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September 29, 2014

On Bogs and Dots

Consider this scenario. You travel out of town to meet up with an old friend. Your hotel is walking distance to the appointed meeting place, across a large grassy field with which you are unfamiliar.

With good conditions, the walk is about 30 minutes but, to you, the quality of the terrain is not so certain. Though nobody seems to be able to tell you for sure, you believe that there is a 50-50 chance that the field is a bog, intermittently dotted with somewhat treacherous swampy traps. Though you believe you can reach your destination in about 30 minutes, the better part of wisdom is to go it slow. You accordingly allot double the time for traversing the field to your destination.

During your travels, of course, you will learn something about the nature of the field, and this discovery may alter your calculation about your arrival time. If you discover that you are indeed crossing a bog, you will correspondingly slow your gait and increase the estimated time to the other side. Or you may find that you are in fact on quite solid ground and consequently move up your estimated arrival time. Knowing all of this, you tell your friend to keep his cellphone on, as your final meeting time is going to be data dependent.

Which brings us to the infamous “dots,” ably described by several of our colleagues writing on the New York Fed’s Liberty Street Economics blog:

In January 2012, the FOMC began reporting participants’ FFR [federal funds rate] projections in the Summary of Economic Projections (SEP). Market participants colloquially refer to these projections as “the dots” (see the second chart on page 3 of the September 2014 SEP for an example). In particular, the dispersion of the dots represents disagreement among FOMC [Federal Open Market Committee] members about the future path of the policy rate.

The Liberty Street discussion focuses on why the policy rate paths differ among FOMC participants and across a central tendency of the SEPs and market participants. Quite correctly, in my view, the blog post’s authors draw attention to differences of opinion about the likely course of future economic conditions:

The most apparent reason is that each participant can have a different assessment of economic conditions that might call for different prescriptions for current and future monetary policy.

The Liberty Street post is a good piece, and I endorse every word of it. But there is another type of dispersion in the dots that seems to be the source of some confusion. This question, for example, is from Howard Schneider of Reuters, posed at the press conference held by Chair Yellen following the last FOMC meeting:

So if you would help us, I mean, square the circle a little bit—because having kept the guidance the same, having referred to significant underutilization of labor, having actually pushed GDP projections down a little bit, yet the rate path gets steeper and seems to be consolidating higher—so if it’s data dependent, what accounts for the faster projections on rate increases if the data aren’t moving in that direction?

The Chair’s response emphasized the modest nature of the changes, and how they might reflect modest improvements in certain aspects of the data. That response is certainly correct, but there is another point worth emphasizing: It is completely possible, and completely coherent, for the same individual to submit a “dot” with an earlier (or later) liftoff date of the policy rate, or a steeper (or flatter) path of the rate after liftoff, even though their submitted forecasts for GDP growth, inflation, and the unemployment rate have not changed at all.

This claim goes beyond the mere possibility that GDP, inflation, and unemployment (as officially defined) may not be sufficiently complete summaries of the economic conditions a policymaker might be concerned with.

The explanation lies in the metaphor of the bog. The estimated time of arrival to a destination—policy liftoff, for example—depends critically on the certainty with which the policymaker can assess the economic landscape. An adjustment to policy can, and should, proceed more quickly if the ground underfoot feels relatively solid. But if the terrain remains unfamiliar, and the possibility of falling into the swamp can’t be ruled out with any degree of confidence...well, a wise person moves just a bit more slowly.

Of course, as noted, once you begin to travel across the field and gain confidence that you are actually on terra firma, you can pick up the pace and adjust the estimated time of arrival accordingly.

To put all of this a bit more formally, an individual FOMC participant’s “reaction function”—the implicit rule that connects policy decisions to economic conditions—may not depend on just the numbers that that individual writes down for inflation, unemployment, or whatever. It might well—and in the case of our thinking here at the Atlanta Fed, it does—depend on the confidence with which those numbers are held.

For us, anyway, that confidence is growing. Don’t take that from me. Take it from Atlanta Fed President Lockhart, who said in a recent speech:

I'll close with this thought: there are always risks around a projection of any path forward. There is always considerable uncertainty. Given what I see today, I'm pretty confident in a medium-term outlook of continued moderate growth around 3 percent per annum accompanied by a substantial closing of the employment and inflation gaps. In general, I'm more confident today than a year ago.

Viewed in this light, the puzzle of moving dots without moving point estimates for economic conditions really shouldn’t be much of a puzzle at all.

Photo of Dave AltigBy Dave Altig, executive vice president and research director of the Atlanta Fed

September 29, 2014 in Economic conditions, Economics, Federal Reserve and Monetary Policy, Forecasts | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

September 15, 2014

The Changing State of States' Economies

Timely data on the economic health of individual states recently came from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA). The new quarterly state-level gross domestic product (GDP) series begins in 2005 and runs through the fourth quarter of 2013. The map below offers a look at how states have fared since 2005 relative to the economic performance of the nation as a whole.

