The Atlanta Fed's macroblog provides commentary and analysis on economic topics including monetary policy, macroeconomic developments, inflation, labor economics, and financial issues.

Authors for macroblog are Dave Altig, John Robertson, and other Atlanta Fed economists and researchers.

November 22, 2016

Outside Looking In: Why Has Labor Force Participation Increased?


The labor force participation rate (LFPR) is an estimate of the share of the population actively engaged in the labor market. The LFPR has increased about 30 basis points over the past year (from the third quarter of 2015 to the third quarter of 2016)—a modest reversal in the precipitous decline in the LFPR that began in 2008. What accounts for this stabilization and—given the demographic and cyclical forces in play—how much longer can it last?

The following is perspective through the lens of the reasons people give for not participating in the labor force. Perhaps the component most responsive to changes in labor market conditions is what I will refer to as the "shadow labor force," which is made up of people who are not in the official labor force and are not actively seeking employment, but who say they want a job. (This group includes people discouraged over job prospects.) During tough times, the share of the population in the shadows rises, and during good times it falls. In the third quarter of 2016, about 2.3 percent of the population fell into this category—down from a high of 2.8 percent but still a bit above prerecession levels (see the chart).

But focusing solely on the decline in the shadow labor force to explain the recent reversal in the LFPR would be a mistake. In fact, high unemployment in the aftermath of the Great Recession was accompanied not only by a rise in the share of the shadow labor force, but also by an increase in the share of the population who said they didn't currently want a job—because of either a health issue or engagement in some other activity. Although some of this likely reflects trends already at work before the recession, some of it was also probably a cyclical response to weak job opportunities.

The chart below shows how these various factors cumulatively contribute to the decline in the LFPR between the third quarter of 2007 and the third quarter of 2016. It shows that, in addition to a larger share in the shadow labor force, the reasons for the decline between 2007 and 2016 also stemmed from a greater age-adjusted share who were too sick or disabled to work (purple) or in school instead of working (light blue). Interestingly, the share out of the labor force but wanting a job (dark blue) actually exerted the smallest downward force on LFPR of all of these three reasons. The green section represents the impact of the baby boomers: an increasing share of the population of retirement age. Partly offsetting this shift in the age distribution was a decrease in the propensity of these workers to actually retire (orange).

The next chart shows that almost all the nonparticipation factors that had put downward pressure on the LFPR since 2007 have reversed course and contributed positively to an increase in the LFPR during the past year. In particular, there was a decline in the share of the population who cited nonparticipation because of poor health or enrollment in school or were otherwise wanting but not looking for work. This decline in the schooling and illness nonparticipation rates is particularly noteworthy because it stands in contrast to the increasing trends that were in place prior to the recession (to read more, visit our LFP Dynamics page).

The only significant factor continuing to depress the LFPR during the past year is the impact of an increasing share of the population in age groups with relatively low labor force attachment. This factor brings me to the second question I posed earlier in this post: What will this picture look like going forward? Unfortunately, I think the answer is that it's very hard to say.

Other things equal, it seems reasonable to think that the nonparticipation rates attributable to age-adjusted schooling and poor health will eventually revert to the upward trends occurring before the recession, a reversion that will push down the LFPR. Probably the biggest wild card for the future is what will happen with decisions concerning retirement (and hence older individuals' LFPR). The trend toward retiring later in life has risen and fallen a couple of times during the past two decades. The positive role that later retirement has played in mitigating the overall decline in the LFPR in recent years—coupled with the steadily increasing share of the population approaching traditional retirement age—suggests that deferred retirement will be an especially important factor to keep an eye on. This point is nicely illustrated in this piece Adobe PDF file format by our colleagues at the Kansas City Fed, who look at the role of later retirement in reducing the rate of outflow of people from the labor force.

Note: Data on the reasons for not participating are available in the data download section of the Labor Force Dynamics page, which we will update every quarter (data for the third quarter are coming soon).

