The Atlanta Fed's macroblog provides commentary and analysis on economic topics including monetary policy, macroeconomic developments, inflation, labor economics, and financial issues.
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August 15, 2016
Payroll Employment Growth: Strong Enough?
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics' estimate of nonfarm payroll employment is the most closely watched indicator of overall employment growth in the U.S. economy. By this measure, employment increased by 255,000 in July, well above the three-month average of 190,000. Yet despite this outsized gain, the unemployment rate barely budged. What gives?
Well, for a start, there is no formal connection between the payroll employment data and the unemployment rate data. The employment data used to construct the unemployment rate come from the Current Population Survey (CPS) and the payroll employment data come from a different survey. However, it is possible to relate changes in the unemployment rate to the gap between the CPS and payroll measures of employment, as well as changes in the labor force participation (LFP) rate, and the growth of payroll employment relative to the population.
The following chart shows the contribution of each of these three factors to the monthly change in the unemployment rate during the last year.
A note about the chart: The CPS employment and population measures have been smoothed to account for annual population control adjustments. The smoothed employment data are available here. The method used to compute the contributions is available here.
The black line is the monthly change in the unemployment rate (unrounded). Each green segment of a bar is the change in the unemployment rate coming from the gap between population growth and payroll employment growth. Because payroll employment has generally been growing faster than the population, it has helped make the unemployment rate lower than it otherwise would have been.
But as the chart makes clear, the other two factors can also exert a significant influence on the direction of the unemployment rate. The labor force participation rate contribution (the red segments of the bars) and the contribution from the gap between the CPS and payroll employment measures (blue segments) can vary a lot from month to month, and these factors can swamp the payroll employment growth contribution.
So any assumption that strong payroll employment gains in any particular month will automatically lead to a decline in the unemployment rate could, in fact, be wrong. But over longer periods, the mapping is a bit clearer because it is effectively smoothing the month-to-month variation in the three factors. For example, the following chart shows the contribution of the three factors to 12-month changes in the unemployment rate from July 2012 to July 2013, from July 2013 to July 2014, and so on.
Gains in payroll employment relative to the population have helped pull the unemployment rate lower. Moreover, prior to the most recent 12 months, declines in the LFP rate put further downward pressure on the unemployment rate. Offsetting this pressure to varying degrees has been the fact that the CPS measure of employment has tended to increase more slowly than the payroll measure, making the decline in the unemployment rate smaller than it would have been otherwise. During the last 12 months, the LFP rate turned positive on balance, meaning that the magnitude of the unemployment rate decline has been considerably less than implied by the relative strength of payroll employment growth.
Going forward, another strong payroll employment reading for August is certainly no guarantee of a corresponding decline in the unemployment rate. But as shown by my colleagues David Altig and Patrick Higgins in an earlier macroblog post, under a reasonable range of assumptions for the trend path of population growth, the LFP rate, and the gap between the CPS and payroll survey measures of employment, payroll growth averaging above 150,000 a month should be enough to cause the unemployment rate to continue declining.
May 04, 2016
What's behind the Recent Uptick in Labor Force Participation?
The labor force participation rate had been generally declining since around 2007. However, that trend has partially reversed in recent months. As noted in the minutes of the March meeting of the Federal Open Market Committee, this rise was interpreted as further strengthening of the labor market. But will the increase persist?
As shown in a previous macroblog post, the dominant contributor to the decline in participation during the last several years has been the aging of the population. To see what's behind the increase in participation during the last few months, the following chart breaks the participation rate change between the first quarters of 2015 and 2016 into a part that is the result of shifts in the age distribution (holding behavior within age groups fixed), and the parts that are the result of changes in behavior (holding the age distribution fixed).
During the last year, the negative effect on participation attributable to an aging population (0.22 percentage points) has been offset by a 0.23 percentage point decline in the share of people who want a job but are not counted as unemployed (including people who are marginally attached). This decline is an encouraging sign, and consistent with a tightening labor market.
How much more can the want-a-job category improve? We don't really know. But that category's share of the population is currently about 0.3 percentage points above the prerecession trough of 2.0 percent. So at the current pace we would be at prerecession levels in about a year.
