Strong January Employment Report

by: Zach Bethune, Thomas Cooley, Peter Rupert

The Bureau of Labor Statistics release of the January jobs report shows continued strength in the labor market, with total nonfarm employment rising 257,000. Moreover, the current increase, along with revisions over the past two months show employment growth averaging 336,000 over the past three months. The revision to November, up to 423,000, was the largest monthly increase since May of 2010.


In addition to the usual monthly revisions, the BLS also undertook annual re-benchmarking:

With the release of January 2015 data on February 6, 2015, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) introduced its annual revision of national estimates of employment, hours, and earnings from the Current Employment Statistics (CES) monthly survey of nonfarm establishments. Each year, the CES survey realigns its sample-based estimates to incorporate universe counts of employment—a process known as benchmarking. Comprehensive counts of employment, or benchmarks, are derived primarily from unemployment insurance (UI) tax reports that nearly all employers are required to file with State Workforce Agencies.

For those data geeks wanting to know more about benchmark revisions, here is the full article from the BLS. Summarizing that article, “The March 2014 benchmark level for total nonfarm employment is 137,214,000; this figure is 67,000 above the sample-based estimate for March 2014, an adjustment of less than 0.05 percent.” The BLS then uses the re-benchmarked data to revise the rest of the year, “From April 2014 to December 2014, the net birth/death model cumulatively added 968,000, compared with 841,000 in the previously published April to December employment estimates.”

Employment gains were robust, the only major sector to shed jobs was the Government sector, losing 10,000, meaning that Private sector jobs increased by 267,000.

Average weekly hours, however, have shown no change over the past 3 months, stuck at 34.6.

Average hourly earnings ticked up slightly to $24.75, and growth has averaged about 2% per year since 2010, but with CPI inflation running below 2% of late means real hourly earnings are growing, albeit modestly.


While the strong report certainly keeps the Fed on a steady *normalization* pace, there are still areas in the labor market that, if not troublesome, remain nagging issues. While the employment to population took a nose dive during the great recession…and is still quite low relative to its all-time (at least since WWII) peak…


…however, if one zooms in, there has been a steady increase over the past year and a half or so…


Another somewhat nagging issue is the fate of the long term unemployed. Indeed, the number of those unemployed 27 weeks or longer actually rose in January, from 2.785 million to 2.80 million persons. The percent of the unemployed who are unemployed 27 weeks or longer has been bouncing between 31% and 32% for the last six months or so….
udur27a-2015-02-06The number of persons employed part time for economic reasons (or involuntary part-time workers) also didn’t improve in January. There remains 6.8 million individuals who would like to be working full time but couldn’t because the were unable to find full time work or had their hours cut back.


The rate at which these workers are transitioning into full time continues to show no improvement…rate-pter-fter-2015-02-06

…and their wages are declining relative to full time workers.
wage-ratio-2015-02-06It is no surprise that, despite a low 5.7% unemployment rate since October, there is still concern about the health of the labor market.

4th Quarter GDP and Compensation

by Zach Bethune, Thomas Cooley and Peter Rupert

GDP Report
The BEA’s advance estimate of GDP  for the 4th quarter shows a 2.6% increase in real GDP, sharply lower than the 4- 5.0% rises for the 2nd and 3rd quarter. This was below prior estimates and was largely taken by the markets as negative overall. Personal consumption expenditures led the positive side of things, growing at 4.3%, making it the largest contributor to growth. Exports and private nonresidential fixed investment also contributed to the growth. Working against that growth was an increase in imports, growing 8.9%, contributing -1.39 percentage points to the growth. Government spending also saw a large decline.

Although the growth was below the prior quarters, the economy increased at a rate of 2.5% over the prior year.  This continues to be respectable recovery although not as fast as many prior rebounds.  The open question is whether the moderation of the rebound reflects the drag created by the stagnant European and Japanese Economies and the slowing of the BRICS.  The strengthening of the dollar will begin to take a toll on exports over the coming quarters so it remains to be seen if the recovery can pick up any momentum.

gdprealchgm-2015-01-30 gdp-cyc-2015-01-30 pce-cyc-2015-01-30 inv-cyc-2015-01-30


Labor Markets

Also out today is the Employment Cost Index from the BLS. The ECI for all civilian workers increased 0.6% in the 4th quarter. Wages and salaries (70% of compensation) rose 0.5% while benefits (30% of compensation) increased 0.6%. Plaguing some policy makers is the weak response of compensation of employees; however, some are less concerned. From the FOMC minutes of the December meeting:

Although a few participants suggested that the recent uptick in the employment cost index or average hourly earnings could be a tentative sign of an upturn in wage growth, most participants saw no clear evidence of a broad-based acceleration in wages. A couple of participants, however, pointing to the weak statistical relationship between wage inflation and labor market conditions, suggested that the pace of wage inflation was providing relatively little information about the degree of labor underutilization.