It’s interesting to see the map depict an uneven expansion between the second quarter of 2005 and the peak of the cycle in the fourth quarter of 2007. By the fourth quarter of 2008, most parts of the country were experiencing declines in GDP.

The U.S. economy hit a trough during the second quarter of 2009, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research, but 20 states and the District of Columbia recovered more quickly than the rest. The continued progress is easy to see, as is the far-reaching impact of the tsunami that hit Japan on March 11, 2011, which disrupted economic activity in many U.S. states. By the fourth quarter of 2013, only two states—Mississippi and Minnesota—experienced negative GDP.

The map shows that not all states are growing even when overall GDP is growing, and not all states are shrinking even when overall GDP is shrinking. But if we want to know more about which states are driving the change in overall GDP growth, then the geographic size of the state might not be so important.

Depicting states scaled to the size of their respective economies provides another perspective, because it’s the relative size of a state’s economy that matters when considering the contribution of state-level GDP growth to the national economy. The following chart uses bubbles (sized by the size of the state’s economy) to depict changes in states’ real GDP from the second quarter of 2005 through the fourth quarter of 2013.

This chart shows how the economies of larger states such as California, New York, Texas, Florida, and Illinois have an outsize influence on the national economy, despite some having a smaller geographic footprint. (Conversely, changes in the relatively small economy of a geographically large state like Montana have a correspondingly small impact on changes in the national economy.)

Overall GDP is now well above its prerecession peak. But have all states also fully recovered their GDP losses? The chart below depicts the cumulative GDP growth in each state from the end of 2007 to the end of 2013. The size of the circle represents the magnitude of the change in the level of real GDP between the end of 2007 and 2013. Most states have fully recovered in terms of GDP. (North Dakota’s spectacular growth stands out, thanks to its boom in the oil and gas industry.) However, Florida, Nevada, Connecticut, Arizona, New Jersey, and Michigan had not returned to their prerecession spending levels as of the end of 2013. For Florida, Nevada, and Arizona, the depth of the collapse in those states’ booming housing sectors is almost certainly responsible for the relative shortfall in performance since 2007.

The next release of the state-level GDP data, scheduled for September 26, will provide insight into the relative performance of state economies during the first quarter of 2014 at a time when overall GDP shrank by more than 2 percent (annualized rate). Some analysts have suggested that weather disruptions were a leading cause for that decline. The state-level GDP data will help tell the story.

Photo of Whitney MancusoBy Whitney Mancuso, a senior economic analyst in the the Atlanta Fed's research department

September 15, 2014 in Economic conditions, Economic Growth and Development, Economics, GDP | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

August 25, 2014

What Kind of Job for Part-Time Pat?

As anyone who follows macroblog knows, we have been devoting a lot of attention recently to the issue of people working part-time for economic reasons (PTER), which means people who want full-time work but have not yet been able to find it. As of July 2014, the number of people working PTER stood at around 7.5 million. This level is down from a peak of almost 9 million in 2011 but is still more than 3 million higher than before the Great Recession. That doesn’t mean they won’t ever find full-time work in the future, but their chances are a lot lower than in the past.

Consider Pat, for example. Pat was working PTER at some point during a given year and was also employed 12 months later. At the later date, Pat is either working full-time, still working PTER, or is working part-time but is OK with it (which means Pat is part-time for noneconomic reasons). How much luck has Pat had in finding full-time work?

As the chart below shows, there is a reasonable chance that after a year, Pat is happily working full-time. But it has become much less likely than it was before the recession. In 2007, an average of 61 percent of the 2006 Pats transitioned into full-time work. The situation got a lot worse during the recession, and has not improved. In 2013, only 49 percent of the 2012 cohort of Pats had found a full-time job. The decline in finding full-time work is largely accounted for by the rise in the share of Pats who are stuck working PTER. In 2007, 18 percent of the Pats were still PTER after a year, rising to around 30 percent by 2011, where it has essentially remained.

Distribution of Employment of Workers Who Were Part-Time for Economic Reasons One Year Earlier

Now, our hypothetical Pats are a pretty heterogeneous bunch. For example, they are different ages, different genders, different educational backgrounds, and in different industries. Do such differences matter when it comes to the chances of Pat finding a full-time job? For example, let’s look at Pats working in goods-producing industries versus services-producing ones. In goods-producing industries, the chance is greater that Pat will find full-time work (more jobs in goods-producing industries are full-time), and there is a bit more of a recovery in full-time job finding for goods-producing industries than for services-producing ones. But overall, the dynamics are similar across the broad industry types, as the charts below show:

Distribution of Employment of Workers Who Were Part-Time for Economic Reasons One Year Earlier by Industry

As another example, the next four charts show the average 12-month full-time and PTER job-finding rates for all of our hypothetical Pats by gender and education. The full-time/PTER finding rates display broadly similar patterns across gender and education, albeit at different levels. (The same holds true across age groups but is not shown.)

