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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.

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


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Major problems with U6 include the fact that someone working 34 hours but wants to work 35 or more is considered unemployed (not partially unemployed) -- a very loose definition of an unemployed person. Also, some policymakers conflate marginally attached with discouraged workers. Only one-third of the marginally attached are discouraged about job prospects (the other two-thirds didn't look for work because of illness, school, etc. -- i.e., for reasons monetary policy cannot address). So there are very good reasons for President Bullard's objective function to be based on U3 rather than U6. Additionally, what policymakers should consider, to follow through with your analogy, is when you arrive at your destination should you still have the accelerator pressed to the floor? Or does it not make sense to let off of the gas a bit as you approach your destination (to avoid driving the minivan right through your home).

Posted by: Conrad DeQuadros | August 14, 2014 at 12:57 PM

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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


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I think one of your axes on the lollipop charts are mislabeled.

They both read % employed that are PTNER; shouldn't one of them read % employed that are PTER?


Posted by: Heidi | July 18, 2014 at 05:11 PM

We noticed that, and we made that fix shortly after the chart's initial posting. We appreciate your close reading of the data!

Posted by: macroblog | July 21, 2014 at 03:45 PM

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June 20, 2014

The Wrong Question?

Just before Wednesday's confirmation from Fed Chairwoman Janet Yellen that the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) does indeed still see slack in the labor market, Jon Hilsenrath and Victoria McGrane posted a Wall Street Journal article calling notice to the state of debate:

Nearly four-fifths of those who became long-term unemployed during the worst period of the downturn have since migrated to the fringes of the job market, a recent study shows, rarely seeking work, taking part-time posts or bouncing between unsteady jobs. Only one in five, according to the study, has returned to lasting full-time work since 2008.

Deliberations over the nature of the long-term unemployed are particularly lively within the Federal Reserve.... Fed officials face a conundrum: Should they keep trying to spur economic growth and hiring by holding short-term interest rates near zero, or will those low rates eventually spark inflation without helping those long out of work?

The article goes on to provide a nice summary of the ongoing back-and-forth among economists on whether the key determinant of slack in the labor market is the long-term unemployed or the short-term unemployed. Included in that summary, checking in on the side of "both," is research by Chris Smith at the Federal Reserve Board of Governors.

We are fans of Smith's work, but think that the Wall Street Journal summary buries its own lede by focusing on the long-term/short-term unemployment distinction rather than on what we think is the more important part of the story: In Hilsenrath and McGrane's words, those "taking part-time posts."

We are specifically talking about the group officially designated as part-time for economic reasons (PTER). This is the group of people in the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics' Household Survey who report they worked less than 35 hours in the reference week due to an economic reason such as slack work or business conditions.

We have previously noted that the long-term unemployed have been disproportionately landing in PTER jobs. We have also previously argued that PTER emerges as a key negative influence on earnings over the course of the recovery, and remains so (at least as of the end of 2013). For reference, here is a chart describing the decomposition from our previous post (which corrects a small error in the data definitions):


Our conclusion, clearly identified in the chart, was that short-term unemployment and PTER have been statistically responsible for the tepid growth in wages over the course of the recovery. What's more, as short-term unemployment has effectively returned to prerecession levels, PTER has increasingly become the dominant negative influence.

Our analysis was methodologically similar to Smith's—his work and the work represented in our previous post were both based on annual state-level microdata from the Current Population Survey, for example. They were not exactly comparable, however, because of different wage variables—Smith used the median wage while we use a composition-adjusted weighted average—and different regression controls.

Here is what we get when we impose the coefficient estimates from Smith's work into our attempt to replicate his wage definition:


Some results change. The unemployment variables, short-term or long-term, no longer show up as a drag in wage growth. The group of workers designated as "discouraged" do appear to be pulling down wage growth and in ways that are distinct from the larger group of marginally attached. (That is in contrast to arguments some of us have previously made in macroblog that looked at the propensity of the marginally attached to find employment.)

It is not unusual to see results flip around a bit in statistical work as this or that variable is changed, or as the structure of the empirical specifications is tweaked. It is a robustness issue that should always be acknowledged. But what does appear to emerge as a consistent negative influence on wage growth? PTER.

