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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.


March 20, 2017


Working for Yourself, Some of the Time

Self-employment as a person's primary labor market activity has become much less commonplace in the United States (for example, see the analysis here and here ). This is a potentially important development, as less self-employment may indicate a decline in overall labor market mobility, business dynamism, and entrepreneurial activity (for example, see the evidence and arguments outlined here ).

Recessions can be particularly bad for self-employment, with reduced opportunities for potential business entrants as well as greater difficulty in keeping an existing business going (see here for some evidence on this). However, the rate of self-employment has been drifting lower over a long period, suggesting other factors are also playing a role in the decision to enter and exit self-employment.

One especially troubling development is the decline in the rate of self-employment for those in high-skill service providing jobs (management, professional, and technical services)—the people you might expect to be particularly entrepreneurial. For example, for workers aged 25 to 54 years old, the self-employment rate has declined from 13 percent in 1996 to 9 percent in 2016, and for those 55 years of age or older, the rate has dropped from 27 percent to 19 percent (using data from the Current Population Survey).

Not only are people in high-skill service jobs less likely to be self-employed than in the past, those who are self-employed are also less likely to be working full-time. The fraction usually working full-time has decreased from about 79 percent in 1996 to 74 percent in 2016. (The full-time rate for comparable private sector wage and salary earners has remained relatively stable at around 88 percent.) One possible explanation for the decline in hours worked is the last recession's lingering effects, which made it harder to generate enough work to maintain full-time hours. Another possibility is that more of the self-employed are choosing to work part-time.

It turns out that both explanations have played a role. The following chart shows the percent of part-time self-employment in high-skill service jobs. The blue lines are for unincorporated businesses and the green lines are for incorporated businesses. In order to distinguish cyclical and noncyclical effects, the chart shows the part-time rate for those who want to work full-time but aren't because of slack business conditions or their inability to find more work (part-time for economic reasons, or PTER), and those who work part-time for other reasons (part-time for noneconomic reasons, or PTNER).

In the chart, I classify someone as self-employed when that person's main job is working for profit or fees in his or her own business (and hence it does not capture people whose primary employment is a wage and salary job but are also working for themselves on the side). The self-employed could be sole proprietors or own their business in partnership with others, and the business may assume any of several legal forms, including incorporation. The chart pertains to the private sector, excluding agriculture, and part-time is usually working less than 35 hours a week.

On the cyclical side, the PTER rates (the dotted lines) rose during the last recession and have been slowly moving back toward prerecession levels as the economy has strengthened. In contrast, the PTNER rates (the solid lines) have moved higher since the end of the recession, continuing a longer-term trend. Choosing to work part-time has been playing an increasingly important role in reducing full-time self-employment in high-skill jobs. Note that there is not an obvious long-term trend toward greater PTNER for those self-employed in middle- or low-skill jobs (not shown).

Shifting demographics is one important factor contributing to the decline in average hours worked. In particular, the PTNER rate for older self-employed is much higher than for younger self-employed, and older workers are a growing share of part-time self-employed, a fact that reflects the aging of the workforce overall. (For more on the self-employment of older individuals, see here .) The net result is a rise in the fraction of self-employed choosing to work part-time. The higher rate of PTNER for the older self-employed appears to be mostly because of issues specific to retirement, such as working fewer hours to avoid exceeding social security limits on earnings.

The last recession and a relatively tepid economic recovery reduced the hours that some self-employed people have been able to work because of economic conditions. However, there has also been a longer-term reduction in how many hours other self-employed people (especially those in occupations requiring greater education and generating greater hourly earnings) choose to work. This increased propensity to work only part-time in their business is another factor weighing on overall entrepreneurial activity.

March 20, 2017 in Employment , Labor Markets , Unemployment , Wage Growth | Permalink | Comments ( 2)

March 02, 2017


Gauging Firm Optimism in a Time of Transition

Recent consumer sentiment index measures have hit postrecession highs, but there is evidence of significant differences in respondents' views on the new administration's economic policies. As Richard Curtin, chief economist for the Michigan Survey of Consumers, states:

When asked to describe any recent news that they had heard about the economy, 30% spontaneously mentioned some favorable aspect of Trump's policies, and 29% unfavorably referred to Trump's economic policies. Thus a total of nearly six-in-ten consumers made a positive or negative mention of government policies...never before have these spontaneous references to economic policies had such a large impact on the Sentiment Index: a difference of 37 Index points between those that referred to favorable and unfavorable policies.

It seems clear that government policies are holding sway over consumers' economic outlook. But what about firms? Are they being affected similarly? Are there any firm characteristics that might predict their view? And how might this view change over time?

To begin exploring these questions, we've adopted a series of "optimism" questions to be asked periodically as part of the Atlanta Fed's Business Inflation Expectations Survey's special question series. The optimism questions are based on those that have appeared in the Duke CFO Global Business Outlook survey since 2002, available quarterly. (The next set of results from the CFO survey will appear in March.)

We first put these questions to our business inflation expectations (BIE) panel in November 2016 . The survey period coincided with the week of the U.S. presidential election, allowing us to observe any pre- and post-election changes. We found that firms were more optimistic about their own firm's financial prospects than about the economy as a whole. This finding held for all sectors and firm size categories (chart 1).