Despite the recent uptick, projections over the next decade or so have the labor force participation rate moving lower, chiefly because of an aging population. But how much farther participation actually declines will also depend on the evolution of various behavioral factors. The employment report for April will be released this Friday by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and it will be interesting to see whether the number of people on the margin of the labor force continues to shrink.
April 29, 2016
Is the Number of Stay-at-Home Dads Going Up or Down?
A recent Wall Street Journal post observed that most of the recession's "stay-at-home dads" are going back to work. Specifically, data from the U.S. Labor Department shows that the share of married men with children under 18 who are not employed (but their spouse is) rose during the recession and has since given back much of that increase, as the Journal's chart below indicates.
Of course, being a stay-at-home dad in the sense defined in the previous chart (that is, not employed) can be either involuntary because of unemployment, or it can be the result of a voluntary decision to not be in the workforce. Most of the variation in the previous chart is cyclical, suggesting that it is related to the rise and fall in unemployment. But it also looks like the share of stay-at-home dads is higher now than it was a decade or so ago. So perhaps there is also an increasing trend in the propensity to voluntarily be a stay-at-home dad.
To explore this possibility, the next chart shows the annual average share of married men ages 25–54 who have children and who say the main reason they do not currently want a job is because of family or household responsibilities. (This reason doesn't necessarily imply that they are looking after children, but it is likely to be the leading reason.) The fraction is very small—about 1.3 percent in 2015, or 285,000 men—but the share has more than doubled during the last 15 years and would account for about half of the elevated level of the stay-at-home rate in 2015 relative to 2000.
So although large numbers of unemployed stay-at-home dads have been going back to work, it also appears that there's a small but growing group of men who are choosing to take on household and family responsibilities instead.
October 05, 2015
Labor Report Silver Lining? ZPOP Ratio Continued to Rise in September
We have received several requests for an update of our ZPOP ratio statistic to incorporate September's data. We have also been asked whether the ZPOP ratio can be constructed from labor force data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
The ZPOP ratio is an estimate of the share of the civilian population aged 16 years and over whose labor market status is what they say they currently want (assuming that people who work full-time want to do so). A rising ZPOP ratio is consistent with a strengthening labor market. We constructed the ZPOP ratio from the microdata in the BLS's Current Population Survey, but we can also construct a very close approximation from the BLS's Labor Force Statistics data. Here's how (using data that are not seasonally adjusted):
- Take total employment, and add those not in the labor force who do not currently want a job. Then subtract those who were at work from one to 34 hours for economic reasons. The ZPOP ratio is this figure as a percentage of the civilian population 16 years and over.
The following chart shows the history of the resulting ZPOP ratio over 20 years, seasonally adjusted.
Unlike the headline U-3 unemployment rate, which remained unchanged from August to September, the seasonally adjusted ZPOP ratio improved slightly (from 92.0 to 92.1 percent). Relative to an estimated 230,000 increase in the population over the month, the improvement in the ZPOP ratio was the result of an increase in the number of people who said they do not currently want a job and a decline in involuntary part-time employment in excess of the decline in total employment.
Finally, the chart below shows the performance of the seasonally adjusted ZPOP ratio relative to the comparable employment-to-population (EPOP ratio) and the EPOP ratio for those aged 25–54. The relatively greater recovery in the ZPOP ratio since 2009 is primarily because the EPOP ratios do not adjust for the share of the population who say they do not currently want a job.
September 22, 2015
The ZPOP Ratio: A Simple Take on a Complicated Labor Market
In her press conference following the latest FOMC meeting, Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) Chair Janet Yellen emphasized that she still sees cyclical weakness in the labor market, even as the headline unemployment rate has moved close to FOMC participants' median estimate of its longer-run normal level.
She also noted that FOMC participants look at many different indicators of labor utilization, because the headline unemployment rate (commonly known as the U-3 rate) is overstating the health of the labor market. One alternative measure that has received some attention is the employment-to-population (EPOP) ratio. However, a well-recognized problem with the EPOP ratio is that because it defines utilization as employment, trends in demographic and behavioral labor force participation can affect it.