None of this means that the short-term/long-term unemployment debate is unimportant. The statistics are not strong enough for us to be ruling things out categorically. Furthermore, that debate has raised some really interesting questions, such as Glenn Rudebusch and John Williams's recent suggestion that the definition of economic slack relevant for the FOMC's employment mandate may be different from the definition appropriate to the FOMC's price stability mandate.

Our message is pretty simple and modest, but we think important. Whatever your definition of slack, it really ought to include PTER. If not, you are probably asking the wrong question.

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


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


June 20, 2014 in Employment, Labor Markets, Unemployment | Permalink


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June 09, 2014

Looking Beyond the Job-Finding Rate: The Difficulty of Finding Full-Time Work

Despite Friday´s report of a further solid increase in payroll employment, the utilization picture for the official labor force remains mixed. The rate of short-term and long-term unemployment as well as the share of the labor force working part time who want to work full time (a cohort also referred to as working part time for economic reasons, or PTER) rose during the recession.

The short-term unemployment rate has since returned to levels experienced before the recession. In contrast, longer-term unemployment and involuntary part-time work have declined, but both remain well above prerecession levels (see the chart).

Alternative Labor Utilization Measures

Some of the postrecession decline in the short-term unemployment rate has not resulted from the short-term unemployed finding a job, but rather the opposite—they failed to get a job and became longer-term unemployed. Before the recession, the number of unemployed workers who said they had been looking for a job for more than half a year accounted for about 18 percent of unemployed workers. Currently, that share is close to 36 percent.

Moreover, job finding by unemployed workers might not completely reflect a decline in the amount of slack labor resources if some want full-time work but only find part-time work (that is, are working PTER). In this post, we investigate the ability of the unemployed to become fully employed relative to their experience before the Great Recession.

The job-finding rate of unemployed workers (the share of unemployed who are employed the following month) generally decreases toward zero with the length of the unemployment spell. Job-finding rates fell for all durations of unemployment in the recession.

Since the end of the recession, job-finding rates have improved, especially for shorter-term unemployed, but remain well below prerecession levels. The overall job-finding rate stood at close to 28 percent in 2007 and was about 20 percent for the first four months of 2014. The chart below shows the job-finding rates for select years by unemployment duration:

1 Month Job Finding Rate

What about the jobs that the unemployed find? Most unemployed workers want to work full-time hours (at least 35 hours a week). In 2007, around 75 percent of job finders wanted full-time work and either got full-time work or worked PTER (the remainder worked part time for noneconomic reasons). For the first four months of 2014, the share wanting full-time work was also about 75 percent. But the portion of job finders wanting full-time work and only finding part-time work increased from about 22 percent in 2007 to almost 30 percent in 2014, and this job-finding underutilization share has become especially high for the longer-term unemployed.

The chart below displays the job-finding underutilization share for select years by unemployment duration. (You can also read further analysis of PTER dynamics by our colleagues at the Federal Reserve Board of Governors.)

Share of Job Finders

Finding a job is one thing, but finding a satisfactory job is another. Since the end of the recession, the number of unemployed has declined, thanks in part to a gradually improving rate of job finding. But the job-finding rate is still relatively low, and the ability of an unemployed job seeker who wants to work full-time to actually find full-time work remains a significant challenge.

Photo of John RobertsonJohn 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

June 9, 2014 in Employment, Labor Markets, Unemployment | Permalink


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Excellent work.

Posted by: Larry Signor | June 21, 2014 at 08:04 PM

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June 02, 2014

How Discouraged Are the Marginally Attached?

Of the many statistical barometers of the U.S. economy that we monitor here at the Atlanta Fed, there are few that we await more eagerly than the monthly report on employment conditions. The May 2014 edition arrives this week and, like many others, we will be more interested in the underlying details than in the headline job growth or unemployment numbers.

One of those underlying details—the state of the pool of “discouraged” workers (or, maybe more precisely, potential workers)—garnered special attention lately in the wake of the relatively dramatic decline in the ranks of the official labor force, a decline depicted in the April employment survey from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That attention included some notable commentary from Federal Reserve officials.

