobody actually buys things at seasonally adjusted prices.

Referencing alternative measures of inflation presents some communications challenges for the central bank to be sure. It certainly would be easier if progress toward either of the Federal Reserve's mandates could be described in terms of a single, easily understood statistic. But I don't think this is feasible for price stability, or for full employment.

And with regard to our price stability mandate, I suspect the problem of public communication runs deeper than the particular statistics we cite. In 1996, Robert Shiller polled people—real people, not economists—about their perceptions of inflation. What he found was a stark difference between how economists think about the word "inflation" and how folks outside a relatively small band of academics and policymakers define inflation. Consider this question:

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And here is how people responded:

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Seventy-seven percent of the households in Shiller's poll picked number 2—"Inflation hurts my real buying power"—as their biggest gripe about inflation. This is a cost-of-living description. It isn't the same concept that most economists are thinking about when they consider inflation. Only 12 percent of the economists Shiller polled indicated that inflation hurt real buying power.

I wonder if, in the minds of most people, the Federal Reserve's price-stability mandate is heard as a promise to prevent things from becoming more expensive, and especially the staples of life like, well, food and gasoline. This is not what the central bank is promising to do.

What is the Federal Reserve promising to do? To the best of my knowledge, the first "workable" definition of price stability by the Federal Reserve was Paul Volcker's 1983 description that it was a condition where "decision-making should be able to proceed on the basis that 'real' and 'nominal' values are substantially the same over the planning horizon—and that planning horizons should be suitably long."

Thirty years later, the Fed gave price stability a more explicit definition when it laid down a numerical target. The FOMC describes that target thusly:

The inflation rate over the longer run is primarily determined by monetary policy, and hence the Committee has the ability to specify a longer-run goal for inflation. The Committee reaffirms its judgment that inflation at the rate of 2 percent, as measured by the annual change in the price index for personal consumption expenditures, is most consistent over the longer run with the Federal Reserve's statutory mandate.

Whether one goes back to the qualitative description of Volcker or the quantitative description in the FOMC's recent statement of principles, the thrust of the price-stability objective is broadly the same. The central bank is intent on managing the persistent, nominal trend in the price level that is determined by monetary policy. It is not intent on managing the short-run, real fluctuations that reflect changes in the cost of living.

Effectively achieving price stability in the sense of the FOMC's declaration requires that the central bank hears what it needs to from the public, and that the public in turn hears what they need to know from the central bank. And this isn't likely unless the central bank and the public engage in a dialog in a language that both can understand.

Prices are volatile, and the cost of living the public experiences ought to reflect that. But what the central bank can control over time—inflation—is obscured within these fluctuations. What my colleagues and I have attempted to do is to rearrange the price data at our disposal, and so reveal a richer perspective on the inflation experience.

We are trying to take the torture out of the inflation discussion by accurately measuring the things that the Fed needs to worry about and by seeking greater clarity in our communications about what those things mean and where we are headed. Hard conversations indeed, but necessary ones.

Photo of Mike BryanBy Mike Bryan, vice president and senior economist in the Atlanta Fed's research department

 


June 26, 2014 in Business Cycles, Data Releases, Inflation | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)

June 24, 2014

Torturing CPI Data until They Confess: Observations on Alternative Measures of Inflation (Part 2)

On May 30, the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland generously allowed me some time to speak at their conference on Inflation, Monetary Policy, and the Public. The purpose of my remarks was to describe the motivations and methods behind some of the alternative measures of the inflation experience that my coauthors and I have produced in support of monetary policy.

This is the second of three posts based on that talk. Yesterday's post considered the median CPI and other trimmed-mean measures.

Is it more expensive, or does it just cost more money? Inflation versus the cost of living

Let me make two claims that I believe are, separately, uncontroversial among economists. Jointly, however, I think they create an incongruity for how we think about and measure inflation.

The first claim is that over time, inflation is a monetary phenomenon. It is caused by too much money chasing a limited number of things to buy with that money. As such, the control of inflation is rightfully the responsibility of the institution that has monopoly control over the supply of money—the central bank.

My second claim is that the cost of living is a real concept, and changes in the cost of living will occur even in a world without money. It is a description of how difficult it is to buy a particular level of well-being. Indeed, to a first approximation, changes in the cost of living are beyond the ability of a central bank to control.

For this reason, I think it is entirely appropriate to think about whether the cost of living in New York City is rising faster or slower than in Cleveland, just as it is appropriate to ask whether the cost of living of retirees is rising faster or slower than it is for working-aged people. The folks at the Bureau of Labor Statistics produce statistics that can help us answer these and many other questions related to how expensive it is to buy the happiness embodied in any particular bundle of goods.

But I think it is inappropriate for us to think about inflation, the object of central bank control, as being different in New York than it is in Cleveland, or to think that inflation is somehow different for older citizens than it is for younger citizens. Inflation is common to all things valued by money. Yet changes in the cost of living and inflation are commonly talked about as if they are the same thing. And this creates both a communication and a measurement problem for the Federal Reserve and other central banks around the world.

Here is the essence of the problem as I see it: money is not only our medium of exchange but also our numeraire—our yardstick for measuring value. Embedded in every price change, then, are two forces. The first is real in the sense that the good is changing its price in relation to all the other prices in the market basket. It is the cost adjustment that motivates you to buy more or less of that good. The second force is purely nominal. It is a change in the numeraire caused by an imbalance in the supply and demand of the money being provided by the central bank. I think the concept of "core inflation" is all about trying to measure changes in this numeraire. But to get there, we need to first let go of any "real" notion of our price statistics. Let me explain.