Further, they see the recent decline in energy prices as helpful in supporting consumption growth. From Wednesday’s FOMC statement (emphasis added):

Information received since the Federal Open Market Committee met in December suggests that economic activity has been expanding at a solid pace.  Labor market conditions have improved further, with strong job gains and a lower unemployment rate.  On balance, a range of labor market indicators suggests that underutilization of labor resources continues to diminish.  Household spending is rising moderately; recent declines in energy prices have boosted household purchasing power.


World Prices

by Thomas Cooley, Peter Rupert, and Zach Bethune

The problem of deflation is not just a concern for fans of American Football. It has been troubling economists and financial market observers since Japan slipped into deflation in their lost decade of the 1990’s and the concern has become more pronounced as the European Economy, particularly the Eurozone, has struggled to escape from a lost decade of its own following the financial crisis of 2007-2009 and has been on the brink of deflation – a sustained fall in the price level – for the past few years. Now, with commodity prices falling and the European Economy in continued stagnation, the ECB has finally decided to undertake some serious monetary stimulus in the form of large scale purchases of sovereign debt, as has been done in most of the other major economies of the world over the past few years. Their goal is to stimulate their stagnant economy, improve their competitiveness by lowering the value of the Euro relative to the dollar, and stave off deflation. In a global economy domestic policy actions have ripple effects, sometimes large ones, on other economies. If countries were all trying to improve their competitiveness at once it can look like a currency war or at least be confusing.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics recent release showed the U.S. CPI declining at the end of 2014 raising the issue of downward price pressures in the U.S. Not all of this was a reflection of declining energy prices – they have been falling rapidly in the past year – because core inflation, excluding food and energy, has been falling as well. What is going on with world prices and how does it impact the U.S. economy? Since the economy is recovering well as we have documented in previous posts, the pressure on the Federal Reserve to normalize monetary policy and begin raising interest rates should come about largely because of concerns about inflation. But, the current environment is one in which the struggles of some our most important trading partners has incentivized them to push the value of their currencies down, lowering import prices in the U.S. but also stimulating capital inflows to the strong U.S. economy.

First, lets look at prices in a collection of important economies. The picture below shows the broad CPI or equivalent for Japan, the U.S. and some key European economies.

Prices have turned down, more dramatically in some countries than others, and as the following picture shows it is not just energy prices that is driving them.

These price levels reflect a complex set of drivers and ultimately what is going to be most important is the relative price of currencies. The countries that have been most stagnant are the Euro area nations and Japan. (An earlier post also contrasted these areas to the BRICs). The picture below shows the relative performance of these economies in the aftermath of financial crises. Real GDP growth is stagnant in Japan and the Eurozone economies as we have documented before. The U.S. and U.K. in contrast are recovering well and showing steady growth.


More important than the price level, however, is the relative price of the currencies. The picture below shows the real effective exchange rates for the Euro, Yen, Pound and Dollar. What they show is that the dollar and pound have appreciated sharply and the Yen has depreciated sharply.  The Euro, adjusted for domestic inflation, has not moved much.  The Euro zone countries need the real value of their exchange rate to decline sharply with the ECB’s policy in order to restore their competitiveness.  But they are hampered in the end by the fact it is one currency that links very disparate economies.  It remains to be seen how effective they are.


The Labor Market Downturn and the Role of Consumer Credit

by Zach Bethune, Thomas Cooley and Peter Rupert

The labor market added 252,000 jobs in December according to the Employment Situation released today. In addition, there were substantial positive revisions to last two months: 243k to 261k in October and 321k to 353k in November.


The unemployment rate declined to 5.6%, which marks the lowest it has been since mid 2008. While the number of unemployed workers hasn’t fallen to its pre-recession level, the remaining ‘slack’ left in the labor market is largely due to the longer-term unemployed or those with jobs but who are underutilized, like the part-time workers for economic reasons. The story in terms of how (and in which dimensions) the labor market is recovering remains the same: slow but continued progress after a historically deep recession.


Our usual goal in these posts is to describe where the US is in its now 7-year recovery from the recent recession. However, we ask a different question in this post (one that has been the central focus of many economists since the crisis started): why was the downturn in the labor market so deep?

The Labor Market Downturn

Compared to past recessions, the increase in unemployment during the Great Recession was the worst since the Great Depression. The unemployment rate more than doubled from mid 2007 to late 2009. Even compared to recent recessions, this crisis was particularly severe. What factors led to such a severe recession? In my job market paper, “Consumer Credit, Unemployment, and Aggregate Labor Market Dynamics”,  I study the role of  households’ ability to access and use consumer credit when they become unemployed and ask if this relationship, at the household level, can help us explain the depth of the recent recession.


The Role of Consumer Credit

The Great Recession was unique in many respects, but a feature that continually stands out has been the response of household debt and borrowing. The credit boom of the late 1990s led many households to increase their reliance on debt to finance consumption and investment. The ratio of debt-to-income increased from around 0.6 in the 1980s to nearly 1.2 at the peak of the boom in 2007. During the crash, both debt and borrowing fell at rates never seen before as the unemployment rate doubled. Debt-to-income currently stands around 0.95.