Federal Reserve Bank of New York President William Dudley, for example, recently suggested that a sizeable part of the decline in labor force participation since 2007 can be tied to discouraged workers exiting the workforce. This suggestion follows related comments from Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen in her press conference following the March meeting of the Federal Open Market Committee:

So I have talked in the past about indicators I like to watch or I think that are relevant in assessing the labor market. In addition to the standard unemployment rate, I certainly look at broader measures of unemployment… Of course, I watch discouraged and marginally attached workers… it may be that as the economy begins to strengthen, we could see labor force participation flatten out for a time as discouraged workers start moving back into the labor market. And so that's something I'm watching closely.

What may not be fully appreciated by those not steeped in the details of the employment statistics is that discouraged workers are actually a subset of “marginally attached” workers. Among the marginally attached—individuals who have actively sought employment within the most recent 12-month period but not during the most recent month—are indeed those who report that they are out of the labor force because they are discouraged. But the marginally attached also include those who have not recently sought work because of family responsibilities, school attendance, poor health, or other reasons.

In fact, most of the marginally attached are not classified (via self-reporting) as discouraged (see the chart):


At the St. Louis Fed, B. Ravikumar and Lin Shao recently published a report containing some detailed analysis of discouraged workers and their relationship to the labor force and the unemployment rate. As Ravikumar and Shao note,

Since discouraged workers are not actively searching for a job, they are considered nonparticipants in the labor market—that is, they are neither counted as unemployed nor included in the labor force.

More importantly, the authors point out that they tend to reenter the labor force at relatively high rates:

Since December 2007, on average, roughly 40 percent of discouraged workers reenter the labor force every month.

Therefore, it seems appropriate to count some fraction of the jobless population designated as discouraged (and out of the labor force) as among the officially unemployed.

We believe this logic should be extended to the entire group of marginally attached. As we've pointed out in the past, the marginally attached group as a whole also has a roughly 40 percent transition rate into the labor force. Even though more of the marginally attached are discouraged today than before the recession, the changing distribution has not affected the overall transition rate of the marginally attached into the labor force.

In fact, in terms of the propensity to flow into employment or officially measured unemployment, there is little to distinguish the discouraged from those who are marginally attached but who have other reasons for not recently seeking a job (see the chart):


What we take from these data is that, as a first pass, when we are talking about discouraged workers' attachment to the labor market, we are talking more generally about the marginally attached. And vice versa. Any differences in the demographic characteristics between discouraged and nondiscouraged marginally attached workers do not seem to materially affect their relative labor market attachment and ability to find work.

Sometimes labels matter. But in the case of discouraged marginally attached workers versus the nondiscouraged marginally attached workers—not so much.

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

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

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

June 2, 2014 in Employment, Federal Reserve and Monetary Policy, Labor Markets, Unemployment | Permalink


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I think this note usefully shows that the categories of unemployment are vague, the distinctions arbitrary, but then we knew that. But what is to be done?

Posted by: Tom Shillock | June 03, 2014 at 03:05 PM

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May 09, 2014

How Has Disability Affected Labor Force Participation?

You might be unaware that May is Disability Insurance Awareness Month. We weren’t aware of it until recently, but the issue of disability—as a reason for nonparticipation in the labor market—has been very much on our minds as of late. As we noted in a previous macroblog post, from the fourth quarter of 2007 through the end of 2013, the number of people claiming to be out of the labor force for reasons of illness or disability increased almost 3 million (or 23 percent). The previous post also noted that the incidence of reported nonparticipation as a result of disability/illness is concentrated (unsurprisingly) in the age group from about 51 to 60.

In the past, we have examined the effects of the aging U.S. population on the labor force participation rate (LFPR). However, we have not yet specifically considered how much the aging of the population alone is responsible for the aforementioned increase in disability as a reason for dropping out of the labor force.

The following chart depicts over time the percent (by age group) reporting disability or illness as a reason for not participating in the labor force. Each line represents a different year, with the darkest line being 2013. The chart reveals a long-term trend of rising disability or illness as a reason for labor force nonparticipation for almost every age group.

