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

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July 23, 2012

How big is the output gap?

It's fair to say, I think, that the question posed in the title of this blog post is at the heart of any monetary policy debate.

Here's how the discussion went at the June meeting of the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC):

"Meeting participants again discussed the extent of slack in labor markets. Some participants judged that the unemployment rate was being substantially boosted by structural factors such as mismatches between the skills of unemployed workers and those required for available jobs....One implication of the view that there is relatively little slack is that providing more monetary stimulus would be likely to raise inflation above the Committee's objective. Some other participants acknowledged that structural factors were contributing to unemployment, but said that, in their view, slack remained high and weak aggregate demand was the major reason that the unemployment rate was still elevated. These participants cited a range of evidence to support their judgment....These arguments imply that slack in labor markets remains considerable and therefore that a reduction in the unemployment rate toward its longer-run normal level would not have much effect on inflation."

If you want more specifics about these contrasting views, you might find recent speeches by some FOMC meeting participants helpful. Jeff Lacker, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, is pretty clearly in the "relatively little slack" group:

"It's worth noting...that the effects of unemployment insurance benefits together with the effects of labor market inefficiencies could plausibly account for a quite substantial portion of our elevated unemployment rate. The quantitative estimates of labor market mismatch come from independent methods and datasets and, in principle, measure conceptually distinct inefficiencies. We shouldn't necessarily assume these effects are additive, but combining all three together yields a range of 2.9 to 5.9 percentage points, which is sizable relative to the increase in the total unemployment rate of 5-½ percentage points during the recession."

Vice Chairman Janet Yellen is also pretty clearly on the other side of the debate:

"A critical question for monetary policy is the extent to which these numbers reflect a shortfall from full employment versus a rise in structural unemployment. While the magnitude of structural unemployment is uncertain, I read the evidence as suggesting that the bulk of the rise during the recession was cyclical, not structural in nature.

"Consider...the difference between the actual unemployment rate and the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimate of the rate consistent with inflation remaining stable over time...[the] index of the difficulty households perceive in finding jobs...[and the] index of firms' ability to fill jobs....All three measures show similar cyclical movements over the past 20 years, and all now stand at very high levels."

The positions outlined above lay bare why estimates of the output gap command such weight in the discussion of monetary policy—both ends of the FOMC's dual mandate of maximum employment and price stability may run through it. If the output gap is large, that is, if the level of gross domestic product (GDP) is running significantly under potential GDP, the economy is obviously not in a position of maximum employment. And if that is the case, the inflation trend is likely to be headed lower and so the price stability mandate may also be in jeopardy.

Where do I come out in this debate? That isn't important since I don't get a vote. But my boss, Dennis Lockhart does, and he laid out his position in a recent speech to the Mississippi Economic Council.

"I think the output gap—the amount of slack in the economy—is neither as sizeable as the high-end estimates, nor is it zero. If there were no slack at all, 8.2 percent unemployment would represent full employment. If this were so, the economy would have undergone profound structural change over the last five years. As I weigh the findings of research by Federal Reserve economists and others, I do not think a compelling case has yet been made that structural adjustment has played a dominant role in slowing growth and progress against unemployment.

"If, on the other hand, slack in the economy were close to the high estimates, we should have seen more and more persistent downward pressure on prices and wages than has, in fact, been the case. Deciding on the extent of the output gap is not straightforward. I believe the truth is in the gray middle."

To emphasize, this "gray middle" isn't a compromise but a weighing of the available evidence. If the GDP gap really is close to zero, the profound structural change that the economy ought to have experienced hasn't found great support in the data. But if this is just a bigger version of gaps of recessions past, then where is the great disinflationary pressure such slack would ordinarily imply?

You may have another view and, again quoting Lockhart's recent speech, "reasonable people can consider the issues...and come to different conclusions. "And if you're having trouble getting a grasp on GDP, potential GDP, and why the measurement of our national potential isn't an easy task, perhaps we can help. We've recently produced an educational video on the issue. It's not a deep treatment of the issue—in fact, just the opposite. It's a jumping-in point for those who are interested in the policy debate but haven't a clue what a GDP gap is. As always, let us know what you think.

Mike Bryan By Mike Bryan, vice president and senior economist in the research department at the Atlanta Fed

July 23, 2012 in GDP | Permalink


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well, the size of the output gap is mostly beside the point: we *never*, never know the size of the output gap. We didn't in 2007. We didn't in 1998, nor did we know it 1976. Pick a year, we didn't know it that year either.

So whether we know the size of the gap or not should not be relevant, since we've never actually known it. Nor do we know the lags or leads with which monetary policy affects the economy (i say leads, because we know planners set expectations so policy acts with a lead).

The name of the game is not to pick a policy target that corresponds to the size of the output gap, an unknown. The name of the game is to pick a policy that we know will have desirable outcomes *regardless* of the size of the output gap.

Another fact we know is that most people learn on the job. Back in the 90s during the IT boom, most people entering IT did had other backgrounds. Employers in the US generally train employees (even if they have a grad degree). When demand for labor is high enough, employers cant be as picky as they are now. There is no such thing as "structural unemployment" only low demand for labor.

Third, we know that the Federal Reserve cannot target import prices without raising unemployment. 80% of the gap between PCE and GDP deflator is correlated with *oil prices.* You know, the housing market was well into recession in 2008, when the fed left rates at 2% in sept 2008, because it was overly focused on an inflation measure highly influenced by oil prices.

When you add all this up: unknown potential output, weak aggregate demand, and inappropriate measures of domestic inflation, it all adds up to failed policy.

A far better policy over the last 5 years would have been simple nominal income targeting. Had the Fed simply targeted a 4.5% growth path and agreed to steer the nominal economy along that path, we would be in far better shape regardless of the size of the output gap. So-called deleveraging would be proceeding as a far more rapid pace.

Posted by: dwb | July 24, 2012 at 08:28 AM

Precisely how would income targeting work? The Fed controls interest rates, not the aggregate money supply. It has tried monetary targeting, interest rate targeting, inflation targeting, and yet we never see the results promised from said policies.

Posted by: Ben Wolf | July 24, 2012 at 02:14 PM

I think the combination of low demand for both consumers and businesses despite the very low interest rate environment, the acceptance of these same low interest rates on the part of investors, and the inability of labor to gain meaningful rises in wages all suggest a considerable amount of slack in the global economy in general, and the U.S. economy in particular. Indeed, if I am correct, if government austerity measures continue, inflation is practically an impossible outcome over the next couple of years. The debt overhang is simply too great.

Posted by: m ellenberger | July 26, 2012 at 06:05 AM

We have little correctable long term slack in my view. Our lower skilled labors now compete at historically unprecedented intensity with lower cost, adequately educated, foreign workers who enjoy the competitive access offered by shipping technology advances. This situation is apt to endure. The ongoing rise of computers and robotics will continue to erode labor needs in factories and even in forestry. The nation should enjoy a temporary bounce-back over several years as housing markets return to some degree of normalcy. But long term, we suffer from having a standard of living that exceeds our capacity to compete.

Posted by: Marvin McConoughey | July 31, 2012 at 01:13 PM

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