November 22, 2016 | Permalink | Comments (0)

November 15, 2016

Wages Climb Higher, Faster


The Atlanta Fed's Wage Growth Tracker is a three-month average of median growth in the hourly earnings of a sample of wage and salary workers taken from the Current Population Survey. Last month in a macroblog post, I noted that the Wage Growth Tracker reading for September, at 3.6 percent, was close to where it had been hovering since April. However, I also noted that the non-averaged median wage growth for September was at a cyclical high of 4.2 percent, and so it would be interesting to see what the October data revealed. Well, the October data are in, and they do confirm a sizeable uptick in wage growth over the last couple of months. The median wage growth for October was 4.0 percent, which brings the Wage Growth Tracker up to 3.9 percent—a percentage point higher than a year ago, and now the highest level since November 2008.

In addition, nominal wage rigidity, as measured by the fraction of workers reporting no change in their hourly rate of pay from 12 months earlier, declined to 13 percent—the lowest since April 2008.

The rise depicted by the Wage Growth Tracker is consistent with the recent trend in average hourly earnings from the payroll survey (up 2.8 percent from a year earlier in October—the fastest pace since June 2009). This increase is occurring even though the unemployment rate has changed little in recent months and is only 10 basis points lower than a year ago. Perhaps employers are finally catching up to the realities of a low unemployment rate. Larger wage gains may also be behind why we are seeing fewer workers leave the labor force. Labor force participation is some 30 or so basis points higher than it was a year ago, and this is primarily because the flow out of the labor force has slowed.

Note: The Wage Growth Tracker website now contains data for the smoothed and unsmoothed series going back to 1983. Previously, the historical data started in 1997. You will notice gaps in the time series in 1995–96 and 1985–86 because the Census Bureau masked the identifiers used to match individual earnings during those periods.

November 15, 2016 | Permalink | Comments (0)

November 14, 2016

Is There a Gender Wage Growth Gap?


The existence of the "gender wage gap" is well documented. Although the gap in the average level of pay between men and women has narrowed over time, studies conducted in the past few years find that women still tend to make about 20 percent less than men. Researchers estimate that between one half and three quarters of the gap can be accounted for by observable differences between men and women in the workforce such as labor market experience, educational attainment, as well as job characteristics (see here , here, and here). This estimation leaves one quarter to one half of the gap that is the result of other factors. While some pin the remainder on discrimination or unfair hiring practices, others suggest the remaining gap may reflect subtle differences in work preferences, such as women choosing jobs with family-oriented benefit packages or flexible work arrangements.

A related question is whether there are differences between the average wage growth of men and women. Since 2010 the Atlanta Fed's Wage Growth Tracker has revealed a disparity between the pay raises of continuously employed men and women, as depicted in the following chart.

Between 1997 and 2010, wage growth of men and women was about equal. Since 2010 however, a gap has emerged. On average, men have been experiencing about 0.35 percentage points higher median wage growth than women. Can differences in characteristics such as experience and job choice explain this gap?

To answer this question, I aggregated individuals into groups based on their potential labor market experience (0–5 years, 5–9 years, 10–24 years, and 25–48 years) education (degree or no degree) family type (married, whether your spouse works, and whether you have kids); industry (goods versus services) occupation (low, middle, or high skill); sector (public versus private); and if the person switched jobs recently. I then computed the median wage growth for each unique group in each year. Using a statistical technique called a Oaxaca Decomposition, I separated out the difference between men and women's wage growth that can be pinned on differences in the way men and women are distributed among these groups (the "endowment" effect).

The following chart shows median wage growth after removing this endowment effect.

After removing the difference in wage growth that is the result of differences in gender-specific characteristics, wage growth of men and women is much more similar. In particular, these differences appear to almost entirely account for the gap that had emerged after 2009. What explains the gap in wage levels between men and women is still an open question, but this analysis suggests that much of the difference in wage growth through the years has to do with family/job choices and other individual characteristics.

November 14, 2016 | Permalink | Comments (1)

November 07, 2016

The Price Isn't Right: On GDPNow's Third Quarter Miss

The U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis's (BEA) first estimate of third quarter annualized real gross domestic product (GDP) growth released on October 28 was 2.9 percent. A number of nowcasts were quite close to this number, including the median forecast of 3.0 percent from the CNBC Rapid Update surveyOff-site link of roughly 10 economists. The Atlanta Fed's GDPNow model forecast of 2.1 percent? Not so close.