Distribution of Employment of Workers Who Were Part-Time for Economic Reasons One Year Earlier by Gender

Distribution of Employment of Workers Who Were Part-Time for Economic Reasons One Year Earlier by Education

People who find themselves working part-time involuntarily are having more difficulty getting full-time work than in the past, even if they stay employed. But it doesn’t seem that much of this can be attributed to any particular demographic or industry characteristic of the worker. The phenomenon is pretty widespread, suggesting that the problem is a general shortage of full-time jobs rather than a change in the characteristics of workers looking for full-time jobs.

Photo of John RobertsonBy John Robertson, a vice president and senior economist, and


Photo of Ellyn TerryEllyn Terry, an economic policy analysis specialist, both of the Atlanta Fed's research department

August 25, 2014 in Economic conditions, Employment, Labor Markets | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)

August 21, 2014

Seeking the Source

As the early data on the third quarter begin to roll in, the (very tentative) conclusion is that nothing we know yet contradicts the consensus gross domestic product (GDP) forecast (from the Blue Chip panel, for example) of seasonally adjusted annualized Q3 growth in the neighborhood of 3 percent. The latest from our GDPNow model:

The GDPNow model forecast for real GDP growth (seasonally adjusted annual rate) in the third quarter of 2014 was 3.0 percent on August 19, up from 2.8 percent on August 13. The nowcast for inventory investment ticked up following the Federal Reserve's industrial production release on August 15 while the nowcast for residential investment growth increased following this morning's new residential construction release from the U.S. Census Bureau.


The contribution of residential investment is obviously welcome, but the inventory contribution in the industrial production release tilts in the direction of one of our concerns about growth performance in the second quarter. Specifically, too much inventory spending, too little "core" spending.

On the plus side, our projections for current-quarter investment spending have been increasing, outside of nonresidential structures. On the much less positive side, the nowcast for consumer spending has been falling off and currently looks to expand at a pace barely above 2 percent.

Weakness over the course of this recovery in the key GDP expenditure components of consumer spending and investment has been the subject of a lot of commentary, recent entries being provided by Jonathon McCarthy (on the former, at Liberty Street Economics) and Jim Hamilton (on the latter, at Econbrowser). McCarthy in particular points to less-than-robust consumption expenditure as a source of growth since the end of the recession that has been slower than hoped for:

One contributor to the subdued pace of economic growth in this expansion has been consumer spending. Even though consumption growth has been somewhat stronger in the past couple of quarters, it has still been weak in this expansion relative to previous expansions.


An earlier version of the McCarthy theme appeared in this post on Atif Mian and Amir Sufi's House of Debt blog:

...the primary culprit: consumption of services and non-durable goods. They are shockingly weak relative to other recoveries.


There is something of a chicken-and-egg conundrum in all of this discussion. Has GDP growth disappointed because consumer and business spending has been lackluster? Or has consumer and business spending been weaker than we expected because GDP growth has lagged the pace of past recoveries?

In fact, the growth rates of consumption expenditure and business fixed investment—which excludes the residential housing piece—have not been particularly unusual over the course of this recovery once you account for the pace of GDP growth.

The following charts illustrate the average contributions of consumption and investment spending as a percent of average GDP growth for the 20 quarters following six of the last seven U.S. recessions. (I have excluded the period following the 1969–70 recession because 20 quarters after that downturn include the entirety of the 1973–75 recession.)

Consumption Share of GDP Growth Consumption Share of GDP Growth

It is worth noting that these observations also apply to the components of consumption (across services, durables, and nondurables) and business fixed investment (across equipment and intellectual property and structures), as the following two charts show:

Business Fixed Investment Share of GDP Growth Business Fixed Investment Share of GDP Growth

The conclusion is that if growth in consumption and investment has been particularly tepid over the course of the recovery, it merely reflects the historically tepid growth in GDP.

Or the other way around. These charts represent nothing more than arithmetic exercises, a mechanical decomposition of GDP growth into couple of the spending components that make up to the whole. They tell us nothing about causation.

What we have is the same too-full bag of possible explanations for why GDP has not yet returned to levels that—before the financial crisis—we would have associated with "potential": too much regulation, too little lending, excessive uncertainty, not enough government-driven demand, and so on. Maybe more investment spending would cause more growth. Maybe not.

In the language of the hot topic of the moment, this ultimately takes us to the debate over secular stagnation—what does it mean, does it exist, what is its cause if it does exist? Steve Williamson provides a useful summary of the debate, which is not yet at the point of providing actual answers. And unfortunately, the answers really matter.

Photo of Dave Altig

August 21, 2014 in Economic Growth and Development, GDP | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)