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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.


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October 26, 2018


On Maximizing Employment, a Case for Caution

Over the past few months, I have been asked one question regularly: Why is the Fed removing monetary policy stimulus when there is little sign that inflation has run amok and threatens to undermine economic growth? This is a good question, and it speaks to a philosophy of how to maintain the stability of both economic performance and prices, which I view as important for the effective implementation of monetary policy.

In assessing the degree to which the Fed is achieving the congressional mandate of price stability, the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) identified 2 percent inflation in consumption prices as a benchmark—see here for more details. Based on currently available data, it seems that inflation is running close to this benchmark.

The Fed's other mandate from Congress is to foster maximum employment. A key metric for performance relative to that mandate is the official unemployment rate. So, when some people ask why the FOMC is reducing monetary policy stimulus in the absence of clear inflationary pressure, what they really might be thinking is, "Why doesn't the Fed just conduct monetary policy to help the unemployment rate go as low as physically possible? Isn't this by definition the representation of maximum employment?"

While this is indeed one definition of full employment, I think this is a somewhat short-sighted perspective that doesn't ultimately serve the economy and American workers well.  One important reason for being skeptical of this view is our nation's past experience with "high-pressure" economic periods. High-pressure periods are typically defined as periods in which the unemployment rate falls below the so-called natural rate—using an estimate of the natural rate, such as the one produced by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO).

As the CBO defines it, the natural rate is "the unemployment rate that arises from all sources other than fluctuations in demand associated with business cycles." These "other sources" include frictions like the time it takes people to find a job or frictions that result from a mismatch between the set of skills workers currently possess and the set of skills employers want to find.

When the actual unemployment rate declines substantially below the natural rate—highlighted as the red areas in the following chart—the economy has moved into a "high-pressure period."

For the purposes of this discussion, the important thing about high-pressure economies is that, virtually without exception, they are followed by a recession. Why? Well, as I described in a recent speech:

"One view is that it is because monetary policy tends to take on a much more 'muscular' stance—some might say too muscular—at the end of these high-pressure periods to combat rising nominal pressures.

"The other alternative is that the economy destabilizes when it pushes beyond its natural potential. These high-pressure periods lead to a buildup of competitive excesses, misdirected investment, and an inefficient allocation of societal resources. A recession naturally results and is needed to undo all the inefficiencies that have built up during the high-pressure period.

"Yet, some people suggest that deliberately running these high-pressure periods can improve outcomes for workers in communities who have been less attached to the labor market, such as minorities, those with lower incomes, and those living in rural communities. These workers have long had higher unemployment rates than other workers, and they are often the last to benefit from periods of extended economic growth.

"For example, the gap between the unemployment rates of minority and white workers narrows as recoveries endure. So, the argument goes, allowing the economy to run further and longer into these red areas on the chart provides a net benefit to these under-attached communities.

"But the key question isn't whether the high-pressure economy brings new people from disadvantaged groups into the labor market. Rather, the right question is whether these benefits are durable in the face of the recession that appears to inevitably follow.

"This question was explored in a research paper by Atlanta Fed economist Julie Hotchkiss and her research colleague Robert Moore. Unfortunately, they found that while workers in these aforementioned communities tend to experience greater benefits from these high-pressure periods, the pain and dislocation associated with the aftermath of the subsequent recession is just as significant, if not more so.

"Importantly, this research tells me we ought to guard against letting the economy slip too far into these high-pressure periods that ultimately impose heavy costs on many people across the economy. Facilitating a prolonged period of low—and sustainable—unemployment rates is a far more beneficial approach."

In short, I conclude that the pain inflicted from shifting from a high-pressure to a low-pressure economy is too great, and this tells me that it is important for the Fed to beware the potential for the economy overheating.

Formulating monetary policy would all be a lot easier, of course, if we were certain about the actual natural rate of unemployment. But we are not. The CBO has an estimate—currently 4.5 percent. The FOMC produces projections, and other forecasters produce estimates of what it thinks the unemployment rate would be over the longer run.

For my part, I estimate that the natural rate is closer to 4 percent, and given the current absence of accelerating inflationary pressures, we can't completely dismiss the possibility that the natural rate is even lower. Nonetheless, with the unemployment rate currently at 3.7 percent, it seems likely that we're at least at our full employment mandate.