What accounted for GDPNow's miss? The table below shows the GDPNow forecasts and BEA estimates of the percentage point contributions to third quarter growth of six subcomponents that together make up real GDP. The largest forecast error, both in absolute terms and relative to the historical accuracy of the projections, was for the contribution of real net exports to growth. The published contribution of 0.83 percentage points was much higher than the model's estimate of 0.07 percentage points.

Why did GDPNow miss so badly on net exports? For both goods and services real net exports, the GDPNow forecast is a weighted average of two forecasts. The "bean counting" forecast uses the monthly source data on the nominal values and price deflators of exports and imports. The econometric model forecast uses published values of 13 subcomponents of real GDP for the last five quarters to predict real net exports for both goods and services. The statistically determined weights on the bean counting forecast increase as we get closer to the first GDP release and accumulate more monthly source data. (More details are provided here.)

For real net exports of services, 89 percent of the weight was given to the bean counting forecast. This weighting worked out well last quarter as the forecasts of the contribution of real services net exports to third quarter growth from both the bean counting and combined models were within 0.01 percentage points of the published value of −0.14 percentage points. But for real net exports of goods, the bean counting forecast received only 59 percent of the weight in the final GDPNow forecast. It projected that real net exports of goods would add 0.76 percentage points to growth—reasonably close to the BEA estimate. In contrast, the econometric model projected a subtraction of 0.58 percentage points from growth.

Since GDPNow had monthly price and nominal spending data through September on goods imports and exports, why didn't it place more weight on the source data? One of the important reasons is that it's difficult to match the quarterly inflation rate of the BEA's import price deflator for goods. The BEA constructs its price deflator  with detailed price indices from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) producer price index and import/export price index programs as well as a few other sources. GDPNow uses the BLS's import price data at higher levels of aggregation than the BEA uses and also differs in the manner that it handles seasonality. The chart below plots the difference between the BEA's quarterly goods import price inflation rate and the GDPNow proxy. These inflation measures have differed by 5 percentage points or more on a number of occasions. Since goods imports are 12 percent of GDP, a miss of this magnitude on the price deflator would lead to a miss on the real net exports of goods contribution to growth of 0.5 percentage points or more, even if the other ingredients in the calculation were all correct.

Are there any lessons here for improving GDPNow? Ideally, GDPNow would be able to closely map the monthly source data to real goods net exports so that most of the weight would go to the bean counting forecast once all of the data are in—much as it does with nonresidential structures and residential investment. The BEA's estimates of real petroleum imports are based on similar data in the monthly international trade data publication. Because petroleum imports account for so much of the volatility of inflation for goods imports, it may be better to use the monthly real petroleum imports data directly and only worry about replicating the price index for nonpetroleum goods.

That said, a previous macroblog post illustrated that the method GDPNow currently uses has a reasonable forecasting track record for net exports when compared with several consensus estimates from professional forecasters. Net exports may remain difficult to nowcast even with refinements to GDPNow's methodology.

GDPNow has established a commendable track record. But sometimes when it misses the mark, an analysis of the error can provide insight into how GDPNow works and the limitations of the model.

November 7, 2016 | Permalink | Comments (1)

October 24, 2016

Is Wage Growth Accelerating?

The Atlanta Fed's Wage Growth Tracker came in at 3.6 percent in September, up from 3.3 percent in August and 3.4 percent in July, but the same as the 3.6 percent reading for June. By this measure, there are no obvious signs of an acceleration in wage growth for continuously employed workers during the last few months.

However, the headline wage growth tracker is a three month moving average of each month's median wage growth. Interestingly, for September, the median wage growth (using data that are not averaged, sometimes called "unsmoothed") was 4.2 percent, up from 3.6 percent in August, and the highest since late 2007. This pop in median wage growth can be seen in the following chart, which compares the median wage growth (smoothed using a three-month average) with the unsmoothed monthly median.

Even though this looks like a pretty large increase, the standard error on the difference between the unsmoothed August and September medians is also quite large at 0.5 percentage points. So the 0.6 percentage point difference in medians is not statistically significant—it could just as easily be sampling noise. But it is definitely something to keep an eye on going forward. As noted in a previous macroblog post, the correlation between the unemployment gap and the Wage Growth Tracker suggests that we should be seeing the wage growth tracker level off if the economy is stabilizing at full employment.