Percent of Age Group Reporting Disability or Illness as the Reason for Not Participating in the Labor Market

The chart also shows that disability or illness is cited most often among people 51 to 65 years old—the current age of a large segment of the baby boomer cohort. In fact, the proportion of people in this age group increased from 20 percent in 2003 to 25 percent in 2013.

How much can the change in demographics during the past decade explain the rise in disability or illness as a reason for not participating in the labor market? The answer seems to be: Not a lot.

Following an approach you may have seen in this post, we break down into three components the change in the portion of people not participating in the labor force due to disability or illness. One component measures the change resulting from shifts within age groups (the within effect). Another component measures changes due to population shifts across age groups (the between effect). A third component allows for correlation across the two effects (a covariance term). Here’s what you get:

Contribution to Change in the Portion of the Population Who Don't Want a Job Because They Are Disabled or Ill

To recap, only about one fifth of the decline in labor force participation as a result of reported illness or disability can be attributed to the population aging per se. A full three quarters appears to be associated with some sort of behavioral change.

What is the source of this behavioral change? Our experiment can’t say. But given that those who drop out of the labor force for reasons of disability/illness tend not to return, it would be worth finding out. Here is one perspective on the issue.

You can find even more on this topic via the Human Capital Compendium.

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

Ellyn TerryEllyn Terry, a senior economic analyst in the Atlanta Fed's research department

May 9, 2014 in Employment, Labor Markets, Unemployment | Permalink


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I wish you had used different colors, its really hard to differentiate the years.

One wonders if there has been a commensurate increase in claims for disability.

As a percentage of the total people not in the labor force, disability as a reason has gone up from~10% in 1998 to ~13% in 2014. That seems like an awfully big jump. Other than an intervening recession, I am struggling to think of what might cause this as I cannot think of any policy changes to entitlement programs that would cause this.

Posted by: dwb | May 10, 2014 at 01:11 PM

I have a real problem with your label "people who don't want a job because they are disabled or ill." My husband is collecting disability insurance after a mental breakdown several years ago and subsequent bipolar disorder diagnosis. Its NOT that he "doesn't WANT to work" because of his illness that has no cure, its because he CAN'T work due to that illness. He has been mourning the loss of his dream career for 9 years now and would do anything he could to be able to work in his chosed field again. Its NOT his fault that his medication and therapy only goes so far in helping him to live a half-way normal life. There is NO CURE for this disease and he has a very hard-to-manage case according to his doctors who are doing everything they can for him, but don't demean him by saying he doesn't WANT to work, because he wants that more than anything and he always will.

Posted by: Susan Buchanan | May 12, 2014 at 11:20 AM

Some conjectures: 1) A rise in the entitlement mentality. 2) A rise in fraud. 3) More lax governmental oversight. 4) Changes in incentives for claiming disability. 5) Greater expectations of near-perfect health as a norm.

Posted by: Marvin McConoughey | May 14, 2014 at 07:29 PM

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April 17, 2014

Using State-Level Data to Estimate How Labor Market Slack Affects Wages

At a recent speech in Miami, Atlanta Fed President Dennis Lockhart had this to say:

Wage growth by most measures has been very low. I take this as a signal of labor market weakness, and in turn a signal of a lack of significant upward unit cost pressure on inflation.

This macroblog post examines whether the data support this assertion (answer: yes) and whether wage inflation is more sensitive to some measures of labor underutilization than other measures (answer: apparently, yes). San Francisco Fed President John Williams touched on the latter topic in a recent speech (emphasis mine):

We generally look at the overall unemployment rate as a good yardstick of labor market slack and inflation pressures. However, its usefulness may be compromised today by the extraordinary number of long-term unemployed—defined as those out of the workforce for six months or longer... Standard models of inflation typically do not distinguish between the short- and long-term unemployed, because they're assumed to affect wage and price inflation in the same way. However, recent research suggests that the level of long-term unemployment may not influence inflation pressures to the same degree as short-term unemployment.

