Cyclical and Structural Issues in The Labor Market.

by Tom Cooley and Peter Rupert

The employment report released on Thursday, before the July 4 holiday on Friday, revealed an employment gain of 223k, but the overall report left a little something for everyone, depending on point of view. The 223k number was slightly less than what many had forecast. All of the increase came from private employment as there was no change in government employment. On tempchgm-2015-07-05he negative side,  there were downward revisions for the past two months, April down by 34k and May down by 26k. In fact, the revisions have all been down since January.

Average weekly hours remained at 34.5 for the fourth straight month and hourly earnings were basically flat.

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The household data from the CPS was a little more discouraging. Yes, the unemployment rate fell to 5.3%. However, the labor force fell by 432k and the number employed fell by 56k, as did the employment to population ratio, falling to 59.3.  Labor force participation is at an historic low.  So there is no way the labor market could be described as in a robust state. The long term unemployment rate – those unemployed 27 weeks or more  diped sharply.

Many of the remaining problems in the labor market – participation rates, long duration unemployment – appear to be structural, not cyclical.  The structural issues have a lot to do with the way the economy changes over the business cycle, the loss of mid-level human capital jobs, a feature that has been pronounced over the past few cycles. It seems unlikely that the Fed will view these problems as impediments to a more normal monetary policy.

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The JOLTS data released this morning shows the number of vacancies, 5.4 million, is the highest since the series began in December 2000, and the job openings rate also remains high, higher than at the peak of the previous cycle! However, the hiring rate fell in May, to 3.5% from 3.6% in April. Layoffs and discharges fell slightly and quits were basically unchanged.

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Forward Guidance or Fog?

By Zach Bethune, Tom Cooley and Peter Rupert

Today’s GDP release from the BEA reveals a modest upward revision in GDP for the 1st quarter from -0.7% to -0.2%. Though still in negative territory the upward revision is certainly welcome. As noted by the BEA, “…primarily reflecting upward revisions to
exports, to personal consumption expenditures, to private inventory investment, to nonresidential fixed investment, and to state and local government spending that were partly offset by an upward revision to imports.” The revisions were pretty much across the board.

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Real personal consumption expenditures increased 2.2%, the weakest recording since the first quarter of 2014. Tomorrow, the personal income report comes out that will give a little clearer picture of the path of consumption to date.

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The signals coming in concerning the economy are mixed, making it extremely difficult to gauge upcoming policy moves. The latest meeting of the FOMC along with their statement seems to have left many Fed-watchers, prognosticators, and others suggesting that the Fed is on a path to raise rates in the fall or possibly winter. For example, Jon Hilsenrath of the WSJ says,

The Federal Reserve signaled Wednesday that it was moving toward interest-rate increases later this year, with the economy now firmer after a winter slump, but officials emphasized they would move even more cautiously than expected.

While many seem to suggest that the Fed is on pace to raise later this year, there is certainly nothing in the Fed statement that leads to such a conclusion. Just in case you are confused with Fed-speak, here is another statement…from 2011,

To promote the ongoing economic recovery and to help ensure that inflation, over time, is at levels consistent with its mandate, the Committee decided today to keep the target range for the federal funds rate at 0 to 1/4 percent. The Committee currently anticipates that economic conditions–including low rates of resource utilization and a subdued outlook for inflation over the medium run–are likely to warrant exceptionally low levels for the federal funds rate at least through mid-2013.

The point is that, as the June statement emphasized, the risks are balanced. Meaning that raising rates soon is kind of 50-50. And, as the statement now always reminds us, any future moves are data dependent. So, looking forward, while the risks might be balanced, the risks are many:

  • Uncertainty in Greece continues to plague policy makers and investors….but it seems now likely that many have already priced these risks in the market.
  • Europe continues to have winners and losers, making it difficult to have much faith in any overall forecasts.
  • How will China respond to what appears to be lower growth?

In terms of the US, nothing seems to really stand out yet that would call for the beginning of liftoff. Yes,  employment has risen steadily, albeit slowly…much slower than earlier recoveries…and the unemployment rate is relatively low but labor force participation is also low.