This problem is partially addressed by looking at the EPOP ratio for the prime-age population, or by making adjustments for demographic changes as suggested by Kapon and Tracy at the New York Fed and further analyzed by our Atlanta Fed colleague Pat Higgins. Here, we propose an alternative approach that uses a broader definition of utilization that makes it less affected by labor supply trends.
The Current Population Survey does not ask the question "are your labor services being fully utilized?" Therefore, we have to use our judgment to classify someone as fully utilized. The figure below shows the choices we make. We assume that everyone who says they are working fewer hours than they want is underutilized (the red boxes). This includes those in the labor force but unemployed, those not in the labor force but wanting a job, and those working part-time but wanting full-time hours (similar to the treatment of underutilization in the broad U-6 unemployment rate measure).
Everyone working full-time, working part-time for a noneconomic reason, and those who say they don't want a job are considered fully utilized (the green boxes). Of course, this takes the "don't want a job" classification at face value. For example, someone who is retired is counted as fully utilized, irrespective of the (unknown) reason they chose to retire.
As shown in the Chart 1 below, the share of the population 16 years or older that is fully utilized—what we call the utilization-to-population (ZPOP) ratio—is currently about 1.5 percentage points below its prerecession level, after having fallen by 6 percentage points during the recession.
Notice that because the ZPOP ratio treats those who are not employed and don't want a job as fully utilized, it is less affected by demographic and behavioral trends in labor force participation than the EPOP ratio. (You can learn more on our website about how demographic and behavioral trends are affecting labor force participation.) When compared with the EPOP ratio, the ZPOP ratio paints a somewhat rosier picture of labor market conditions (see chart 2).
In sum, the utilization-to-population (ZPOP) ratio is the share of the working-age population that is working full time, is voluntarily working part-time, or doesn't want to work any hours. According to this measure, about 91 percent of the working-age population is considered fully utilized. The remaining 9 percent are "underutilized" and are a roughly even mixture of the unemployed, those not in the labor force but wanting to work, and those working part-time but wanting full-time hours.
The headline U-3 unemployment rate is very close to its prerecession level but is thought to overstate the health of the labor market. At the same time, we think that the EPOP ratio overstates the amount of remaining labor market slack. The ZPOP ratio is in the middle; approaching its prerecession level but still with some way to go.
June 19, 2015
Will the Elevated Share of Part-Time Workers Last?
There seems to be mounting evidence that at least part of the elevated share of part-time employment in the economy is here to stay. We have some insights to offer based on a recent survey of our business contacts.
Why are we interested? A higher part-time share of employment isn't necessarily a bad thing, if people are doing so voluntarily. Unfortunately, the elevated share is concentrated among people who would prefer to be working full-time. Using the average rate of decline over the past five years, the part-time for economic reasons (PTER) share of employment is projected to reach its prerecession average in about 10 years.
This is significantly slower than the decline in the unemployment rate, whose trajectory suggests a much sooner arrival—in around a year. The deviation raises an important policy question for measuring the amount of slack there is beyond what the unemployment rate suggests, and ultimately the extent to which policy can effectively reduce it.
What are the drivers? Data versus anecdotes
Researchers (here, here, and here) have pointed to factors such as industry shifts in the economy, changing workforce demographics, rising health care costs, and the Affordable Care Act as potentially important drivers of this shift. But we can glean only so much information from data. When a gap develops, we generally turn to our business contacts who are participating members in our Regional Economic Information Network (REIN) to fill in the missing information.
According to our contacts, the relative cost of full-time employees remains the most important reason for having a higher share of part-time employees than before the recession, which is the same response we received in last summer's survey on the same topic. Lack of strong enough sales growth to justify conversion of part-time to full-time workers came in as a close second.
The importance rating for each of the factors was notably similar to last year's survey, with one exception. Technology was rated as somewhat important, reflecting an uptick from the average response we received last year. We've certainly heard anecdotally that scheduling software has enabled firms to better manage their part-time staff, and it seems that this factor has gained in importance over the past year.