And Fed Chair Janet Yellen said this at her March 19 press conference:

With respect to the issue of short-term unemployment and its being more relevant for inflation and a better measure of the labor market, I've seen research along those lines. I think it would be tremendously premature to adopt any notion that says that that is an accurate read on either how inflation is determined or what constitutes slack in the labor market.

The research to which President Williams refers are papers by economists Robert Gordon and Mark Watson, respectively. (For further evidence, see this draft by Princeton economists Alan Krueger, Judd Cramer and David Cho.)

The analysis here builds on this research by broadening the measures of labor underutilization beyond the short-term and long-term unemployment rates that add up to the standard unemployment rate called U-3. The U-5 underutilization measure includes both conventional unemployment and "marginally attached workers" who are not in the labor force but who want a job and have actively looked in the past year. The difference between U-5 and U-3 is a very close proxy for the number of marginally attached relative to the size of the labor force.

U-6 encompasses U-5 as well as those who work less than 35 hours for an economic reason. The difference between U-6 and U-5 is a very close proxy for the share of "part-time for economic reason" workers in the labor force. These nonoverlapping measures of labor underutilization rates are all shown in the chart below.

The series are highly correlated, making it difficult to isolate the impact of any particular labor underutilization rate on wage inflation (e.g., "How much will wage inflation change if the short-term unemployment rate rises 1.0 percentage point, holding all of the underutilization measures in the above figure constant?").

We follow the approach of Staiger, Stock, and Watson (2001) by using state-level data to relate wage inflation to unemployment in a so-called "wage-Phillips curve." Because the 2007–09 recession hit some states harder than others, we can use the cross-sectional variation in outcomes across states to arrive at more precise estimates of the separate impacts of the labor underutilization measures on wage inflation (see the chart).

Five-year state-level wage inflation rates for 2008–13, using monthly Current Population Survey(CPS) microdata, are shown on the vertical axis. The CPS microdata are also used to construct all of the labor underutilization measures. Each circle represents an individual state (red for long-term unemployment and blue for short-term unemployment), and each circle's area is proportional to the state's population share. Two noteworthy states are pointed out for illustration. North Dakota has had lower unemployment and (much) higher wage inflation than the other states (presumably because of its energy boom). And California has had higher unemployment and (somewhat) lower wage inflation than average. Even after excluding North Dakota, we see a clear negative relationship between wage inflation and underutilization measured with either short-term or long-term unemployment.

Because short-term and long-term unemployment are highly correlated (also apparent in the above plot), one can't tell visually if one underutilization measure is more important for wage inflation than the other. To make this assessment, we need to estimate a regression. The regression—which also includes both U-5 minus U-3 and U-6 minus U-5—adjusts wages for changes in the composition of the workforce. This composition adjustment, also made by Staiger, Stock and Watson (2001), controls for the fact that lower-skilled workers tend to be laid off at a disproportionately higher rate during recessions, thereby putting upward pressure on wages. The regression also weights observations by population shares.

The regression estimates imply that short-term unemployment is the most important determinant of wage inflation while U-6 minus U-5—the proxy for "part-time for economic reason" workers—also has a statistically significant impact. The other two labor underutilization measures do not affect wage inflation statistically different from zero. Rather than provide regression coefficients, we decompose observed U.S. wage inflation for 1995–2013 into contributions from the labor underutilization measures, workforce composition changes, and everything else (see the chart).

Both short-term unemployment and workers who are part-time for economic reasons have pushed down wage inflation. But the "part-time for economic reason" impact has become relatively more important recently because of the stubbornly slow decline in undesired part-time employment.

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

April 17, 2014 in Employment, Labor Markets, Unemployment | Permalink


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April 08, 2014

A Closer Look at Post-2007 Labor Force Participation Trends

The rate of labor force participation (the share of the civilian noninstitutionalized population aged 16 and older in the labor force) has declined significantly since 2007. To what extent were the Great Recession and tepid recovery responsible?

In this post and one that will follow, we offer a series of charts using data from the Current Population Survey to explore some of the possible reasons behind the 2007–13 drop in participation. This first post describes the impact of the changing-age composition of the population and changes in labor force participation within specific age cohorts—see Calculated Risk posts here and here for a related treatment, and also this recent BLS study. The next post will look at the issue of potential cyclical impacts on participation by examining the behavior of the prime-age population.

