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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January 21, 2010
It's jobs, not discouraged workers
Though they represent only a small fraction of the overall labor force (roughly 0.3 percent on average from 1994 through 2007), discouraged workers have received a good deal of attention lately (here, here, and here, for example) because of the dramatic increase in their numbers during the current recession.
The term "discouraged workers" refers to individuals who are out of the labor force and respond to Bureau of Labor Statistics surveys stating that they are not looking for work because they believe no work is available, could not find work, lack necessary schooling or training, or face discrimination based on age or other factors.
The run-up in the number of discouraged workers is of particular concern to some because of the possibility that all these people (an additional 522,000 since the beginning of the recession) will come flooding back into the labor market, driving the unemployment rate even higher as soon as perceptions of job prospects begin to improve.
Say these discouraged workers were to start re-entering the labor force in 2010. How many jobs would need to be created each month to absorb them? While there is a danger in taking stocks and trying to translate them into flows, this exercise does provide some framework with which to talk about the impact discouraged workers re-entering the workforce might have on the unemployment rate going forward.
In order to make that calculation, we need to make some assumptions about how quickly the discouraged workers might re-enter the labor market. Using the previous recession and recovery as a guide, discouraged workers might return to the labor market at a slightly slower rate than when they exited it. From the fourth quarter of 2001 through the first quarter of 2005 (the previous peak in the number of discouraged workers), the number of discouraged workers increased at an average quarterly rate of 3.4 percent. From the first quarter of 2005 through fourth quarter of 2007, the number of discouraged workers decreased at an average quarterly rate of about 2.7 percent.
Applying this same ratio (3.4 percent/2.7 percent) to the 19 percent average quarterly run-up between the fourth quarter of 2007 through the fourth quarter of 2009, we could see an average quarterly decline in discouraged workers of about 15 percent. This number suggests that, if we are at a new peak of discouraged workers, we could see 414,000 discouraged workers re-entering the work force in 2010, which would represent an average of around 34,500 workers per month. This number represents 0.02 percent of the U.S. labor force in December 2009. If these discouraged workers were the only workers joining the labor force, the economy would need to create roughly 30,000 jobs each month to keep the unemployment rate the same (10 percent).1
How quickly the discouraged workers will re-enter the labor force, holding everything else constant, is not necessarily the most important question. A more significant question is how quickly the overall labor force will grow. Employment would need to grow at the same rate as the labor force in order for the unemployment rate to remain at 10 percent, which amounts to roughly 91,000 jobs per month if we use the average annual growth rate of the labor force during the three years following the 2001 recession, which was 0.84 percent.
Bottom line: While not insignificant, the number of discouraged workers that can be expected to re-enter the labor market once job prospects turn around is only a small piece of the puzzle. More focus should instead be placed on the larger issue of job creation.
By Julie Hotchkiss, research economist and policy adviser, and Laurel Graefe, senior economic research analyst, both of the Atlanta Fed's research department
Footnote: 30,000 represents 0.02 percent growth in jobs that will be needed to absorb the 0.02 percent growth in the labor force that is reflected in the 34,500 number: (131 million)*(0.0002)=26,200, or, roughly 30,000
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January 13, 2010
The demand and supply of bank credit: A small business snapshot from the Southeast
In his recent speech, Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta President Dennis Lockhart highlighted concerns about the linkage between commercial real estate loan problems at banks and small business financing during the economic recovery:
"The overall commercial real estate debt in the financial system is smaller than residential, but it is disproportionately concentrated in small and regional banks. Smaller banks are a significant source of credit for small businesses, and in most recoveries we look to small businesses to generate a significant number of jobs."
President Lockhart also referenced the results of a survey of small business finances the Atlanta Fed conducted late last year.
"A recent small business survey performed by the Atlanta Fed suggested that business loan demand was down primarily because of weak sales and modest revenue prospects. The credit availability picture was mixed. No surprise, construction-related firms and manufacturers had the most trouble obtaining credit during the last six months. But others did well in having their credit needs met. Of more than 200 respondents, nearly half did not look for credit at all, mostly citing weak sales or sufficient cash reserves."
The survey President Lockhart was referencing was conducted in early December and included responses from 206 small businesses across the Sixth Federal Reserve District (the states of Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Tennessee) regarding their access to credit. The intent of the survey was to include some additional small business perspectives to supplement our other monetary policy information-gathering efforts.
The firms in the survey were contacts established through our Regional Economic Information Network. In that sense, the survey is not based on a pure random sample of firms. However, the industry distribution of respondent businesses was reasonably representative of the industry mix of the Sixth District (see the chart). The average firm size in the survey was about 22 employees, with around 40 percent of respondents having between one and nine employees.