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Still, there are many signs of either slow growth or real weakness to offset those indicators. There is really no sign of inflation anywhere, not recently nor in expectations. While the labor market is seeing signs of strength there does not appear to be any wage pressure, and the employment cost index has popped a little recently, but again, is still relatively subdued.

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Average hours have remained pretty flat after picking up several months ago. Moreover, one indicator many use to gauge the health of the economy is output per hour of work (productivity). There also isn’t any real positive news here either as productivity has fallen for two consecutive quarters, the last time this happened was back in 2006.

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While job openings are near all time highs, the hiring rate continues to climb, but quite slowly.

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Some economists look at the Beveridge Curve (vacancies vs. unemployment) to see how the labor market is matching job seekers to job vacancies. While the Beveridge Curve has “looped” back, the unemployment rate is about a percentage point higher, given the vacancy level, that it was back in the early 2000’s. One interpretation is that the market is having a more difficult time matching workers to firms, for example, from skill mismatch.

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The labor market also looks quite different compared to the early 2000’s in both the employment to population ratio and labor force participation. Both are a long way from their peaks and have remained remarkably flat. Unfortunately, there is little by way of economic theory to enlighten us on what the “right” long run value should be for either statistic. Perhaps the late 1990’s and early 2000’s were unsustainable, and now we are back at more sustainable levels.

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Moreover, there is still a substantial fraction of the unemployed who have been in that state for more than 27 weeks. This certainly does not bode well for such workers and it remains to be seen where and when they will eventually land.

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So, in the end, what does all this mean? It simply means that the shape of the economy is in the eye of the beholder. Data can be presented to bolster either view…to raise or not raise this year. Indeed, the FOMC statement was clear about the cautious outlook:

This assessment will take into account a wide range of information, including measures of labor market conditions, indicators of inflation pressures and inflation expectations, and readings on financial and international developments. The Committee anticipates that it will be appropriate to raise the target range for the federal funds rate when it has seen further improvement in the labor market and is reasonably confident that inflation will move back to its 2 percent objective over the medium term.

The latest inflation numbers do not seem to suggest yet that one would be “reasonably confident” that inflation has moved back to its 2% objective, as the chart below shows, that inflation indicator has often been below the 2% (red line) for much of the time…and the latest reading shows a 2.0% decline. The quarter before saw a 0.4% decline.

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Employment Gains, Long Duration Unemployment Remains

By Zach Bethune, Tom Cooley and Peter Rupert

According to the BLS payroll employment increased by 280,000 with nearly all of that coming from private sector jobs, which increased 256,000 . The report also included an upward revision to March of 34,000 and a slight downward revision to April, -2,000. The goods producing sector was weak, adding only 6,000, with evident weakness in the petroleum sector: mining and logging shedding 18,000 jobs.  Fortunately, now the March decline in new jobs looks like an outlier with the economy adding a healthy number of new private sector jobs each month.

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Other than the goods producing sector and a small decline in the services “information” category, the gains were robust across all sectors private and public. Although average hours were flat as were average hourly wages, but because inflation is so low, real earnings ticked up somewhat.

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From the household survey the BLS reports an increase in the labor force of 397,000 and a slight uptick in the labor force participation rate as well as the employment to population ratio. These are encouraging signs the employment opportunities may be seen as improving.

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There was also a decline in the number of persons unemployed less than 5 weeks, there are now 311,000 fewer. However, there is still a significant number of those unemployed over 27 weeks, that number fell by only 23,000, while those unemployed between 5 and 26 weeks increased by 379,000. The longer term unemployed are much less likely to find work and it has proved to be a persistent problem as those workers are likely losing skills while not at work. Moreover, those unemployed more than 27 weeks represent about 26% of those unemployed.

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However, there are other encouraging signs in the labor market. Quits continue to rise.

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And, there has also been a significant spike in those workers working part time for economic reasons transitioning to full time employment.

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Downward Q1 Revision

by Zach Bethune, Tom Cooley, and Peter Rupert

Today’s second estimate of Q1 GDP issued by the BEA reveals a downward revision of nearly one percentage point, from 0.2% to -0.7.

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Many prognosticators envisioned an even larger drop so this “restrained” decline might not send shock waves across markets…unless, of course, there are other signs of weakness moving forward that might signal weaker Q2 growth. For example, inventories were revised down by about half of what people thought, $15.2 billion. While personal consumption expenditures saw almost no revision, the (expected) downward revision in exports materialized, revised down by $26.3 billion. Final sales also saw a big downward revision compared to the advance estimate, from -0.5 to -1.2.