Putting the decline in context
After rising from the mid-1960s through 1990, the overall labor force participation rate was relatively stable between 1990 and 2007. But participation has declined sharply since 2007. By 2013, participation was at the lowest level since 1978 (see chart 1).


For men, the longer-term declining trend of participation accelerated after 2007. For women, after having been relatively stable since the late 1990s, participation began to decline after 2009. The decline for both males and females since 2009 was similar (see chart 2).


The impact of retirement
One of the most important features of labor force participation is that it varies considerably over the life cycle: the rate of participation is low among young individuals, peaks during the prime-age years of 25 to 54, and then declines (see chart 3). So a change in the age distribution of the population can result in a significant change in overall labor force participation.


The age distribution of the population has been shifting outward for some time. This is a result of the so-called baby boomer generation—that is, people born between 1946 and 1964 (see chart 4). The oldest baby boomers turned 62 in 2008 and became eligible for Social Security retirement benefits.


At the same time the age distribution of the population has shifted out, the rate of retirement of older Americans has been declining. Retirement rates have generally been drifting down since the early 2000s (see chart 5). The decline in age-specific retirement rates has resulted in rising age-specific labor force participation rates. For example, from 1999 to 2013, the share of 62-year-old retirees declined from 38 percent to 28 percent. The BLS projects that this trend will continue at a similar pace in coming years (see table 3 of the BLS report).


Although the decline in the propensity to retire has put some upward pressure on overall labor force participation, that effect is dominated by the sheer increase in the number of people reaching retirement age. The net result has been a steep rise in the share of the population saying they are not in the labor force because they are retired (see chart 6).


Participation by age group
Individuals aged 16–24
The labor force participation rate for young individuals (between 16 and 24 years old) has been generally declining since the late 1990s. After slowing in the mid-2000s, the decline accelerated again during the Great Recession. However, participation has been relatively stable since 2009 (see chart 7). Nonetheless, the BLS projects that the participation rate for 16- to 24-year-olds will decline further, albeit at a slower pace than it declined between 2000 and 2009, and will fall a little below 50 percent by 2022.


The change in participation among young people can be attributed almost entirely to enrollment rates in education programs (see here) and lower labor force participation among enrollees (see chart 8). The change in the share of 16- to 24-year-olds who say they don't currently want a job because they are in school closely matches the change in labor force participation for the entire cohort.


Individuals aged 25–54 (prime age)
Generally, people aged 25 to 54 are the group most likely to be participating in the labor market (see chart 3). These so-called prime-age individuals are less likely to be making retirement decisions than older individuals, and less likely to be enrolled in schooling or training than younger individuals.

However, the prime-age labor force participation rate declined considerably between 2007 and 2013, and at a much faster pace than had been seen in the years prior to the recession (see chart 9). Reflective of the overall gender-specific participation differences seen in chart 2, the decline in prime-age female participation did not take hold until after 2009, and since 2009 the decline in both prime-age male and female participation has been quite similar. Nevertheless, the BLS projects that prime-age participation will stabilize in coming years and prime-age participation in 2022 will be close to its 2013 level.


The BLS projects that participation by age group will look like this in 2022 relative to 2013 (see chart 10).


Participation by youths is projected to continue to fall. The participation of older workers is projected to increase, but it will remain significantly lower than that of the prime-age group. Combined with an age distribution that has also continued to shift outward (see chart 11), the overall participation rate is expected to decline over the next several years from its 2013 level of around 63.3 percent. From the BLS study:

A combination of demographic, structural, and cyclical factors has affected the overall labor force participation rate, as well as the participation rates of specific groups, in the past. BLS projects that, as has been the case for the last 10 years or so, these factors will exert downward pressure on the overall labor force participation rate over the 2012–2022 period and the rate will gradually decline further, to 61.6 percent in 2022.


However, an important assumption in the BLS projection is that the post-2007 decline in prime-age participation will not persist. Indeed, the data for the first quarter of 2014 does suggest that some stabilization has occurred.