October 24, 2016 | Permalink | Comments (0)

October 18, 2016

Unemployment Risk and Unions

A recent paper by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) argues that increased unionization would have broad economic benefits and, in particular, could help improve the wage stagnation facing many lower-skilled workers. Yet union membership has been declining, down by about 3 million between 1983 and 2015, and membership is down 4.5 million in the private sector. (Union membership in the United States is discussed in this U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report and in this database, maintained by Barry Hirsch at Georgia State University.)

The overall membership decline in private-sector unions reflects a combination of lower employment in some traditionally unionized industries such as the steel and auto industries and lower unionization rates within industries. For example, the rate of unionization for goods-producing industries (largely manufacturing and construction) is down from 28 percent to 10 percent, and the rate in service-producing industries has declined from 11 percent to 6 percent. In contrast, union membership in the public sector has increased, mostly as a result of broad unionization among public safety, utility, and education occupations coupled with the fact that employment in these occupations has tended to grow over time.

For goods-producing industries in particular, unionized employment is down by about 4.2 million since 1983, and nonunionized employment is up by around 2.5 million. Many factors may have contributed to this shift away from union membership. A possibility I explore here is the role of wage rigidity. In particular, if union wage contracts prevent employers from adjusting wages in the face of an unexpected decline in output demand, then employers may adjust along the employment margin instead. The monopoly power of unions leads to higher wages for continuously employed union workers but also makes layoffs more frequent.

It is the case that unionized workers tend to earn more than their nonunion counterparts. For 1983 to 2015, I estimate that prime-age union workers in goods-producing industries earn an average of about 25 percent more (on a median hourly basis) than comparable nonunion workers (about 50 percent more in construction and about 10 percent more in manufacturing). In addition, the median wage growth of union workers is less cyclically sensitive. The following chart uses the Atlanta Fed's Wage Growth Tracker data, and it shows the annual median wage growth of continuously employed prime-age workers in goods-producing industries, by union status.

Not only is wage growth among union workers less variable over time as the chart shows, research  has noted that union wages are less dispersed—even controlling for differences in worker characteristics. Joining a union leads to wages that tend to be higher, wages that vary less across workers, and wage growth that responds less to changes in economic conditions.

But what about unemployment risk? Do union workers get laid off at a greater rate than nonunion workers? Using matched data from the Current Population Survey, the following chart shows an estimate of the probability that a prime-age worker in a goods producing industry is unemployed 12 months later, by union status.

The probability of unemployment rises during economic downturns for both union and nonunion workers, but is higher for union workers. The union worker displacement rate reached 13 percent in 2009 versus 8 percent for nonunion workers.

However, recall provisions are often built into collective bargaining agreements, so perhaps looking at the total unemployment flow overstates the permanent job loss risk. To investigate, the following chart shows the likelihood of being on temporary layoff (expected to be recalled within six months) versus indefinite (permanent) layoff.

The likelihood of being recalled by your previous employer is much higher for union than nonunion workers, whereas the incidence of permanent layoff is about the same for both types of worker.

Admittedly, I'm not controlling for all the things about workers and employers that could influence employment and wage outcomes. But taken at face value, it appears that the likelihood of permanent job loss is no greater for union workers in goods-producing industries than for nonunion workers. At the same time, union workers are more likely to experience a spell of temporary unemployment. I view this as some evidence in support of my wage rigidity story, which holds that unionized firms use layoffs more intensively because wages are less flexible (I find that this same result holds if I look at the manufacturing and construction industries separately). However, this mechanism itself isn't able to account for much of the secular decline in union participation. The decline seems to be more about where the jobs are created than where they are lost.

October 18, 2016 | Permalink | Comments (1)

October 14, 2016

Cumulative U.S. Trade Deficits Resulting in Net Profits for the U.S. (and Net Losses for China)

The United States has run trade deficits for decades (1976 is the last year with a recorded surplus). To illustrate this, chart 1 depicts the cumulative U.S. trade deficit since 1980, which now surpasses $10 trillion. As a result, a drastic deterioration in the U.S. net foreign asset position—the difference between the amount of foreign assets owned by U.S. residents and the amount of U.S. assets owned by foreigners—has occurred. That is, as Americans borrow from the rest of the world to finance the recurring trade deficits, the national net worth goes deeply into the red. Not long ago, many commentators predicted that as a result of this increasing U.S. foreign debt, the U.S. dollar was set to collapse, which would trigger a stampede away from U.S. assets. Of course, this has not happened.