The chart below summarizes the reasons our business contacts gave in the July 2014 and the May 2015 surveys. The question was asked only of those who currently have a higher share of part-time workers than they did before the recession. The chart shows the results for all respondents, whether they responded to one or both surveys. When we limited our analysis to only those who responded to both surveys, the results were the same.
Will the elevated share persist?
The results suggest that a return to prerecession levels is unlikely to occur in the near term.
The chart below shows employers' predictions for part-time employment at their firms, relative to before the recession. About 27 percent of respondents believe that in two years, their firms will be more reliant on part-time work compared to before the recession. About 7 percent do not currently have an elevated share of part-time employees but believe they will in two years. About two-thirds believe their share of part-time will be roughly the same as before, while only 8 percent believe they will have less reliance on part-time workers compared to before the recession.
The majority of our contacts believe their share of part-time employment will normalize over the next two years, but some believe it will stay elevated. Still, 2017 does not mean the shift will be permanent. In fact, firms cited a balance of cyclical and structural factors for the higher reliance on part-time. Low sales growth and an ample supply of workers willing to take part-time jobs could both be viewed as cyclical factors that will dissipate as the economy further improves.
Meanwhile, higher compensation costs of full-time relative to part-time employees and the role of technology that enables companies to more easily manage their workforce can be considered structural factors influencing the behavior of firms. Firms that currently have a higher share of part-time employees gave about equal weight to these forces, suggesting that, as other research has found, both cyclical and structural factors are important explanations for the slow decline in the part-time share of employment.
April 02, 2015
What Seems to Be Holding Back Labor Productivity Growth, and Why It Matters
The Atlanta Fed recently released its online Annual Report. In his video introduction to the report, President Dennis Lockhart explained that the economic growth we have experienced in recent years has been driven much more by growth in hours worked (primarily due to employment growth) than by growth in the output produced per hour worked (so-called average labor productivity). For example, over the past three years, business sector output growth averaged close to 3 percent a year. Labor productivity growth accounted for only about 0.75 percentage point of these output gains. The rest was due primarily to growth in employment.
The recent performance of labor productivity stands in stark contrast to historical experience. Business sector labor productivity growth averaged 1.4 percent over the past 10 years. This is well below the labor productivity gains of 3 percent a year experienced during the information technology productivity boom from the mid-1990s through the mid-2000s.
John Fernald and collaborators at the San Francisco Fed have decomposed labor productivity growth into some economically relevant components. The decomposition can be used to provide some insight into why labor productivity growth has been so low recently. The four factors in the decomposition are:
- Changes in the composition of the workforce (labor quality), weighted by labor's share of income
- Changes in the amount and type of capital per hour that workers have to use (capital deepening), weighted by capital's share of income
- Changes in the cyclical intensity of utilization of labor and capital resources (utilization)
- Everything else—all the drivers of labor productivity growth that are not embodied in the other factors. This component is often called total factor productivity.
The chart below displays the decomposition of labor productivity for various time periods. The bar at the far right is for the last three years (the next bar is for the past 10 years). The colored segments in each bar sum to average annual labor productivity growth for each time period.
Taken at face value, the chart suggests that a primary reason for the sluggish average labor productivity growth we have seen over the past three years is that capital spending growth has not kept up with growth in hours worked—a reduction in capital deepening. Declining capital deepening is highly unusual.
Do we think this sluggishness will persist? No. In our medium-term outlook, we at the Atlanta Fed expect that factors that have held down labor productivity growth (particularly relatively weak capital spending) will dissipate as confidence in the economy improves further and firms increase the pace of investment spending, including on various types of equipment and intellectual capital. We currently anticipate that the trend in business sector labor productivity growth will improve to a level of about 2 percent a year, midway between the current pace and the pace experienced during the 1995–2004 period of strong productivity gains. That is, we are not productivity pessimists. Time will tell, of course.
Clearly, this optimistic labor productivity outlook is not without risk. For one thing, we have been somewhat surprised that labor productivity has remained so low for so long during the economic recovery. Moreover, the first quarter data don't suggest that a turning point has occurred. Gross domestic product (GDP) in the first quarter is likely to come in on the weak side (the latest GDPNow tracking estimate here is currently signaling essentially no GDP growth in the first quarter), whereas employment growth is likely to be quite robust (for example, the ADP employment report suggested solid employment gains). As a result, we anticipate another weak reading for labor productivity in the first quarter. We are not taking this as refutation of our medium-term outlook.