In addition, we found no statistical difference in the pre- and post-election measures, as chart 2 shows. (For the stat aficionados among you, we mean that we found no statistical difference at the 95 percent level of confidence.)

We were curious how our firms' optimism might have evolved since the election, so we repeated the questions last month  (February 6–10).

Among firms responding in both November and February (approximately 82 percent of respondents), the overall level of optimism increased, on average (chart 3). This increase in optimism is statistically significant and was seen across firms of all sizes and sector types (goods producers and service providers).

The question remains: what is the upshot of this increased optimism? Are firms adjusting their capital investment and employment plans to accommodate this more optimistic outlook? The data should answer these questions in the coming months, but in the meantime, we will continue to monitor the evolution of business optimism.

March 2, 2017 in Books , Business Inflation Expectations , Economic conditions , Economic Growth and Development , Forecasts , Inflation Expectations , Saving, Capital, and Investment , Small Business | Permalink | Comments ( 0)

February 28, 2017


Can Tight Labor Markets Inhibit Investment Growth?

One of the most vexing developments of the current expansion has been the long and persistent reduction in the pace of business fixed investment (see chart 1).

The slide in investment spending evident in this chart has had a substantial impact on the pace of gross domestic product (GDP) growth in recent years and is also behind the slow pace of capital accumulation that has been a major factor in the slow labor productivity growth postrecession .

The other notable aspect of chart 1 is that employment growth has been robust during most of the recovery, and that growth remains robust. That sustained performance has taken the economy to the point where measures of labor market performance can be reasonably described as "close to a state of full employment."

Continued strong employment growth could sensibly support a relatively bullish story on investment going forward. As the table below shows, "high-pressure" labor markets—defined as periods when the official unemployment rate falls below the Congressional Budget Office's estimate of the "natural unemployment rate"—tend to be associated with strong levels of business fixed investment spending.

That said, we are taking note of some cautionary sounding from a special question about investment constraints on the most recent Federal Reserve Small Business Credit Survey, whose full results will be released in April. (The Small Business Credit Survey is a collaboration among Federal Reserve Banks and collects information from small businesses throughout the country. The 2016 survey was open from mid-September to mid-December, and generated more than 16,000 responses—about 10,000 of which were from employer firms.)

One of the survey's special questions was the following: What factors constrained your investment decisions over the past 12 months? The respondents were allowed to check as many factors as they deemed relevant and, perhaps not surprisingly, the collective answer was "a lot of things," as chart 2 shows.

Though there are a lot of contenders in that chart, it was interesting to us that the modal response (though admittedly by a hair) was an inability to find or retain qualified staff. It gets even more interesting when you focus on stable, growing firms—those that were profitable in 2016, are increasing payrolls and revenues, and have been in business for at least six years (see chart 3).

For this group—by definition, the most dynamic firms in the sample—perceived constraints on talent acquisition and retention is easily the largest issue when it comes to investment spending headwinds, independent of the size of the firm (measured by annual revenues). Indeed, more than 50 percent of the businesses with revenue in excess of $10 million identified the labor market as a problem.

We want to be sufficiently modest about interpreting these survey results. (The survey's full results will be released in April.) We have only asked this question once and therefore have no ability to compare with historical data. We also don't know for sure if firms truly are being constrained by their ability to find or retain qualified staff, or if respondents were simply identifying with that option as an issue with their business in general. But the idea that business investment could be constrained by access to talent is important for thinking about the growth potential of the economy. The possibility that education and workforce development efforts could have spillover effects into investment growth is intriguing.

February 28, 2017 in Employment , Labor Markets , Unemployment , Wage Growth | Permalink | Comments ( 0)

February 23, 2017


More Ways to Watch Wages

The Atlanta Fed's Wage Growth Tracker slipped to 3.2 percent in January from 3.5 percent in December. The Wage Growth Tracker for women was 3.1 percent in January, down significantly from what we saw in late 2016, when gains topped 4 percent. For men, the January reading was 3.4 percent, very close to its average for the past 12 months. As I noted last month, I did not think the unusually high female wage growth was sustainable, and that proved to be the case. Since 2009, the Wage Growth Tracker for women has averaged about 0.3 percentage points below that for men—the same as the gap in the latest data.

Understanding why the Wage Growth Tracker slowed last month highlights the importance of being able to look beyond the top-line number. To provide Wage Growth Tracker users with more information, we have now added several additional cuts of the data to the Wage Growth Tracker web page. The amount of detail we can provide is limited by sample size considerations, and as a result, the additional data are reported as 12-month moving averages. The new data provide more detailed age, race, education, and geographic comparisons, as well as comparisons across broad categories of occupation, industry, and hours worked. As an example, here is a look at the (12-month average) median wage growth data for those who usually work full-time versus those who usually work part-time.

Have fun with these new tools, and we encourage you to comment and let us know what you think.

February 23, 2017 in Employment , Labor Markets , Unemployment , Wage Growth | Permalink | Comments ( 1)

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