Residual Seasonality and GDP vs. GDI

A recent report from the San Francisco Fed argues that the large revisions to first Quarter data and the remarkable weakness in the first quarter for the last few years may be the result of “residual seasonality” rather than fundamentals.  Economists at the Federal Reserve Board reached a similar conclusion.  The Bureau of Economic Analysis is looking at this issue and will incorporate their conclusions into the July revisions to GDP. Many expect that review to result in a .5% or so upward revision of the data In our view it would be a mistake to attach too much importance to this possibility.  The first quarter was unquestionably weak for reasons that were quite foreseeable. Some of it was bad luck (i.e. bad weather and port strikes) but some of it was fundamental – lower exports because of a stronger dollar and weakness in other economies.

The more important issues are twofold: How does this bear on the argument that we we are caught in a period of “secular stagnation” as former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers and others have argued. And, how does the weaker economic growth impact the probability of Fed “liftoff” in the near future.  On the first question it would be hard to refute the idea that U.S. potential GDP has shifted down a notch. Compared with previous recoveries this one continues to be anemic. There has also been a distinct slowing of both residential and non-residential fixed investment that does not bode well for future growth of the economy.

Another theme that has emerged is a discussion of the merits of looking at Gross Domestic Income (GDI) vs. GDP. The argument is that GDI is a better gauge of the economy than the traditional Gross Domestic Product (GDP) measure. The reasons given can be found here and here. As the graphs below show, however, this is certainly not a matter of using one or the other.  Each has shown lackluster performance. In NIPA theory these two measures are equivalent, but, GDP and GDI do differ at times. Over a long time frame, they do indeed almost perfectly rest on top of each other.

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If we zoom in to the recent experience since 2007, real GDI has performed better than real GDP. Indeed it is the end points that signal a decline in real GDP but not in real GDI…

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…but it was the opposite in the early 1990’s when real GDI does worse than real GDP.

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However, the main point to be made here is that using either one tells a story of an anemic recovery since the Great Recession of 2007, and splitting hairs over GDP vs. GDI seems a minor issue.

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All of these factors are going to caution the FOMC when it meets in June because the last thing they want to do is derail a recovery that is now both mature and showing some signs of weakness. By and large the labor market seems to be operating near full employment, albeit without wage growth. Whether the first quarter weakness signals a more prolonged slowdown won’t be known for some time but it seems likely to put liftoff on hold for a while.

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April Employment…Not Bad

by Zach Bethune, Tom Cooley and Peter Rupert

Today’s employment report for April from the BLS showed a solid gain in employment +223,000. However, a downward revision of -41,000 leaves March at a disappointing 85,000 with one more revision to go. Probably the best thing about the report is that it was not bad. The numbers roughly hit the consensus forecast of 230,000. But the recent performance underscore how noisy this estimate is.  Nevertheless, the numbers signal an economy that is growing slowly, but definitely growing in spite of many challenges in the global environment.

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The gains, however, were pretty much across the board, although, mining and logging saw a third straight month of decline as the oil industry continues to struggle with the low oil prices. There has been a slight uptick in those prices of late.

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Average hours of work have remained pretty flat over the last few months, around 34.5.

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Nominal earnings growth remains flat, but in real terms, labor income is up.

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On the household side of the ledger, there was a fairly restrained increase in employment, 166,000. The unemployment rate declined slightly to 5.4%…that is from 0.05465056 to 0.05442727.

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And the long term unemployed (27 weeks and over) fell slightly but remains elevated, obviously a concern as these workers may lose skills and become even more difficult to hire.

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The employment to population ratio is also quite sluggish…stuck at 59.3% since February.

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The other slightly negative news is that productivity declined for the second straight month…it is the first time this has happened since 2006!

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Putting this together, it appears as if the good news is that it wasn’t bad news…meaning that it does not appear that it will change anyone’s view of when the Fed will begin liftoff. Many commentators have feared that future revisions of Q1 GDP could show that it actually shrank.  These number do not seem consistent with that, although as noted above, they could be revised downward as well.

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