Continued weakness in labor productivity would raise many important questions about the outlook for both economic growth and wage and price inflation. For example, our forecast of stronger productivity gains also implies a similarly sized pickup in hourly wage growth. To see this, note that unit labor cost (the wage bill per unit of output) is thought to be an important factor in business pricing decisions. The following chart shows a decomposition of average growth in business sector unit labor costs into the part due to nominal hourly wage growth and the part offset by labor productivity growth:
The 1975–84 period experienced high unit labor costs because labor productivity growth didn't keep up with wage growth. In contrast, the relatively low and stable average unit labor cost growth we have experienced since the 1980s has been due to wage growth largely offset by gains in labor productivity. Our forecast of stronger labor productivity growth implies faster wage growth as well. That said, a rise in wage growth absent a pickup in labor productivity growth poses an upside risk to our inflation outlook.
Of course, the data on productivity and its components are estimates. It is possible that the data are not accurately reflecting reality in real time. For example, colleagues at the Board of Governors suggest that measurement issues associated with the price of high-tech equipment may be causing business investment to be somewhat understated. That is, capital deepening may not be as weak as the current data indicate. In a follow-up blog to this one, my Atlanta Fed colleague Patrick Higgins will explore the possibility that the weak labor productivity we have recently experienced is likely to be revised away with subsequent revisions to GDP and hours data.
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March 06, 2015
Signs of Improvement in Prime-Age Labor Force Participation
This morning's job report provided further evidence of a stabilizing labor force participation (LFP) rate. After falling over 3 percentage points since 2008, LFP has been close to 62.9 percent of the population for the past seven months. Although demographics and behavioral trends explain much of the overall decline (our web page on LFP dynamics gives a full account), there is a cyclical component at work as well. In particular, the labor force attachment of "prime-age" (25 to 54 year olds) individuals to the labor force is something we're watching closely. Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta President Dennis Lockhart noted as much in a February 6 speech:
Over the last few years, there has been a worrisome outflow of prime-age workers—especially men—from the labor force. I believe some of these people will be enticed back into formal work arrangements if the economy improves further.
There are signs that some of the prime-age individuals who had retreated to the margins of the labor market have been flowing back into the formal labor market.For one thing, LFP among prime-age individuals stopped declining 16 months ago for women and nine months ago for men. By our estimates, declining LFP in this age category accounts for about one-third of the overall decline in LFP since 2007, so 25- to 54-year-olds' decision to engage in the labor market has a big effect on the overall rate (see the chart). Even with an improving economy, however, a turnaround in LFP among prime-age individuals might not occur.
The reason an improving economy might not reverse the LFP trends is that LFP for both prime-age men and women had been on a longer-term downward trend even before the recession began, suggesting that factors other than the recession-induced decline in labor demand have been important. But the decline in the "shadow labor force"—the share of the prime-age population who say they want a job but are not technically counted as unemployed—demonstrates the cyclical nature of the labor market. For the last year and half, the share of these individuals in the labor force has been generally declining (see the chart).
Moreover, the job-finding success of the shadow labor force has improved. Although the 12-month flow into the official labor force has remained reasonably close to 50 percent, the likelihood of flowing into unemployment (as opposed to employment) rose during the recession. But during the past two years, that trend appears to be reversing (see the chart).
The ability of the prime-age shadow labor force to find work is improving at the same time that the LFP rate of the prime-age population is stabilizing. Taken together, this trend is consistent with improving job market opportunities and further absorption of the nation's slack labor resources.For a more complete analysis of long-term behavioral and demographic effects on LFP for the prime-age and non-prime-age populations, see our Labor Force Participation Dynamics web page, which now includes 2014 data.
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November 20, 2014
For Middle-Skill Occupations, Where Have All the Workers Gone?
Considerable discussion in recent years has concerned the “hollowing out of the middle class.” Part of that story revolves around the loss of the types of jobs that traditionally have been the core of the U.S. economy: so-called middle-skill jobs.