Much of the rising U.S. deficit is the by-product of deficits with one country in particular: China. Chart 2 shows that U.S. bilateral trade deficits with China have been growing steadily during these years. In 2015, the total U.S. goods trade deficit was about $762 billion, and the goods deficit with China alone made up nearly half of that total ($367 billion). This situation is not unique to the United States, as many countries find themselves in similar trade positions with China. During the last few decades, China has been running protracted trade surpluses with the rest of world and has accumulated a positive and sizeable net foreign asset position.

Yet, despite accumulating a positive and sizeable net foreign asset position, China is facing increasing losses in net income on its foreign assets. Put differently, China has been accumulating negative returns on its increasingly large portfolio of foreign assets. Chart 3 shows this observation, made in a paper by Eswar Prasad of Cornell University at a recent conference cosponsored by the Atlanta Fed and the International Monetary Fund.

The net income on foreign assets measures the return a nation receives from the foreign assets it owns minus the return paid on domestic assets held by foreigners. In sharp contrast to China, however, the U.S. international net financial income has remained positive and has even increased. This increase comes despite the fact that the United States has consistently run trade deficits, and its net foreign asset position has deteriorated. Chart 4 shows the U.S. income from foreign assets and foreigners' income on U.S. assets, which is reported as a negative number for this series because it is regarded as a liability for the United States. The difference between these amounts is depicted by the middle line, which shows the net foreign income of the United States.

How is this possible? Ricardo Hausmann (Harvard University) and Federico Sturzenegger (currently, the chairman of Central Bank of Argentina) came up with an explanation more than ten years ago: the United States gets a far higher return on its foreign assets than the other way around. Indeed, U.S. foreign direct investments (FDI) often generate a relatively high rate of return. In part, U.S. FDI are benefiting from business expertise, brand recognition, and research and development in new product and service lines. Comparatively, foreigners tend to earn substantially less return on the American assets they own. Foreigners often desire to hold their dollar assets in the form of safe, liquid assets, which—following the "low-risk, low-return" principle—have relatively low returns.

To see this, chart 5 shows the sources of the net financial income of the United States. The U.S. government net income is negative—mostly the by-product of interest payments in government debt held by foreigners. The U.S. gets most of its financial return from FDI. Although much has happened in the world economy during the last decade, the implications of Hausmann and Sturzenegger's analysis remain intact. In sum, the differential return from these foreign assets and liabilities appear to largely compensate for the trade deficits.

Eswar Prasad also showed that China is in a starkly different situation. Most of its foreign liabilities are in the form of FDI, while the vast majority of the foreign assets are reserve assets and foreign exchange reserves—not surprisingly, largely U.S. dollars and U.S. Treasury securities. The rate of return foreigners make on Chinese assets is around twice the rate of return China gets on its foreign assets.

This analysis suggests that focusing on a country's net foreign asset position conveys an incomplete picture of the profitability of foreign assets because it fails to account for the differences in rates of returns that countries earn on their foreign assets. Overall, the United States makes a sufficiently high return on foreign assets that it maintains positive net income on foreign assets. The situation is similar to role leverage in investing; debt can be profitable if you can devote it to purposes that earn a higher rate of return than your cost of borrowing it. Therefore, when viewed in terms of the net income earned on foreign assets the United States holds, the sizable U.S. trade deficits may not be as much of a concern as commonly thought.

October 14, 2016 in Deficits, Trade | Permalink | Comments (3)

October 05, 2016

The Slump in Undocumented Immigration to the United States

Immigration is a challenging and often controversial topic. We have written some on the economic benefits and costs associated with the inflows of low-skilled (possibly undocumented) immigrant workers into the United States hereOff-site link and hereOff-site link. In this macroblog post, we discuss some interesting trends in undocumented immigration.

There are no official records of undocumented immigration flows into the United States. However, one crude proxy for this flow is the number of apprehensions at the U.S. border. As pointed out in Hanson (2006)Off-site link, the number of individuals arrested when attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexico border, provided by the Department of Homeland SecurityOff-site link Adobe PDF file format (DHS), is likely to be positively correlated with the flows of attempted illegal border crossings (see chart 1).

