March 07, 2014
Thinking About Progress in the Labor Market
Today's employment report for the month of February maybe took a bit of drama out of one key question going into the next meeting of the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC): What will happen to the FOMC's policy language when the economy hits or passes the 6.5 percent unemployment rate threshold for considering policy-rate liftoff? With the unemployment rate for February checking it at 6.7 percent, a breach of the threshold clearly won't have happened when the Committee meets in a little less than two weeks.
I say "maybe took a bit of drama out" because I'm not sure there was much drama left. All you had to do was listen to the Fed talkers yesterday to know that. This is from the highlights summary of a speech yesterday by Charles Plosser, president of the Philadelphia Fed...
President Plosser believes the Federal Open Market Committee has to revamp its current forward guidance regarding the future federal funds rate path because the 6.5 percent unemployment threshold has become irrelevant.
... and this from a Wall Street Journal interview with William Dudley, president of the New York Fed:
Mr. Dudley, in a Wall Street Journal interview, also said the Fed's 6.5% unemployment rate threshold for considering increases in short-term interest rates is "obsolete" and he would advocate scrapping it at the Fed's next meeting March 18–19.
From our shop, Atlanta Fed president Dennis Lockhart echoed those sentiments in a speech at Georgetown University:
Given that measured unemployment is so close to 6.5 percent, the time is approaching for a refreshed explanation of how unemployment or broader employment conditions are to be factored into a liftoff decision.
That statement doesn't mean we in Atlanta are disregarding the unemployment rate altogether. We have for some time been describing the broader net we have cast in fishing for labor market clues. One important aspect of that broader perspective is captured in the so-called U-6 measure of unemployment, about which President Lockhart's speech gives a quick tutorial:
The data used to construct the unemployment rate come from a survey of households conducted by the Census Bureau for the Bureau of Labor Statistics. To be counted as a participant in the labor force, a respondent must give rather specific qualifying answers to questions in the survey...
Those who are available, have looked for work in the past year, but have not recently looked for work are labeled "marginally attached." They are not in the official labor force, so they are not officially unemployed. You might say they are a "shadow labor force"...
One measure that counts the marginally attached in the pool of the unemployed is U-6.
U-6 also includes working people who identify themselves as working "part time for economic reasons." These are people who want to work full time (defined as 35 hours or more) but are able only to get fewer than 35 hours of work.
The "shadow labor force" comment is based on these observations. First, in President Lockhart's words:
The makeup of the class of marginally attached workers is quite fluid. About 40 percent of the marginally attached in any given month join the official labor force in the subsequent month.
There is no new story there. The frequency with which people move from marginally attached to in the labor force has been stable for quite a while (see the chart):
President Lockhart's second observation regarding the marginally attached is more important:
But only about 10 percent of those who move into the labor force find a job right away. In effect, they went from unofficially unemployed to officially unemployed.
The chart below depicts this observation:
Relative to before the Great Recession, the frequency with which people transitioned from marginally attached to employment has fallen by about 5 percentage points.
That decline is related to this conclusion (again from President Lockhart):
Here's my point: what U-6 captures matters. Measures such as marginally attached and part time for economic reasons became elevated in the recession and have not come down materially. Said differently, broader measures of unemployment like U-6 suggest that a significant level of slack remains in our employment markets.
It is not that we have failed to see progress in the U-6 measure of labor market slack. In fact, since the end of the recession, the U-6 unemployment rate has declined about in tandem with the standard official unemployment rate (designated U-3 by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics; see the chart):
What is the case is that we have failed to undo the outsized run-up in the marginally attached and people working part-time for economic reasons that occurred during the recession (see the chart):
One interpretation of these observations is that the relative increase in U-6 represents structural changes that cannot be fixed by policies aimed at stimulating spending. But we are drawn to the fact, described above, that the marginally attached are flowing into the labor market at the same pace as before the recession, but they are finding jobs at a much slower pace, making us hesitant to fully embrace a structural interpretation.
Or, as our boss said yesterday:
As a policymaker, I am concerned about the unemployed in the official labor force, but I am also concerned about the unemployed in the shadow labor force. To get close to full employment, as I think of it, would involve substantial absorption of this shadow labor force. I do not think we're near that point yet. This is one of the reasons I support continuing with a highly accommodative policy and deferring liftoff for a while longer.
But if you are looking for some good news, here it is: Though the official unemployment rate has been essentially flat for the past three months, the broader U-6 measure that we are monitoring closely has fallen by half a percentage point. More of that, and we will really be getting somewhere.
By Dave Altig, research director and executive vice president at the Atlanta Fed
February 26, 2014
The Pattern of Job Creation and Destruction by Firm Age and Size
A recent Wall Street Journal blog post caught our attention. In particular, the following claim:
It’s not size that matters—at least when it comes to job creation. The age of the company is a bigger factor.