But separating what is trend from what is cyclical is challenging. The rapid pace of the decline in participation among the prime-age population between 2007 and 2013 is somewhat puzzling. Could this decline reflect a temporary cyclical effect or something more permanent? A follow-up blog will explore this question in more detail using the micro data from the Current Population Survey.

Note: All data shown are 12-month moving averages to emphasize persistent shifts in trends.

Update: The authors acknowledge a debt to Tomaz Cajner and Bruce Fallick for their influence on some of this material. We regret inadvertently omitting this acknowledgement in the original post.

Melinda PittsBy Melinda Pitts, director, Center for Human Capital Studies,

John RobertsonJohn Robertson, a vice president and senior economist in the Atlanta Fed's research department, and

Ellyn TerryEllyn Terry, a senior economic analyst in the Atlanta Fed's research department

April 8, 2014 in Business Cycles, Employment, Unemployment | Permalink


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I am having difficulty reconciling Charts 1 and 2 as chart 2 seems to suggest much lower total participation rates than are suggested in Chart 1. Any help much appreciated.

Posted by: James Thomas | May 28, 2014 at 01:30 PM

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March 18, 2014

Human Capital Topics Now Searchable

A little more than a week ago, all eyes were on the February Employment Situation report released by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The Establishment Survey surprised on the upside: nonfarm payrolls rose 175,000 in February, and payrolls were revised upward for December and January. The Household Survey indicated that the unemployment rate edged up slightly to 6.7 percent in February from 6.6 percent the prior month, and the labor force participation rate held steady at 63.0 percent.

These are some of the facts on the table as the Federal Open Market Committee meets today and tomorrow and, judging from recent comments from the folks who will be at that meeting, those facts (and more like them) will be very much front of mind.

These days, multiple tools are available to assist both casual and expert observers in navigating the rich and sometimes baffling story of labor markets in the post-Great Recession world. Just last week, you could find a new "Guide for the Perplexed" on labor market slack in The New York Times and an interactive feature on the "Eight Different Faces of the Labor Market" at the New York Fed's Liberty Street Economics blog. And that's not to mention the most recent update of the Atlanta Fed’s own 13-headed Labor Market Spider Chart.

All of these contributions reflect a great deal of effort to understand the story of what's happening in labor markets. As part of that effort, our colleagues across the Federal Reserve System have been taking deeper dives into employment statistics and reaching out into their communities to get a better understanding of labor force dynamics and workforce development issues. This research can be found on the various Reserve Bank and Board websites.

To facilitate access to that work, the Atlanta Fed's Center for Human Capital Studies has worked to bring those resources together in the Federal Reserve Human Capital Compendium (HCC). We are pleased to announce that we have recently enhanced the HCC so you can perform simple or advanced searches that allow you to research whatever facet of that research strikes your fancy (see the figure):

We encourage you to take your own deeper dive into the latest research across the Federal Reserve System by browsing the HCC or searching out those labor topics that have piqued your interest lately.

Photo of Whitney MancusoBy Whitney Mancuso, a senior economic analyst in the Atlanta Fed's research department

March 18, 2014 in Employment, Labor Markets, Unemployment | Permalink


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March 07, 2014

Thinking About Progress in the Labor Market

Today's employment report for the month of February maybe took a bit of drama out of one key question going into the next meeting of the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC): What will happen to the FOMC's policy language when the economy hits or passes the 6.5 percent unemployment rate threshold for considering policy-rate liftoff? With the unemployment rate for February checking it at 6.7 percent, a breach of the threshold clearly won't have happened when the Committee meets in a little less than two weeks.

I say "maybe took a bit of drama out" because I'm not sure there was much drama left. All you had to do was listen to the Fed talkers yesterday to know that. This is from the highlights summary of a speech yesterday by Charles Plosser, president of the Philadelphia Fed...

President Plosser believes the Federal Open Market Committee has to revamp its current forward guidance regarding the future federal funds rate path because the 6.5 percent unemployment threshold has become irrelevant.