The apprehensions series displays spikes that coincide with well-known episodes of increased illegal immigration into the United States, such as after the financial crisis in Mexico in 1995 or during the U.S. housing boom in the early 2000s. Importantly, the series also shows a sharp decline in the flows of illegal immigration at the U.S.-Mexico border during the last recession, and those flows have remained at historically low levels since then.

A better proxyOff-site link for illegal immigration from Mexico would adjust the number of apprehensions for the intensity of U.S. border enforcement (for example, the number of border patrol officers). The intuition is straightforward: for the same level of attempted illegal crossings, greater enforcement is likely to result in more apprehensions. Chart 2 shows the border patrol staffing levels as an indicator of enforcement intensity.

As the chart shows, the sharp decrease in apprehensions after the Great Recession occurred despite a remarkable increase in border enforcement, indicating that the decline in migration flows in recent years may have been even more abrupt than implied by the (unadjusted) border apprehensions shown in chart 1.

The measure of inflows shown in chart 1 is largely consistent with estimates of the stock of undocumented immigrants in the United States, such as those provided by a new studyOff-site link Adobe PDF file format by the Pew Research Center based on data from the U.S. Census Bureau. After having peaked at 12.2 million in 2007, the stock of unauthorized immigrants fell during the Great Recession and remained stable afterwards, most recently at 11.1 million in 2014. Also, the composition of this stock has shifted since the Great Recession. Although the population of undocumented Mexican immigrants fell by more than one million from its 6.9 million peak in 2007, the number of undocumented immigrants from Asia, Central America, and sub-Saharan Africa remained relatively steady as of 2014 and even increased in some cases. For example, the population of unauthorized immigrants from India rose by about 130,000 between 2009 and 2014. However, a lot of this type of unauthorized immigration is a result of overstayed visas rather than from people crossing the border without a visa.

What do these numbers suggest about the future? It is likely that the flows of undocumented immigrant labor between Mexico and the United States reflect differences in demographic patterns and economic opportunities between the two economies. In the United States, the baby boom came to an abrupt halt in the 1960s, causing a notable slowdown in the native-born labor supply two decades later. In contrast, Mexico's fertility rate remained high for much longer, hovering at 6.7 births per woman in 1970 versus 2.5 in the United States (see chart 3).

Mexico's labor force expanded rapidly during the 1980s, which, juxtaposed with the Mexican economic slump of the early 1980s, unleashed a wave of Mexican migration to the United States (Hanson and McIntosh, 2010Off-site link). Also encouraging this flow was the steady U.S. economic growth during the "Great Moderation" period from the mid-1980s up through 2007 (Bernanke, 2004Off-site link). More recently, however, Mexico's fertility rate has fallen (as in some Central American economies), and economic growth there has mostly outpaced that of the United States. Therefore, it is perhaps not too surprising that demographic trends—along with greater enforcement—have caused the inflows of undocumented migration at the U.S.-Mexico border to slow in recent years. Shifts in demographic and economic factors across countries are likely to continue to influence undocumented immigration in the United States.

Note: The views expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Federal Reserve Banks of Atlanta or Boston.

October 5, 2016 | Permalink | Comments (1)

September 30, 2016

A Quick Pay Check: Wage Growth of Full-Time and Part-Time Workers

In the last macroblog post we introduced the new version of the nominal Wage Growth Tracker, which allows a look back as far as 1983. We have also produced various cuts of these data comparable to the ones on the Wage Growth Tracker web page to look at the wage dynamics of various types of workers. One of the data cuts compares the median wage growth of people working full-time and part-time jobs. As we have highlighted previously, the median wage growth of part-time workers slowed by significantly more than full-time workers in the wake of the Great Recession. The extended time series allows us to look back farther to see if this phenomenon was truly unique.

The following chart shows the extended full-time/part-time median wage growth time series at an annual frequency.


The chart shows that the median wage increase for part-time workers is generally lower than for full-time workers, with the average gap about 1 percentage point. The reason for the presence of a gap is a bit puzzling. Could it be that part-time workers have lower average productivity growth than full-time workers? It is true that a part-time worker in our data set is more likely to lack a college degree than a full-time worker, and the median wage level for part-time workers is lower than for full-time workers. But interestingly, a reasonably systematic wage growth gap still exists after controlling for differences in the education and age of workers. So even highly educated prime-age, part-time workers tend to have lower median wage growth than their full-time counterparts. If it's a productivity story, its subtext is not easily captured by observed differences in education and experience.

