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

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

March 06, 2019

X Factor: Hispanic Women Drive the Labor-Force Comeback

The share of the prime-age population engaged in the U.S. labor market is on the rise, led by a sharp rebound in the labor force participation (LFP) rate by prime-age female workers (those ages 25–54). This point was highlighted in a recent Wall Street Journal article.

Since 2015 the LFP rate for prime-age women has increased by about 1.8 percentage points, reversing an almost 16-year slide. Using the data underlying the Atlanta Fed’s new Labor Force Participation Dynamics tool, some of the factors behind this increase become apparent. Of particular note is that Hispanics (people of Cuban, Mexican, Puerto Rican, South or Central American, or other Spanish culture or origin regardless of race) account for a bit less than one-fifth of the prime-age female population, but they accounted for almost two-thirds of the increase in female LFP during the last three years. This increase was the result of both a rising share of the population that is Hispanic and the rising LFP rate among Hispanic women. The share of the prime-age, Latina population increased by 1 percentage point between 2015 and 2018, and the LFP rate for this group increased 3 percentage points. (The reason why rising Hispanic LFP didn’t result in the overall female LFP rate increasing by more than 1.8 percentage points is because Hispanic women are still 8 percentage points less likely to be in the labor force than non-Hispanic women. But this participation gap is closing rapidly.)

The Atlanta Fed’s web tool also allows us to further explore what is behind the 3 percentage point LFP rate increase for prime-age Latinas in the last three years. (My Atlanta Fed colleague Ellyn Terry provides a longer-term view on Hispanic female labor force dynamics in this related macroblog post.) It’s particularly noteworthy that almost two-thirds of the recent increase is the result of a decline in family or household responsibilities keeping people out of the labor force (see the chart).

Contributions to Total Change by Nonparticipation Category: Women of prime ages of Hispanic descent with all education types from Q4 2015 to Q4 2018

This shift away from household duties is attributable to a combination of the shifting demographics of the Hispanic population (such as being more likely to have a college degree and thus obtaining a higher-wage job and being better able to afford child care) and a lower propensity to not participate for family reasons within Hispanic age and education groups.

The rebound in female LFP in the last three years is good news, with rising wages, particularly at the low end, and higher demand in traditionally female-dominated occupations contributing to the increase. But making the labor market a truly viable option for women still poses a number of challenges. The LFP rate of U.S. women has fallen behind that of many other countries, many of which have enacted family-friendly policies to help support women in the workplace.

March 6, 2019 in Employment , Labor Markets | Permalink | Comments ( 0)

February 25, 2019

Tariff Worries and U.S. Business Investment, Take Two

Last summer, we reported that one fifth of firms in the July Survey of Business Uncertainty (SBU) were reassessing capital expenditure plans in light of then-recent tariff hikes and retaliation concerns. Roughly 6 percent had already cut or deferred capital spending as a result of tariff worries.

Since then, tariff hikes and trade policy tensions have continued to mount, as recounted in the Peterson Institute's Trade War Timeline. U.S. stock market volatility also rose sharply in the last four months of 2018, partly in reaction to trade policy concerns. These developments led us to pose another round of questions about trade policy and investment in the January 2019 SBU.

We first asked each firm if tariff hikes and trade policy tensions caused it to alter its capital expenditures in 2018 and, if so, in which direction and by how much. We use the responses to estimate the net impact of tariff hikes and trade policy tensions on U.S. business investment in 2018.

Exhibit 1: Estimated Impact of Tariff Hikes and Trade Policy Tensions on Gross Capital Investment Expenditures by U.S. Businesses in 2018

We estimate that tariff hikes and trade policy tensions lowered gross investment in 2018 by 1.2 percent in the U.S. private sector and by 4.2 percent in the manufacturing sector. The larger response for manufacturing makes sense, given its relatively high exposure to international trade. In constructing these estimates, we consider firms that raised and lowered investment due to trade policy, and we weight each firm by its size.

To estimate the dollar impact of trade policy developments, we multiply the percentage amounts by aggregate investment values. The resulting amounts for U.S. business investment in 2018—minus $32.5 billion for the private sector and minus $22 billion for manufacturing—are modest in magnitude, in line with our forward-looking assessment last summer.

In January, we also asked forward-looking questions about the potential impact of trade policy worries on business investment. As reported in Exhibit 2 below, 20 percent of firms said they are reassessing their capital expenditure plans in 2019 because of tariff hikes and trade policy tensions, a share very similar to what we obtained in our forward-looking question last July. As before, manufacturing firms were more likely to reassess their capital spending plans due to trade policy concerns.