Not only was the pattern in unemployment and borrowing similar in the aggregate, we also see them linked if we look across regions of the US. For instance, counties that had the largest increase, and subsequent fall, in borrowing during the Great Recession also tended to be the counties that experienced the largest declines in employment or increases in unemployment (see an excellent non-technical summary of this work here). These facts have led to a new emphasis on research into how problems in household financial markets might exacerbate recessions.

One area of household debt that was a strong predictor of the response of unemployment was borrowing on consumer credit lines, mostly comprised of credit cards(Mian and Sufi, 2009). The fall in consumer credit borrowing between 2007 and 2009 was nearly twice as large as in the previous 4 recessions.


Not only were households borrowing less, it was also more difficult to access the consumer credit market. Evidence from the Federal Reserve Board’s Senior Loan Officer’s Survey suggests that lenders were tightening credit card standards and also decreasing limits on outstanding accounts. Consumer credit became more difficult to access during the Great Recession at the same time that the labor market was deteriorating.


This leads to the question of what was happening at the household level between a consumer’s access to credit and their labor market status. Evidence from the 2007-2009 Panel Survey of Consumer Finances suggests that not only was credit being tightened for all consumers over this time period, but that it was being tightened more strongly for consumers that lost their jobs. These households applied for credit more frequently and were denied at a higher rate. The difference in the rate of denials was driven by denials that were employment and income related, being told by lenders that their income was too low. In the end, the rate of monthly borrowing fell 60% more for an average consumer that lost their job than an average consumer that maintained employment. Put simply, a job loss over the Great Recession corresponded to a significant reduction in a household’s ability to borrow on consumer credit.

Accounting for this relationship in a macroeconomic model leads to recessions that are around 70% deeper than what a standard model would predict. A shock to the economy, say a fall in productivity or house prices, gets amplified if the unemployed face tighter credit constraints. As the unemployment rate increases, a higher fraction of households are credit constrained, borrowing falls, and subsequently the demand for firms’ products. The decrease in ‘aggregate demand’ lowers firms’ demand for labor which induces more unemployment. This cycle repeats itself, causing the recession to become deeper.


The evidence above highlights two aspects of why the fall in household borrowing between 2007 and 2009 corresponded closely with the increase in unemployment. First, the complementarities between the household credit market and the labor market run down to the household level. It became more difficult to borrow precisely for households that demanded it the most, the unemployed. Second, this relationship affected the incentives for firms to hire, which exacerbated the initial causes of the recession.  Accounting for the relationship between borrowing and unemployment at the household level is important in understanding the trends we see aggregate data.



Bethune, Zachary (2014), “Consumer Credit, Unemployment, and Aggregate Labor Market Dynamics” in mimeo. 

Mian, Atif and Amir Sufi (2010), “Household Leverage and the Recession of 2007 to 2009″ IMF Economic Review, Palgrave Macmillan, vol. 58(1), pages 74-117, August.

Q3 GDP Final Estimate: Christmas Came in The Third Quarter

by Zach Bethune, Thomas Cooley and Peter Rupert

GDP Report

The BEA announced in the 3rd estimate that real GDP increased at a s.a.a.r. of 5.0% for 2014 Q3. This was the strongest quarterly growth rate in over a decade.  It seems clear that the U.S. recovery is continuing apace and, if the economy is not held back by weak growth in Europe and the BRICS, we should continue to improve. A favorable sign is that personal consumption expenditures (PCE) contributed about half of the total, split pretty evenly between goods and services. Durable goods expenditures continued to be strong, increasing 9.2% after a 14.1% increase in the 2nd quarter.




How confident should we be that this expansion has legs?

Five percent growth is a healthy number and a good excuse for an extra glass of holiday cheer. It still makes sense, however, to view this recovery in the context of other business cycles. When we do, it is apparent that this economy is still climbing out of what was a very deep hole and very tepid recovery to date. The pictures below show the path of GDP, Consumption and Investment, in this recovery contrasted with the paths of other post-war business cycles. This makes it clear that, while things are looking better, we might want to keep the good champagne corked for a while longer. The fact that this recovery is set against the background of a world economy that is very feeble is a cause for tempering the optimism.

Another positive sign for the holiday is the report from the BLS today that, once again, initial claims for unemployment has declined. The 4-week moving average has been trending down and now is as low as at any time over the last several decades.


The Context

The picture below reprises a theme from our previous post.  The U.S. recovery looks great when contrasted with Japan and Europe. The question is can we continue to sustain this progress when they are struggling? Economic linkages wax and wane as the terms of trade change between nations. Falling commodity prices have strengthened the U.S. dollar. Some trading partners have pushed down the value of their currencies. These contribute to keeping inflation low and this in turn helps domestic consumption. Most signs point to the recovery continuing to be robust but there are many moving parts to this picture and we will have to continue to watch them all.




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