... and this from a Wall Street Journal interview with William Dudley, president of the New York Fed:

Mr. Dudley, in a Wall Street Journal interview, also said the Fed's 6.5% unemployment rate threshold for considering increases in short-term interest rates is "obsolete" and he would advocate scrapping it at the Fed's next meeting March 18–19.

From our shop, Atlanta Fed president Dennis Lockhart echoed those sentiments in a speech at Georgetown University:

Given that measured unemployment is so close to 6.5 percent, the time is approaching for a refreshed explanation of how unemployment or broader employment conditions are to be factored into a liftoff decision.

That statement doesn't mean we in Atlanta are disregarding the unemployment rate altogether. We have for some time been describing the broader net we have cast in fishing for labor market clues. One important aspect of that broader perspective is captured in the so-called U-6 measure of unemployment, about which President Lockhart's speech gives a quick tutorial:

The data used to construct the unemployment rate come from a survey of households conducted by the Census Bureau for the Bureau of Labor Statistics. To be counted as a participant in the labor force, a respondent must give rather specific qualifying answers to questions in the survey...

Those who are available, have looked for work in the past year, but have not recently looked for work are labeled "marginally attached." They are not in the official labor force, so they are not officially unemployed. You might say they are a "shadow labor force"...

One measure that counts the marginally attached in the pool of the unemployed is U-6.

U-6 also includes working people who identify themselves as working "part time for economic reasons." These are people who want to work full time (defined as 35 hours or more) but are able only to get fewer than 35 hours of work.

The "shadow labor force" comment is based on these observations. First, in President Lockhart's words:

The makeup of the class of marginally attached workers is quite fluid. About 40 percent of the marginally attached in any given month join the official labor force in the subsequent month.

There is no new story there. The frequency with which people move from marginally attached to in the labor force has been stable for quite a while (see the chart):

President Lockhart's second observation regarding the marginally attached is more important:

But only about 10 percent of those who move into the labor force find a job right away. In effect, they went from unofficially unemployed to officially unemployed.

The chart below depicts this observation:

Relative to before the Great Recession, the frequency with which people transitioned from marginally attached to employment has fallen by about 5 percentage points.

That decline is related to this conclusion (again from President Lockhart):

Here's my point: what U-6 captures matters. Measures such as marginally attached and part time for economic reasons became elevated in the recession and have not come down materially. Said differently, broader measures of unemployment like U-6 suggest that a significant level of slack remains in our employment markets.

It is not that we have failed to see progress in the U-6 measure of labor market slack. In fact, since the end of the recession, the U-6 unemployment rate has declined about in tandem with the standard official unemployment rate (designated U-3 by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics; see the chart):

What is the case is that we have failed to undo the outsized run-up in the marginally attached and people working part-time for economic reasons that occurred during the recession (see the chart):

One interpretation of these observations is that the relative increase in U-6 represents structural changes that cannot be fixed by policies aimed at stimulating spending. But we are drawn to the fact, described above, that the marginally attached are flowing into the labor market at the same pace as before the recession, but they are finding jobs at a much slower pace, making us hesitant to fully embrace a structural interpretation.

Or, as our boss said yesterday:

As a policymaker, I am concerned about the unemployed in the official labor force, but I am also concerned about the unemployed in the shadow labor force. To get close to full employment, as I think of it, would involve substantial absorption of this shadow labor force. I do not think we're near that point yet. This is one of the reasons I support continuing with a highly accommodative policy and deferring liftoff for a while longer.

But if you are looking for some good news, here it is: Though the official unemployment rate has been essentially flat for the past three months, the broader U-6 measure that we are monitoring closely has fallen by half a percentage point. More of that, and we will really be getting somewhere.

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

March 7, 2014 in Employment, Labor Markets, Unemployment | Permalink


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What do you think of the fact that the Employment Population Ratio plummeted 5 percentage points from 2006/07 by 2010 to 58.2, where it pretty much has sat still?

56 straight months between 58.2 and 58.8, where it is today.

Posted by: BTN | April 02, 2014 at 07:10 PM

Hmm, well I just saw an older blog entry, so I'll look at that.

Posted by: BTN | April 02, 2014 at 07:16 PM

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