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.

September 08, 2016

Introducing the Atlanta Fed's Taylor Rule Utility

Simplicity isn't always a virtue, but when it comes to complex decision-making processes—for example, a central bank setting a policy rate—having simple benchmarks is often helpful. As students and observers of monetary policy well know, the common currency in the central banking world is the so-called "Taylor rule."

The Taylor rule is an equation introduced by John Taylor in a seminal 1993 paper that prescribes a value for the federal funds rate—the interest rate targeted by the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC)—based on readings of inflation and the output gap. The output gap measures the percentage point difference between real gross domestic product (GDP) and an estimate of its trend or potential.

Since 1993, academics and policymakers have introduced and used many alternative versions of the rule. The alternative forms of the rule can supply policy prescriptions that differ significantly from Taylor's original rule, as the following chart illustrates.

Effective federal funds rate and prescriptions from alternative versions of the Taylor rule

The green line shows the policy prescription from a rule identical to the one in Taylor's paper, apart from some minor changes in the inflation and output gap measures. The red line uses an alternative and commonly used rule that gives the output gap twice the weight used for the Taylor (1993) rule, derived from a 1999 paper by John Taylor. The red line also replaces the 2 percent value used in Taylor's 1993 paper with an estimate of the natural real interest rate, called r*, from a paper by Thomas Laubach, the Federal Reserve Board's director of monetary affairs, and John Williams, president of the San Francisco Fed. Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen also considered this alternative estimate of r* in a 2015 speech.

Both rules use real-time data. The Taylor (1993) rule prescribed liftoff for the federal funds rate materially above the FOMC's 0 to 0.25 percent target range from December 2008 to December 2015 as early as 2012. The alternative rule did not prescribe a positive fed funds rate since the end of the 2007–09 recession until this quarter. The third-quarter prescriptions incorporate nowcasts constructed as described here. Neither the nowcasts nor the Taylor rule prescriptions themselves necessarily reflect the outlook or views of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta or its president.

Additional variables that get plugged into this simple policy rule can influence the rate prescription. To help you sort through the most common variations, we at the Atlanta Fed have created a Taylor Rule Utility. Our Taylor Rule Utility gives you a number of choices for the inflation measure, inflation target, the natural real interest rate, and the resource gap. Besides the Congressional Budget Office–based output gap, alternative resource gap choices include those based on a U-6 labor underutilization gap and the ZPOP ratio. The latter ratio, which Atlanta Fed President Dennis Lockhart mentioned in a November 2015 speech while addressing the Taylor rule, gauges underemployment by measuring the share of the civilian population working their desired number of hours.

Many of the indicator choices use real-time data. The utility also allows you to establish your own weight for the resource gap and whether you want the prescription to put any weight on the previous quarter's federal funds rate. The default choices of the Taylor Rule Utility coincide with the Taylor (1993) rule shown in the above chart. Other organizations have their own versions of the Taylor Rule Utility (one of the nicer ones is available on the Cleveland Fed's Simple Monetary Policy Rules web page). You can find more information about the Cleveland Fed's web page on the Frequently Asked Questions page.

Although the Taylor rule and its alternative versions are only simple benchmarks, they can be useful tools for evaluating the importance of particular indicators. For example, we see that the difference in the prescriptions of the two rules plotted above has narrowed in recent years as slack has diminished. Even if the output gap were completely closed, however, the current prescriptions of the rules would differ by nearly 2 percentage points because of the use of different measures of r*. We hope you find the Taylor Rule Utility a useful tool to provide insight into issues like these. We plan on adding further enhancements to the utility in the near future and welcome any comments or suggestions for improvements.

September 8, 2016 in Banking, Federal Reserve and Monetary Policy, Monetary Policy | Permalink | Comments (0)

August 15, 2016

Payroll Employment Growth: Strong Enough?

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics' estimate of nonfarm payroll employment is the most closely watched indicator of overall employment growth in the U.S. economy. By this measure, employment increased by 255,000 in July, well above the three-month average of 190,000. Yet despite this outsized gain, the unemployment rate barely budged. What gives?

Well, for a start, there is no formal connection between the payroll employment data and the unemployment rate data. The employment data used to construct the unemployment rate come from the Current Population Survey (CPS) and the payroll employment data come from a different survey. However, it is possible to relate changes in the unemployment rate to the gap between the CPS and payroll measures of employment, as well as changes in the labor force participation (LFP) rate, and the growth of payroll employment relative to the population.

The following chart shows the contribution of each of these three factors to the monthly change in the unemployment rate during the last year.

Contributions to the 1-month change in the unemployment rate

A note about the chart: The CPS employment and population measures have been smoothed to account for annual population control adjustments. The smoothed employment data are available here. The method used to compute the contributions is available here.

The black line is the monthly change in the unemployment rate (unrounded). Each green segment of a bar is the change in the unemployment rate coming from the gap between population growth and payroll employment growth. Because payroll employment has generally been growing faster than the population, it has helped make the unemployment rate lower than it otherwise would have been.