Changes in economic conditions might also be playing a role. The wage growth gap exceeded 2 percentage points in the early 1980s and again between 2011 and 2013, both periods of considerable excess slack in the labor market, as we recently discussed here. In fact, in each of 2011, 2012, and 2013, half of the part-time workers in our dataset experienced no increase in their rate of pay at all.

To explore this possibility further, it's useful to separate part-time workers into those who work part-time because of economic conditions (for example, because of slack work conditions at their employer or their inability to find full-time work) from those who work part-time for noneconomic reasons (for example, because they have family responsibilities or because they are also in school). The following chart shows the median wage growth for full-time, voluntary part-time, and involuntary part-time workers.


Admittedly, there are not that many observations on involuntary part-time workers in our data set. But it does appear that their median wage growth has tended to slow by more after economic downturns than those working part-time for a noneconomic reason—at least prior to the Great Recession. After the last recession, however, the wage growth gap was just about as large for both types of part-time workers. In that sense, the impact of the last recession on the median wage growth of regular part-time workers was quite unusual.

Since 2013, median wage growth for part-time workers has been rising, which is good news for those workers and consistent with the labor market becoming tighter. With the unemployment rate reasonably low, employers might have to worry a bit more about retaining and attracting part-time staff than they did a few years ago.

September 30, 2016 | Permalink | Comments (2)

September 27, 2016

Back to the '80s, Courtesy of the Wage Growth Tracker

Things have been a wee bit quiet in macroblog land the last few weeks, chiefly because our time has been devoted to two exciting new projects. The first is a refresh of our labor force dynamics website, which will feature a nifty tool for looking at the main reasons behind changes in labor force participation for different age groups. More on that later.

The other project has been adding more history to our Wage Growth Tracker. The tracker's current time series starts in 1997. The chart below shows an extended version of the tracker that starts in 1983.


Recall that the Wage Growth Tracker depicts the median of the distribution of 12-month changes of matched nominal hourly earnings. In the extended time series, you'll notice two gaps, which resulted from the U.S. Census Bureau scrambling the identifiers in its Current Population Survey. For those two periods, you'll have to use your imagination and make some inferences.

As we have emphasized previously, the Wage Growth Tracker is not a direct measure of the typical change in overall wage costs because it only looks at (more or less) continuously employed workers. But it should reflect the amount of excess slack in the labor market. This point is illustrated in the following chart, which compares the Wage Growth Tracker with the unemployment gap computed from the Congressional Budget Office's (CBO) estimate of the long-run natural rate of unemployment.


As the chart shows, our measure of nominal wage growth has historically tracked the cyclical movement in the unemployment rate gap estimate fairly well, at least since the mid-1980s. We think this feature is potentially important, because the true unemployment rate gap is very hard to know in real time and hence is subject to potentially large revision. For example, in real time, the unemployment rate was estimated to have fallen below the natural rate in the fourth quarter of 1994, but it is now thought to have not breached the natural rate until the first quarter of 1997—more than two years later. The Wage Growth Tracker is not subject to revision (although it is subject to a small amount of sampling uncertainty) and hence could be useful in evaluating the reliability of the unemployment rate gap estimate in real time.

This also is important from a monetary policy perspective if we are worried about the risk of the economy overheating. For example, President Rosengren of the Boston Fed described why he dissented at the most recent Federal Open Market Committee meeting in favor of a quarter-point increase in the target range for the federal funds rate. His dissent, he said, arose partly from his concern that the economy may overheat and drive unemployment below a level he believes is sustainable.

Currently, the CBO estimate of the unemployment rate gap looks like it is plateauing at close to zero. The fact that the Wage Growth Tracker for the third quarter slowed a bit is consistent with that. But it's only one quarter of data, and so we'll closely monitor the Wage Growth Tracker in the coming months to see what it suggests about the actual unemployment rate gap. We'll discuss what observations we make here.

September 27, 2016 | Permalink | Comments (1)

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