The following chart shows the average job-creation rate of expanding firms and the average job-destruction rates of shrinking firms from 1987 to 2011, broken out by various age and size categories:
In the chart, the colors represent age categories, and the sizes of the dot represent size categories. So, for example, the biggest blue dot in the far northeast quadrant shows the average rate of job creation and destruction for firms that are very young and very large. The tiny blue dot in the far east region of the chart represents the average rate of job creation and destruction for firms that are very young and very small. If an age-size dot is above the 45-degree line, then average net job creation of that firm size-age combination is positive—that is, more jobs are created than destroyed at those firms. (Note that the chart excludes firms less than one year old because, by definition in the data, they can have only job creation.)
The chart shows two things. First, the rate of job creation and destruction tends to decline with firm age. Younger firms of all sizes tend to have higher job-creation (and job-destruction) rates than their older counterparts. That is, the blue dots tend to lie above the green dots, and the green dots tend to be above the orange dots.
The second feature is that the rate of job creation at larger firms of all ages tends to exceed the rate of job destruction, whereas small firms tend to destroy more jobs than they create, on net. That is, the larger dots tend to lie above the 45-degree line, but the smaller dots are below the 45-degree line.
As pointed out in the WSJ blog post and by others (see, for example, work by the Kauffman Foundation here and here), once you control for firm size, firm age is the more important factor when measuring the rate of job creation. However, young firms are more dynamic in general, with rapid net growth balanced against a very high failure rate. (See this paper by John Haltiwanger for more on this up-or-out dynamic.) Apart from new firms, it seems that the combination of youth (between one and ten years old) and size (more than 250 employees) has tended to yield the highest rate of net job creation.
By John Robertson, a vice president and senior economist in the Atlanta Fed’s research department, and
Ellyn Terry, a senior economic analyst in the Atlanta Fed's research department
February 21, 2014
What Is the Stance of Monetary Policy?
Will the Federal Open Market Committee's (FOMC) current large-scale asset purchase program, so-called QE3, continue to melt away as spring arrives? The release of the minutes from the January meeting of the FOMC, along with commentary from various participants in that meeting (noted in rapid succession here, here, and here, for example) have left the distinct impression that the answer is most probably yes.
The anticipated winding down of asset purchases almost inevitably invokes a habit of language concerning what it all means for the stance of monetary policy. From the New York Times, for example, we have this (emphasis added):
When Federal Reserve officials last met at the end of January, they were surprised by the strength of the economy, cheered by the optimism of consumers and convinced they should continue to dismantle the Fed's economic stimulus campaign, according to an account the Fed released Wednesday.
The sentiment expressed in that highlighted passage is front and center at the G-20 meetings, currently taking place in Australia (again, emphasis added):
Setting the scene for this weekend's Group of 20 meetings, Australian Treasurer Joe Hockey's main challenge was to avoid appearing partial in the escalating blame-game between the U.S. and developing countries over the recent exodus of capital from emerging markets….
Emerging market countries like India and Brazil have blamed the wide-scale selloff in local stocks, bonds and currencies on the Federal Reserve's plan to exit gradually from monetary-stimulus policies, which last year began sending investors into a panic.
Here's the thing. It is not at all clear that winding down asset purchases means an exit from or dismantling of monetary stimulus, gradual or otherwise. In Atlanta Fed President Dennis Lockhart's words yesterday:
In our public remarks over much of last year, my colleagues and I stressed a couple of very important messages. First, even with the phase-out of asset purchases, the basic stance of policy remains highly accommodative. To translate, the Committee intends to keep interest rates very low. The second message was that the QE program and the Fed's policy interest-rate target are two separate tools of policy. Consequently, we can wind down the asset purchases—a program that was meant to provide temporary, supplemental "oomph" to the low interest-rate policy—and preserve the accommodative positioning of policy appropriate for the reality of our economic situation.
But those are not just words. Several months back, Jim Hamilton publicized the work of Cynthia Wu and Dora Xia (former and current students of his), who have developed a method of using term structure data to infer the "shadow," or implicit, monetary policy rate. (Follow-up posts appeared thereafter at Econbrowser—here and here—and from the crew here at macroblog.)
Just recently, the Wu-Xia data has been updated, giving us a first glance at the post-taper shadow policy rate (see the chart):
Both Treasury yields and the shadow policy rate did in fact spike last June following then-Chairman Ben Bernanke's post-FOMC press conference, wherein he signaled that the asset-purchase taper was indeed on the table. But he also made the point that bringing down the QE pillar of the Fed's policy mix is decidedly not the same thing as bringing monetary stimulus to an end, a message that was subsequently emphasized by Fed officials many times, in many forums.
Though financial market participants may have been convinced that the taper meant tightening initially, it does appear that communications and forward guidance have done the trick of more than reversing that initial impression. At the very least, the Wu-Xia calculations are consistent with that interpretation.