These jobs, based on the methodology of David Autor, consist of office and administrative occupations; sales jobs; operators, fabricators, and laborers; and production, craft, and repair personnel (many of whom work in the manufacturing industry). In this post, we don't examine why the decline in middle-skill jobs has occurred, just how those workers have weathered the most recent recession. But our Atlanta Fed colleague Federico Mandelman offers an explanation of why this has occurred.
So how have workers in middle-skill occupations fared during the last recession and recovery? Let's examine a few facts from the Current Population Survey from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Only employment in middle-skill occupations remains below prerecession levels
Chart 1 shows employment levels by skill category (using 12-month moving averages to smooth out the seasonal variation). From the end of 2007 to the end of 2009, the overall number of people working declined by more than 8 million. Middle-skill jobs were hit the hardest, declining about 10 percent from 2007 to 2009. As of September 2014, the level was still about 9 percent below the 2007 level. In contrast, employment in low-skill occupations is 7 percent above prerecession levels, and employment in high-skill occupations is about 8 percent higher than before the recession.
For full-time workers (working at least 35 hours a week at all jobs) the decline in middle-skill occupations is even more dramatic. From 2007 to 2009, the number of full-time workers whose main job was a middle-skill occupation fell more than 15 percent from 2007 to 2009 and is still about 11 percent below the level at the end of 2007.
Those in middle-skilled occupations were most likely to become unemployed
In the 2001 recession, the chances of being unemployed after one year were similar for those working full-time in middle- and low-skill occupations. During the most recent recession, the likelihood of becoming unemployed rose sharply for everyone, but much more sharply for those working in middle-skill occupations. At the recession's trough, almost 6 percent of people who were employed in middle-skill occupations one year earlier were unemployed, compared with about 3 percent of workers in high-skill occupations and 3.5 percent of workers in lower-skill occupations (see chart 2).
Underemployment has improved only slowly at all skill levels
The share of people who are working part-time involuntarily about doubled for workers in low-, middle-, and high-skill occupations. For middle-skill occupations, the share rose from around 1.7 percent to 4.3 percent and is currently around 2.4 percent. For low-skill occupations, involuntary part-time employment increased from 2.4 percent to 5 percent and was still 3.8 percent as of September 2014. And for those in high-skill occupations, the chances of becoming involuntarily part-time rose from 0.8 percent to 1.8 percent and are now back to about 1 percent (see chart 3).
Ready for some good news?
Those who held middle-skill jobs are more likely to obtain high-skill jobs than before the recession
Currently, of those in middle-skill occupations who remain in a full-time job, about 83 percent are still working in a middle-skill job one year later (see chart 4). What types of jobs are the other 17 percent getting? Mostly high-skill jobs; and that transition rate has been rising. The percent going from a middle-skill job to a high-skill job is close to 13 percent: up about 1 percent relative to before the recession. The percent transitioning into low-skill positions is lower: about 3.4 percent, up about 0.3 percentage point compared to before the recession. This transition to a high-skill occupation tends to translate to an average wage increase of about 27 percent (compared to those who stayed in middle-skill jobs). In contrast, those who transition into lower-skill occupations earned an average of around 24 percent less.
In summary, the number of middle-skill jobs declined substantially during the last recession, and that decline has been persistent—especially for full-time workers. Many of the workers leaving full-time, middle-skill jobs became unemployed, and some of that decline is the result of an increase in part-time employment. But others gained full-time work in other types of occupations. In particular, they are more likely than in the past to transition to higher-skill occupations. Further, the transition rate to high-skill occupations has gradually risen and doesn't appear directly tied to the last recession.
Authors' note: The middle-skill category of jobs consists of office and administrative occupations; sales; operators, fabricators, and laborers; and production, craft, and repair personnel. The other two broad categories of occupations are labeled high-skill and low-skill. High-skill occupations consist of managers, technicians, and professionals. Low-skill occupations are defined as those involving food preparation, building and grounds cleaning, personal care and personal services, and protective services.
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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.
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).
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.
By John Robertson, a vice president and senior economist in the Atlanta Fed’s research department
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