But as the chart makes clear, the other two factors can also exert a significant influence on the direction of the unemployment rate. The labor force participation rate contribution (the red segments of the bars) and the contribution from the gap between the CPS and payroll employment measures (blue segments) can vary a lot from month to month, and these factors can swamp the payroll employment growth contribution.

So any assumption that strong payroll employment gains in any particular month will automatically lead to a decline in the unemployment rate could, in fact, be wrong. But over longer periods, the mapping is a bit clearer because it is effectively smoothing the month-to-month variation in the three factors. For example, the following chart shows the contribution of the three factors to 12-month changes in the unemployment rate from July 2012 to July 2013, from July 2013 to July 2014, and so on.

Contributions to the 12-month change in the unemployment rate

Gains in payroll employment relative to the population have helped pull the unemployment rate lower. Moreover, prior to the most recent 12 months, declines in the LFP rate put further downward pressure on the unemployment rate. Offsetting this pressure to varying degrees has been the fact that the CPS measure of employment has tended to increase more slowly than the payroll measure, making the decline in the unemployment rate smaller than it would have been otherwise. During the last 12 months, the LFP rate turned positive on balance, meaning that the magnitude of the unemployment rate decline has been considerably less than implied by the relative strength of payroll employment growth.

Going forward, another strong payroll employment reading for August is certainly no guarantee of a corresponding decline in the unemployment rate. But as shown by my colleagues David Altig and Patrick Higgins in an earlier macroblog post, under a reasonable range of assumptions for the trend path of population growth, the LFP rate, and the gap between the CPS and payroll survey measures of employment, payroll growth averaging above 150,000 a month should be enough to cause the unemployment rate to continue declining.

August 15, 2016 in Employment, Labor Markets, Unemployment | Permalink | Comments (0)

August 11, 2016

Forecasting Loan Losses for Stress Tests

Bank capital requirements are back in the news with the recent announcements of the results of U.S. stress tests by the Federal Reserve and the European Union (E.U.) stress tests by the European Banking Authority (EBA). The Federal Reserve found that all 33 of the bank holding companies participating in its test would have continued to meet the applicable capital requirements. The EBA found progress among the 51 banks in its test, but it did not define a pass/fail threshold. In summarizing the results, EBA Chairman Andrea Enria is widely quoted as saying, "Whilst we recognise the extensive capital raising done so far, this is not a clean bill of health," and that there remains work to do.

The results of the stress tests do not mean that banks could survive any possible future macroeconomic shock. That standard would be an extraordinarily high one and would require each bank to hold capital equal to its total assets (or maybe even more if the bank held derivatives). However, the U.S. approach to scenario design is intended to make sure that the "severely adverse" scenario is indeed a very bad recession.

The Federal Reserve's Policy Statement on the Scenario Design Framework for Stress Testing indicates that the severely adverse scenario will have an unemployment increase of between 3 and 5 percentage points or a level of 10 percent overall. That statement observes that during the last half century, the United States has seen four severe recessions with that large of an increase in the unemployment rate, with the rate peaking at more than 10 percent in last three severe recessions.

To forecast the losses from such a severe recession, the banks need to estimate loss models for each of their portfolios. In these models, the bank estimates the expected loss associated with a portfolio of loans as a function of the variables in the scenario. In estimating these models, banks often have a very large number of loans with which to estimate losses in their various portfolios, especially the consumer and small business portfolios. However, they have very few opportunities to observe how the loans perform in a downturn. Indeed, in almost all cases, banks started keeping detailed loan loss data only in the late 1990s and, in many cases, later than that. Thus, for many types of loans, banks might have at best data for only the relatively mild recession of 2001–02 and the severe recession of 2007–09.

Perhaps the small number of recessions—especially severe recessions—would not be a big problem if recessions differed only in their depth and not their breadth. However, even comparably severe recessions are likely to hit different parts of the economy with varying degrees of severity. As a result, a given loan portfolio may suffer only small losses in one recession but take very large losses in the next recession.

With the potential for models to underestimate losses given there are so few downturns to calibrate to, the stress testing process allows humans to make judgmental changes (or overlays) to model estimates when the model estimates seem implausible. However, the Federal Reserve requires that bank holding companies should have a "transparent, repeatable, well-supported process" for the use of such overlays.

My colleague Mark Jensen recently made some suggestions about how stress test modelers could reduce the uncertainty around projected losses because of limited data from directly comparable scenarios. He recommends using estimation procedures based on a probability theorem attributed to Reverend Thomas Bayes. When applied to stress testing, Bayes' theorem describes how to incorporate additional empirical information into an initial understanding of how losses are distributed in order to update and refine loss predictions.