Exhibit 2: Share of Firms Reassessing Capital Expenditure Plans due to Tariff Hikes and Trade Policy Tensions

Exhibit 3 below speaks to the question of how firms have reassessed their capital expenditure plans. Here, too, results are similar to what we reported last summer, with one important exception. Among firms reassessing, more than half have either postponed or dropped some portion of their capital spending for 2019, compared to just 31 percent in July 2018. Thus, it appears that firms anticipate somewhat larger negative effects of trade policy developments on capital expenditures in 2019 than they did in 2018.

Exhibit 3: How Firms Are Reassessing Capital Expenditure Plans

All told, our results continue to suggest that tariff hikes and trade policy tensions have had a rather modest impact on U.S. business investment. Of course, tariffs and other trade barriers affect U.S. and foreign economies through multiple channels. Even if the near-term business investment effects of trade policy developments are modest in magnitude, trade barriers can disrupt supply chains, raise input prices, and lead to higher prices for consumer goods. That's important to keep in mind as the trade policy outlook remains murky.

February 25, 2019 in Capital and Investment , Economics , Trade | Permalink | Comments ( 0)

February 14, 2019

Trends in Hispanic Labor Force Participation

Although the labor force participation (LFP) rate has fallen significantly for the overall population during the past two decades, the trends can differ a great deal depending on which demographic group you examine. One way to view these varied, ever-changing patterns is to use the Atlanta Fed's Labor Force Participation Dynamics tool. We recently redesigned the tool, adding a new interface and more options for understanding specific demographic groups' LFP. The tool also allows users to see what factors (such as disability/illness, being in school, retirement, or family responsibilities) influence changes in the LFP rate for different groups.

While the tool shows us many stories, a particularly interesting one is the experience of people of Cuban, Mexican, Puerto Rican, South or Central American, or other Spanish culture or origin regardless of race (henceforth referred to as Hispanic). Hispanics are a growing share of the U.S. population (the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics [BLS] projects that nearly a fifth of the people in the labor force will be Hispanic by 2024, up from a tenth in 1994), and therefore Hispanics' differences in attitudes and preferences for work will exert an increasingly great effect on headline LFP numbers.

Let's parse the LFP rate among Hispanics. First, the Hispanic population is more likely to engage in the labor force than non-Hispanics. (In 2017, the LFP rate of Hispanics was 66.1 percent, compared to 62.2 percent for non-Hispanics). Second, their LFP has fallen by less during the past two decades.

The pictures below come from the redesigned tool. The first two charts compare the decline in the LFP rate for all ethnicities (Chart 1) versus Hispanic (Chart 2) as the combination of six nonparticipation categories. Each colored bar represents how much a particular category of nonpartipation has changed since the fourth quarter of 1998. The red line shows the summation of the change in each nonparticipation category, or the net change in the LFP rate. For example, the LFP rate overall has declined 4.2 percentage points (ppts) during the past two decades. However, among Hispanics, it has fallen significantly less—just 1.0 ppt. A comparison of the size and direction of each of the nonparticipation categories between the two charts shows many differences in the factors affecting the decline in the LFP rate of each group.



Because differences across ethnicity could reflect differences in their age distributions—Hispanics are younger on average than the population as a whole—it is important to control for this difference. Using the tool, it's easy to narrow this comparison to look specifically at 26–55 year olds.

In particular, the LFP rate for women of all ethnicities from 26 to 55 years old has declined by 1.0 ppt since 1998. In sharp contrast, the LFP rate for Hispanic women 26 to 55 years old has actually increased by 3.8 ppts. Compared to 20 years ago, this group is less likely to say they don't want a job because of disability/illness (1.1 ppt) and family responsbilities (1.4 ppt). This group is also less likely to be part of the shadow labor force (1.4 ppt) compared to two decades ago. (The shadow labor force, as we define it, is made up of individuals who say they want a job but are not considered unemployed by the BLS.) This article from the BLS delves into more detail about Hispanics in the labor force.



The LFP tool allows you to explore many other labor force stories. Users can cut the LFP data by three education categories (less than a high school degree, high school or some college, or associate's degree or higher), two age groups (26–55 or all ages), three race/ethnicity categories (white non-Hispanic, black non-Hispanic, and Hispanic) and for men and women. One thing that the tool makes clear is that the factors that influence individual decisions to work, look for work, or to pursue other activities vary across demographic groups, and each group's experience contributes to our understanding of movements in the overall LFP rate.

February 14, 2019 in Employment , Labor Markets | Permalink | Comments ( 2)

January 16, 2019

Quantitative Frightening?