So, how did businesses surveyed respond? Slightly more than half the respondents said that they had sought to obtain a loan or line of credit from a bank in the last six months. The primary reasons given by those seeking credit were to replace an existing loan (cited by 50 percent of those respondents) and/or to obtain additional working capital (cited by 45 percent of those respondents).
The degree of difficulty firms felt they had in obtaining credit was mixed, with about 60 percent of respondents saying they were able to obtain all or most of the bank credit they sought. The small size of the survey (206 respondents) limits the accuracy of any sector-by-sector comparisons. However, it is interesting to note that construction firms stood out as the business type that had the greatest difficulty having their demand for financing satisfied, with 70 percent of them saying they were unable to obtain the funding they sought. That percentage compares with 50 percent of small manufacturers surveyed and 25 percent of retailers responding they were unable to obtain the funding they desired.
Of those businesses that had not sought credit during the last six months, the dominant reason given was poor sales/revenue (cited by 55 percent of those respondents). Other reasons for not seeking additional credit included sufficient cash reserves.
Slightly less than half of respondents expected to try to obtain a loan or line of credit from a bank during the next six months. The reasons given for seeking credit (businesses could give more than one reason) included the need to replace an existing loan (cited by 43 percent of those respondents), the need for additional working capital (cited by 44 percent of those respondents), and the need to purchase equipment (cited by 21 percent of respondents). Among firm types, construction firms anticipated a higher demand for credit than others.
For respondents who were not expecting to seek credit over the next six months, the anticipation of poor sales growth was the most frequently cited reason (cited by 49 percent of those respondents).
There are plenty of caveats that should be applied to these results. For example, the survey respondents represent established, relatively successful firms. We could not, with this effort, capture the experience of firms that have recently failed (perhaps for lack of credit). Nor can we ascertain the businesses that were never formed because they could not obtain start-up funding.
Still, we believe the results of our survey are instructive. To the extent that the firms in our survey are representative, it appears most going concerns have been able to obtain all or most of the credit they need. What they don't have are customers.
Of course, this is a snapshot of current conditions, and things may change as the economy picks up, demand expands, and credit needs grow. And it would be very useful to know what the story is with those firms that have failed or were never created. We are consequently planning to conduct a follow-up survey as 2010 progresses. We'll keep you posted.
By John Robertson, vice president in the Atlanta Fed's research department
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January 11, 2010
When independence begets accountability
Today's online edition of the Wall Street Journal sums up the state of political play in the realm of monetary policy and central banking:
"Politicians are taking bolder actions to influence monetary policy, signaling that the global financial crisis may end up reining in the independence of many central banks…
"In the U.S., Congress has reacted to a tide of populist anger by calling for greater scrutiny of the Fed's actions. A bill with broad support among lawmakers would subject the Fed to more comprehensive Congressional audits and permit lawmakers to delve deeper into Fed decision-making. A Senate proposal would give lawmakers and the White House more say in the governance of the 12 regional banks scattered around the country."
By pure coincidence, Dennis Lockhart, president of the Atlanta Fed, offered his thoughts on these exact developments in a speech today before the Atlanta Rotary Club:
"I'm referring to the 'audit the Fed' amendments that were passed in the House and introduced in the Senate. The audits would be performed by the Government Accountability Office (GAO)… The Fed has no argument with audits in the conventional meaning of the term. We're already subject to many audits by the GAO and external auditors. In government, the word 'audit' can be misleading sometimes. GAO audits can amount to full-blown policy reviews. Fed operations outside of monetary policy are already subject to GAO policy review, so this proposal is about ad hoc, after-action reviews of monetary policy, potentially frequent. In my view, this notion is not about transparency and accountability. Both are bedrock principles to which the Fed should continue to be held. Rather, this is about politicizing a process that should remain apolitical."
The Journal article notes the consensus of students and practitioners of monetary policy…
"Independence is vital for effective central-bank operations, economists and central bankers say. Many decisions, such as raising interest rates to fight inflation, are politically unpopular but considered necessary to effectively manage the economy."
… a view on which President Lockhart elaborates:
"The Fed must have the capacity to make unpopular decisions—to take away the punch bowl, as it were. Many of you remember the circumstances of the early 1980s when the Paul Volcker–led FOMC acted against inflation. One should ask—would Volcker have been effective if the intense opposition to his policies was joined with formal, statutory methods of bringing pressure? The stakes in this issue are big."