One of the benefits of using techniques based on this theorem is that it allows the incorporation of any relevant data into the forecasted losses. He gives the example of using foreign data to help model the distribution of losses U.S. banks would incur if U.S. interest rates become negative. We have no experience with negative interest rates, but Sweden has recently been accumulating experience that could help in predicting such losses in the United States. Jensen argues that Bayesian techniques allow banks and bank supervisors to better account for the uncertainty around their loss forecasts in extreme scenarios.

Additionally, I have previously argued that the existing capital standards provide further way of mitigating the weaknesses in the stress tests. The large banks that participate in the stress tests are also in the process of becoming subject to a risk-based capital requirement commonly called Basel III that was approved by an international committee of banking supervisors after the financial crisis. Basel III uses a different methodology to estimate losses in a severe event, one where the historical losses in a loan portfolio provide the parameters to a loss distribution. While Basel III faces the same problem of limited loan loss data—so it almost surely underestimates some risks—those errors are likely to be somewhat different from those produced by the stress tests. Hence, the use of both measures is likely to somewhat reduce the possibility that supervisors end up requiring too little capital for some types of loans.

Both the stress tests and risk-based models of the Basel III type face the unavoidable problem of inaccurately measuring risk because we have limited data from extreme events. The use of improved estimation techniques and multiple ways of measuring risk may help mitigate this problem. But the only way to solve the problem of limited data is to have a greater number of extreme stress events. Given that alternative, I am happy to live with imperfect measures of bank risk.

Author's note: I want to thank the Atlanta Fed's Dave Altig and Mark Jensen for helpful comments.

August 11, 2016 in Banking, Financial System, Regulation | Permalink | Comments (1)

July 29, 2016

Men at Work: Are We Seeing a Turnaround in Male Labor Force Participation?

A lot has been written about the long-run decline in the labor force participation (LFP) rate among prime-age men (usually defined as men between 25 and 54 years of age). For example, see here, here, here, and here for some perspectives.

On a not seasonally adjusted basis, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that the LFP rate among prime-age males is down from 90.9 percent in the second quarter of 2007 to 88.6 percent in the second quarter of 2016—a decline of 2.3 percentage points, or around 1.4 million potential workers.

Many explanations reflecting preexisting structural trends have been posited for this decline. But how much of the decline also reflects cyclical effects and, in particular, cyclical effects that take a while to play out? We don't really know for sure. But one potentially useful approach is to look at the Census Bureau's Current Population Survey and the reasons people give for not wanting a job. These reasons include enrollment in an educational program (especially prevalent among young individuals), family or household responsibilities (especially among prime-age women), retirement (especially among older individuals), and poor health or disability (widespread). In addition, there are people of all ages who say they want a job but are not counted as unemployed. For example, they aren't currently available to work or haven't looked for work recently because they are discouraged about their job prospects.

To get some idea of the relative importance of these factors, the following chart shows how much each nonparticipation reason accounted for the total change in the LFP rate among prime-age males between 2012 and 2014 and between 2014 and 2016. The black bars show each period's total change in the LFP rate. The green bars are changes that helped push participation higher than it otherwise would have been, and the orange bars are changes that helped hold participation lower than it otherwise would have been.


A note on the chart: To construct the contributions derived from changes in nonparticipation rates, I held constant the age-specific population shares in the base period (2012 and 2014, respectively) in order to separate the effect of changes in nonparticipation from shifts in the age distribution.

Notice that the decline in the prime-age male LFP rate between 2012 and 2014 has essentially fully reversed itself over the last two years (from a decline of 0.53 percentage points to an increase of 0.55 percentage points, respectively). The positive "want a job" contribution in both periods clearly reflects a cyclical recovery in labor market conditions. But the most striking change between 2012–14 and 2014–16 is the complete reversal of the large drag attributable to poor health and disability. Other things equal, if nonparticipation resulting from poor health and disability had stayed at its 2012 level, prime-age male participation in 2014 would have only declined 0.10 percentage points. If nonparticipation due to poor health and disability had stayed at its 2014 level, prime-age male participation in 2016 would have increased only 0.14 percentage points.

The incidence of self-reported nonparticipation among prime-age men because of poor health or disability has been declining recently. According to the Current Population Survey data, this reason represented 5.4 percent of the prime-age male population in the second quarter of 2016. Although this is still 0.7 percentage points higher than in 2007, it is 0.3 percentage points lower than in 2014. Some of this turnaround could be the result of changes in the composition of the prime-age population. But not much. Around 90 percent of the LFP rate change because of poor health and disability is due to age-specific nonparticipation rather than shifts in the age distribution, suggesting that some of the turnaround in the incidence of people saying they are "too sick" to work is a cyclical response to strengthening labor market conditions. We've yet to see how much longer this turnaround could continue, but it's an encouraging development.

For those interested in exploring the contributions to the changes in the LFP rate by gender and age over different time periods, we're currently developing an interactive tool for the Atlanta Fed's website—stay tuned!

July 29, 2016 in Employment, Labor Markets | Permalink | Comments (2)

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