I didn't coin the title of this blog post. It was the label on a chart of the Federal Reserve's balance sheet that appeared in an issue of The Wall Street Journal last week. I've led with this phrase because it does seem to capture some of the sentiment around what has become the elephant in the monetary policy room: Is the rundown in the size of the Fed's balance sheet causing an unanticipated, and unwarranted, tightening of monetary policy conditions? I think the answer to that question is "no." Let me explain why.

In June 2017, the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) determined that it was appropriate to begin the process of reducing the size of the Fed's balance sheet, which had more than quadrupled as a result of efforts to combat the financial crisis and support the subsequent recovery from a very deep recession.

As I noted in a speech last November, I see the Committee's strategy for shrinking the balance sheet as having two essential elements.

  • First, the normalization process is designed to be gradual. It was phased in over the course of about a year and a half and is now subject to monthly caps so the run-down is not too rapid.
  • Second, the normalization process is designed to be as predictable as possible. The schedule of security retirements was announced in advance so that uncertainty about the pace of normalization can be minimized. (In other words, "quantitative tightening" is decidedly not on the QT.) As a result, the normalization process also reduces complexity. Balance-sheet reduction has moved into the background so that ongoing policy adjustments can focus solely on the traditional interest-rate channel.

In his recent remarks at the annual meeting of the American Economic Association, Chairman Jerome Powell was very clear that the fairly mechanical balance-sheet strategy adopted by the FOMC thus far should not be interpreted as inflexibility in the conduct of monetary policy or an unwillingness to recognize that balance-sheet reduction is in fact monetary policy tightening.

I will speak for myself. Balance-sheet policy is an element of the monetary policy mix. The decision to adopt a relatively deterministic approach to balance-sheet reduction is not a decision to ignore the possibility that it has led or might lead to a somewhat more restrictive stance of monetary policy. It is a decision to make whatever adjustments are necessary through the Fed's primary interest-rate tools to the greatest extent possible.

I maintain that there is still wisdom in this approach. The effects of our interest-rate tools are much more familiar to both policymakers and markets than balance-sheet tools are. That, to my mind, makes them the superior instrument for reaching and maintaining our dual goals of stable inflation and maximum employment. It is my belief that reducing the number of moving pieces makes monetary policy more transparent and predictable, which enhances the Committee's capacity for a smooth transition toward those goals.

It should now be clear that nothing is written in stone. Whether the FOMC uses active interest-rate policy with passive balance-sheet policy or uses both instruments actively, policy decisions will ultimately be driven by the facts on the ground as best Committee members can judge, and by assessments of risks that surround those judgments.

In my own judgment, it is far from clear that the ongoing reduction in the balance sheet is having an outsized impact on the stance of monetary policy. I think it is widely accepted that one of the ways balance-sheet policies work is by affecting the term premia associated with holding longer-term securities. (There are many good discussions about balance-sheet mechanisms, including this one by Edison Yu, which can be found in the first quarter 2016 edition of the Philadelphia Fed's Economic Insights, or this article by Jane Ihrig, Elizabeth Klee, Canlin Li, Min Wei, and Joe Kachovec in the March 2018 issue of the International Journal of Central Banking.)

Lots of things can push term premia up and down. But one of the factors is the presumed willingness of the central bank to purchase long-term securities in scale—or not. The idea that running down the balance sheet tightens monetary policy is that, in so doing, the FOMC is removing a crucial measure of support to the bond market. This makes longer-term securities riskier by transferring more duration risk back to the market, which raises term premia and, all else equal, pushes rates higher.

Although estimating term premia is as much art as science, I don't think the evidence supports the argument that these premia have been materially rising as a result of our normalization process. The New York Fed publishes one well-known real-time estimate of the term premia associated with 10-year Treasury securities. But isolating and quantifying the effect of balance-sheet changes on term premia is challenging. It is possible that a number of factors, such as the continued high demand for U.S. Treasuries by financial institutions and a low inflation risk premium, might have dampened the independent effect of balance sheet run-off. But if the term premia channel is a critical piece of what makes balance-sheet policy work, I'm hard pressed to see much evidence of financial tightening via rising term premia in the data so far.

Lest anyone think I am overly influenced by one particular theory, I will emphasize that I am not taking anything for granted. In addition to my monitoring of developments on Main Street, I will be watching financial conditions and term premia as I assess the outlook for the economy. My view is that a patient approach to monetary policy adjustments in the coming year is fully warranted in light of the uncertainties about the state of the economy, about what level of policy rates is consistent with a neutral stance, and about the overall impact of balance-sheet normalization. This patience is one of the characteristics of what I mean by data dependence.

January 16, 2019 in Federal Reserve and Monetary Policy , Monetary Policy | Permalink | Comments ( 1)

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