The stakes are also big with respect to the second issue mentioned in the Journal article, the governance of the 12 Federal Reserve banks. Again, to President Lockhart:
"I am also concerned about ideas that have been floated that could have the effect—if taken too far—of politicizing the input of regional Federal Reserve Banks in policy deliberations. From its inception, the Federal Reserve System was designed to have checks and balances, to avoid concentration of power in New York and Washington, and to give every region of the country an apolitical voice in policy formulation.
"Let me explain how we work to give voice to people like you in the Southeast… I estimate [before each Federal Open Market Committee meeting] we get input directly or through directors from about 1,000 citizens in the Southeast on ground-level economic conditions and the impact of policy."
In many ways, that understates the role our Bank plays as a boots-on-the-ground, independent voice in the monetary policy process. In 2009, the Atlanta Fed president, first vice president, and Research staff members made more than 400 speeches to an aggregate audience approaching 30,000 citizens in the six states that we cover. We made this effort in the service of two objectives: First, to give the Federal Reserve System a personal face and to explain, as best we could, the hows and whys of Fed actions to a justifiably concerned public. Second, to collect intelligence and feedback, in real time, from the people making real Main Street–level decisions—to give, in President Lockhart's words, "voice to people" in the monetary policy process.
The district bank configuration of the Federal Reserve is the democratic footprint of the U.S. central bank. If ill-conceived legislation concentrates more power in Washington, that footprint will surely fade. And central bank accountability will not be strengthened. It will be diminished.
By David Altig, senior vice president and research director of the Atlanta Fed
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January 07, 2010
What's up with the young folks?
All eyes will be on tomorrow's employment/unemployment report, for good reasons. The relative strength of the report will provide yet more essential information on the likely strength of the still young recovery. But as the expansion continues, questions about long-run trends in labor markets will increasingly dominate thinking about what the nation should expect going forward. One important element in interpreting unemployment data is the trend in labor force participation, and it appears as if there are some significant open questions about what the trend looks like.
After growing during the 1980s and 1990s, the aggregate labor force participation rate (the percentage of the working-age population active in the labor market employed or looking for work) peaked in the late 1990s and is currently at levels last seen in the 1980s. But this change pales in comparison to changes in labor force participation among America's youth (those folks in the 16- to 24-year-old age range).
During the 1980s participation in the labor market for youth averaged around 68 percent, a rate noticeably higher than for older individuals. The youth participation rate declined sharply to a level at or below the level for older individuals prior to the 1990–91 recession and then remained relatively stable during the 1990s. However, over the past decade youth labor market participation has been on a steep downward trend and currently stands at a little over 55 percent, compared with about 67 percent for older individuals. Moreover, the most recent recession has seen youth participation rates decline at a rate similar to that seen in the early 2000s. In contrast, the labor force participation by individuals over 24 years of age has varied much less, implying that the decline in youth labor force participation has been a major contributor to the reduction in the overall rate of labor force participation (see the above chart).
It also appears that the decline in youth participation is most dramatic among teenagers, and for that group it is an equally sized decline for both males and females (see the next two charts).
Because schooling is an important activity for young people, the changing pattern of school enrollment is an obvious potential source of change in the labor force attachment of youths. In fact, the proportion of those between 16 and 24 enrolled in school has risen from about 42 percent in the late 1980s to nearly 57 percent in 2008 (BLS, October supplement to the Current Population Survey).
But being in school does not preclude labor market participation. In fact, increasing school enrollment is unlikely to be the only explanation because the increase in the school enrollment rate this decade is less than last decade. Between 1989 and 1998 enrollment increased from 48 percent to 54 percent whereas it increased from 54 percent to 57 percent between 1999 and 2008.
The big change appears to be that those in school have become increasingly less attached to the labor market. The percentage of school enrollees aged between 16 and 24 who are also participating in the labor market was relatively stable between 1989 and 1998 at around 51 percent. However, labor market participation by those in school declined between 1999 and 2008 from 50 percent to 42 percent. In contrast, labor force participation by those aged between 16 and 24 not enrolled in school has declined only modestly—from 82 percent to 80 percent between 1989 and 2008.
There are economic returns (benefits less costs) to both labor market experience and education. The decreased attachment to the labor market of school enrollees likely reflects, at least in part, factors such as the increased lifetime economic returns to education relative to alternative uses of time. As such, a widening wage premium on education is probably an important influence on youths' schooling choices, including schooling intensity. An example would be enrolling in educational programs during the summer instead of looking for summer employment.
It would be good news if increasing long-term rewards to engaging intensively in schooling was the important factor underlying the declining labor force participation by America's youth. Some alternative explanations for the decline could be much more troubling for America's future.
By John Robertson, a vice president in the Atlanta Fed's research department
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