By Dave Altig, executive vice president and research director at the Atlanta Fed
February 11, 2014
A Second Look at the Employment-to-Population Ratio
This analysis is a companion piece to my Atlanta Fed colleague John Robertson's recent macroblog post. John's blog highlighted some findings of a recent New York Fed study by Samuel Kapon and Joseph Tracy on the employment-to-population (E/P) ratio. Their work has received considerable attention in the media and blogosphere (for example, here, here, and here). Kapon and Tracy's final chart (reproduced below) has received particular scrutiny.
The blue line represents the authors' estimate of the demographically adjusted E/P ratio purged of business-cycle effects. This line can be thought of as "trend." The chart shows that as of November 2013, the E/P ratio was only –0.7 percentage point below trend. Was the "gap" between actual and trend E/P really this small?
Attempting to answer this question requires digging into the details of Kapon and Tracy's method for estimating trend. One key excerpt is the following:
To overlay our demographically adjusted E/P ratio with the actual E/P ratio, we need to adopt a normalization… [W]e adopt the normalization that over the thirty-one years in our data sample [1982–2013] any business-cycle deviations between the actual and the adjusted E/P ratios will average to zero.
This methodology seems reasonable since one might typically expect business cycle effects to average out over 30 years. However, the 1982–2013 sample period is somewhat unusual in that the unemployment rate was elevated at both the starting and ending points.
The chart below shows estimates of three labor market gaps derived from the Congressional Budget Office's (CBO) estimates—released on February 4, 2014—of the potential labor force and the long-term natural rate of unemployment. (This rate is often referred to as the nonaccelerating inflation rate of unemployment, or NAIRU, and refers to the level of unemployment below which inflation rises.)
On average, the trend E/P ratio is below the actual rate by 0.86 percentage point. If one were to normalize the Kapon and Tracy E/P trend so that its average value was equal to CBO's trend, then the November 2013 E/P gap is about 1.5 percentage points. Whether or not the CBO estimate is the right benchmark is a matter of taste. CBO's recent estimate of NAIRU in the fourth quarter of 2013—5.5 percent—is lower than the 6 percent median estimate from the Survey of Professional Forecasters in the third quarter of 2013.
A second, more subtle issue in the Kapon and Tracy analysis is their treatment of cohorts:
We divide these individuals into 280 different cohorts defined by each individual's decade of birth, sex, race/ethnicity, and educational attainment. We assume that individuals within a specific cohort have similar career employment rate profiles. We use the 10.2 million observations [of CPS microdata] to estimate these 280 career employment rate profiles.
A well-known 2006 Brookings paper by Stephanie Aaronson and other Fed economists modeled trend labor force participation rate(LFPR) using birth-year cohorts. With estimates of trend LFPR and NAIRU, we can back out a trend E/P ratio. The chart below, adapted from Aaronson et al., plots age-group LFPRs against birth year.
We see that successive birth-year cohorts born between 1925 and 1950 had steadily increasing labor force attachment. Attachment for more recently born cohorts has leveled off and even declined slightly. People born in the 1990s have very low labor force attachment by historical standards. The inclusion of the "1990s—decade of birth" dummy variable in the Kapon and Tracy research probably implies that their model is interpreting much of this decline as structural. However, an alternative interpretation is that the decline is cyclical, because persons born after 1990 have been in an environment of high unemployment for most of their short working lives.
To gauge the sensitivity of trend or structural LFPR to how the youngest cohorts are treated, I used a stripped-down version of a model similar to Aaronson et al. Monthly LFPRs are modeled as a function of age, sex, birth date, and the CBO's estimate of the output gap during the January 1981 to January 2014 period. Time series published by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics for 30 different age-sex cells are used so that the regression has 11,550 observations. Structural LFPR is constructed with the fitted values of the regression with a value of 0 percent for the output gap at all points in time. The trend E/P ratio is then backed out with the CBO's estimate of NAIRU.
The model is run with two different assumptions: First, following the approach of Aaronson et al., people born after 1986 have the same birth-year cohort effects as those born in December 1986. Second, no constraints are placed on birth-year cohort effects. Trend values of LFPR and E/P (taking on board the CBO's NAIRU) are plotted in the two charts below:
The January 2014 E/P gap with unconstrained cohort effects, as in Kapon and Tracy, is –1.0 percent, well below the –1.7 percent gap in the model with constrained cohort effects. Ultimately, both models are still very consistent with Kapon and Tracy's bottom line:
It is important to control for changing demographic factors when looking at the behavior of the E/P ratio over time. This step is particularly important today when these demographic factors are exerting downward pressure on the actual E/P rate, suggesting that the recent lack of improvement in the E/P ratio does not imply a lack of progress in the labor market. The adjusted E/P rate corroborates the basic picture from the unemployment rate that the labor market has been recovering over the past few years, but that it still has a ways to go to reach a full recovery.
By Pat Higgins, senior economist in the Atlanta Fed's research department