So, what is this policymaker to do? Back to my speech:

"My thinking will be informed by the evolution of the incoming data and from what I'm able to glean from my business contacts. And while I wrestle with that choice, one thing seems clear: there is little reason to keep our foot on the gas pedal."

October 26, 2018 in Economic conditions, Federal Reserve and Monetary Policy, Monetary Policy | Permalink

Comments

Good grief, I nearly fell out of my chair at reading . . . the important thing about high-pressure economies is that, virtually without exception, they are followed by a recession.

Basically, the fed raise rates until the economy stumbles. Once people cant find work, then blame the recession on too many people having found work, e.g. as the proximate cause.

Horse, cart, anyone?

Posted by: John Beech | October 28, 2018 at 09:04 AM

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October 01, 2018


Demographically Adjusting the Wage Growth Tracker

In a recent report, the Council of Economic Advisers (CEA) referred to the Atlanta Fed's Wage Growth Tracker, noting its usefulness as a people-constant measure of wage growth because it looks at the over-the-year changes in the wages for a given set of individual workers. The CEA's preferred version of the Wage Growth Tracker is the one created by my colleague Ellie Terry and described in this macroblog post. It weights the sample of individual wage growth observations so that the worker characteristics resemble the population of wage and salary earners in every month. However, the CEA report also noted that this measure does not adjust for the fact that the characteristics of wage and salary earners have changed over time.

The following table, which shows the percent of workers in different age groups for three years (in three different decades), illustrates this point. The statistics are shown for the unweighted Wage Growth Tracker sample (the green columns), and for the population of wage and salary earners (the blue columns).

 

Wage Growth Tracker Sample

Wage and Salary Earner Population

 

16-24

25-54

55+

16-24

25-54

55+

1997

10.0

77.8

12.2

15.5

73.3

11.2

2007

8.5

71.7

19.8

14.1

69.2

16.7

2017

7.5

65.8

26.7

12.8

65.1

22.1

Source: Current Population Survey, author's calculations

The table shows that the Wage Growth Tracker sample in each year has fewer young workers (and more old workers) than does the population of all wage and salary earners, a fact for which the weighted version of the Wage Growth Tracker adjusts. However, the weighted version doesn't adjust for the fact that the workforce has also become older over time—the share of workers over 54 years old has risen nearly 11 percentage points since 1997.

Shifts in the distribution of demographic and other characteristics over time could matter for measures of wage growth because, for example, wage growth tends to be much higher for young workers. Young workers switch jobs more often, whereas workers aged 55 and older tend to have the lowest rates of job switching. Other changes in the composition of the workforce could also be important, such as changes the mix of education, the types of jobs, etc.

To investigate the impact of changes in workforce characteristics over time, we developed another version of the Wage Growth Tracker. This one weights the sample for each month so that it is more representative of the wage and salary earner population that existed in 1997. So, for instance, it always has about 15.5 percent aged 16-24, 73.3 percent aged 25-54, and 11.2 percent over 54 (the blue columns in the 1997 row of the table above).

As the following chart shows, the shifting composition of the workforce has put some additional downward pressure on median wage growth in recent years. That is, median wage growth would be even stronger if the sample each month looked more like it came from the population of wage and salary earners in 1997.

All three versions of the Wage Growth Tracker—unweighted, weighted to each month's workforce characteristics, and weighted to 1997 workforce characteristics—are available in the data download section of the Wage Growth Tracker web page. Which one you prefer depends on the question you are trying to answer. The monthly weighted version makes the Wage Growth Tracker more representative of the characteristics of the employed in each month, and in doing so gives young workers more influence, but it does not control for the fact that today's workforce has a smaller share of young workers than in the past. The 1997-weighted version fixes the workforce characteristics at their 1997 levels. It says that the median growth in individual wages would be higher than it is today if the composition of the workforce had not changed (other things equal). Nonetheless, any version of the Tracker you consult in the previous chart tells a pretty similar overall story: median wage growth is significantly higher than it was five or six years ago, but it hasn't shown much acceleration over the last couple of years.

October 1, 2018 in Employment, Labor Markets, Wage Growth | Permalink

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