As a cost-of-living approximation, the weights the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) uses to construct the Consumer Price Index (CPI) are based on some broadly representative consumer expenditures. It is easy to understand that since medical care costs are more important to the typical household budget than, say, haircuts, these costs should get a greater weight in the computation of an individual's cost of living. But does inflation somehow affect medical care prices differently than haircuts? I'm open to the possibility that the answer to this question is yes. It seems to me that if monetary policy has predictable, real effects on the economy, then there will be a policy-induced disturbance in relative prices that temporarily alters the cost of living in some way.

But if inflation is a nominal experience that is independent of the cost of living, then the inflation component of medical care is the same as that in haircuts. No good or service, geographic region, or individual experiences inflation any differently than any other. Inflation is a common signal that ultimately runs through all wages and prices.

And when we open up to the idea that inflation is a nominal, not-real concept, we begin to think about the BLS's market basket in a fundamentally different way than what the BLS intends to measure.

This, I think, is the common theme that runs through all measures of "core" inflation. Can the prices the BLS collects be reorganized or reweighted in a way that makes the aggregate price statistic more informative about the inflation that the central bank hopes to control? I think the answer is yes. The CPI excluding food and energy is one very crude way. Food and energy prices are extremely volatile and certainly point to nonmonetary forces as their primary drivers.

In the early 1980s, Otto Eckstein defined core inflation as the trend growth rate of the cost of the factors of production—the cost of capital and wages. I would compare Eckstein's measure to the "inflation expectations" component that most economists (and presumably the FOMC) think "anchor" the inflation trend.

The sticky-price CPI

Brent Meyer and I have taken this idea to the CPI data. One way that prices appear to be different is in their observed "stickiness." That is, some prices tend to change frequently, while others do not. Prices that change only infrequently are likely to be more forward-looking than are those that change all the time. So we can take the CPI market basket and separate it into two groups of prices—prices that tend to be flexible and those that are "sticky" (a separation made possible by the work of Mark Bils and Peter J. Klenow).

Indeed, we find that the items in the CPI market basket that change prices frequently (about 30 percent of the CPI) are very responsive to changes in economic conditions, but do not seem to have a very forward-looking character. But the 70 percent of the market basket items that do not change prices very often—these are accounted for in the sticky-price CPI—appear to be largely immune to fluctuations in the business conditions and are better predictors of future price behavior. In other words, we think that some "inflation-expectation" component exists to varying degrees within each price. By reweighting the CPI market basket in a way that amplifies the behavior of the most forward-looking prices, the sticky-price CPI gives policymakers a perspective on the inflation experience that the headline CPI can't.

Here is what monthly changes in the sticky-price CPI look like compared to the all-items CPI and the traditional "core" CPI.


Let me describe another, more radical example of how we might think about reweighting the CPI market basket to measure inflation—a way of thinking that is very different from the expenditure-basket approach the BLS uses to measure the cost of living.

If we assume that inflation is ultimately a monetary event and, moreover, that the signal of this monetary inflation can be found in all prices, then we might use statistical techniques to help us identify that signal from a large number of price data. The famous early-20th-century economist Irving Fisher described the problem as trying to track a swarm of bees by abstracting from the individual, seemingly chaotic behavior of any particular bee.

Cecchetti and I experimented along these lines to measure a common signal running through the CPI data. The basic idea of our approach was to take the component data that the BLS supplied, make a few simple identifying assumptions, and let the data itself determine the appropriate weighting structure of the inflation estimate. The signal-extraction method we chose was a dynamic-factor index approach, and while we didn't pursue that work much further, others did, using more sophisticated and less restrictive signal-extraction methods. Perhaps most notable is the work of Ricardo Reis and Mark Watson.

To give you a flavor of the approach, consider the "first principal component" of the CPI price-change data. The first principal component of a data series is a statistical combination of the data that accounts for the largest share of their joint movement (or variance). It's a simple, statistically shared component that runs through all the price data.

This next chart shows the first principal component of the CPI price data, in relation to the headline CPI and the core CPI.


Again, this is a very different animal than what the folks at the BLS are trying to measure. In fact, the weights used to produce this particular common signal in the price data bear little similarity to the expenditure weights that make up the market baskets that most people buy. And why should they? The idea here doesn't depend on how important something is to the well-being of any individual, but rather on whether the movement in its price seems to be similar or dissimilar to the movements of all the other prices.

In the table below, I report the weights (or relative importance) of a select group of CPI components and the weights they would get on the basis of their contribution to the first principal component.

140624b

While some criticize the CPI because it over weights housing from a cost-of-living perspective, it may be these housing components that ought to be given the greatest consideration when we think about the inflation that the central bank controls. Likewise, according to this approach, restaurant costs, motor vehicle repairs, and even a few food components should be taken pretty seriously in the measurement of a common inflation signal running through the price data.

And what price movements does this approach say we ought to ignore? Well, gasoline prices for one. But movements in the prices of medical care commodities, communications equipment, and tobacco products also appear to move in ways that are largely disconnected from the common thread in prices that runs through the CPI market basket.

But this and other measures of "core" inflation are very much removed from the cost changes that people experience on a monthly basis. Does that cause a communications problem for the Federal Reserve? This will be the subject of my final post.

Photo of Mike BryanBy Mike Bryan, vice president and senior economist in the Atlanta Fed's research department

 

June 24, 2014 in Business Cycles, Data Releases, Inflation | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)