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Economic Insights

The central bank’s tricky task is to identify the right labor-market signals on which to base its policy decisions.

Federal Reserve chairwoman Janet Yellen has made it clear in her testimony: monetary policy will respond to the state of labor markets. She also has made it clear that no single jobs measure will move the Fed.1 Policymakers will respond to an array of indicators to get a complete picture. Without access to the Fed’s closed meetings or Chairwoman Yellen’s private thoughts, it is impossible to know exactly what mix of indicators the Fed is using or how it is using them, but it is possible to offer perspective on the array of available measures.

The Unemployment Rate
The headline unemployment rate receives much attention. It is, however, often misleading, as Yellen pointed out in her recent congressional testimony, though using typically guarded language. The problem with the measure is that it counts only those looking for work as unemployed and then states that count as a percentage of the workforce, those at work plus those looking. If people get frustrated with the search and cease the effort, that hardly speaks well of the labor situation, but they do not count in the calculation. The rate, then, can give a false picture of reality.       

That certainly is what has happened recently. This official gauge of unemployment has fallen, from 7.3% of the workforce a year ago to 6.2% recently.2 In this calculation, however, the actual number of people at work or seeking work has barely increased. Since the nation’s working-age population has grown during this time, it seems clear that an increasing number of people have ceased looking for work or, perhaps, decided not to start. Put another way, participation of people in the workforce has dropped, from 63.4% of the civilian population, in fact, to 62.9%. Little wonder, then, that the very modest 1.4% increase in employment had such an outsized influence on the overall unemployment rate. Matters look much different when the Labor Department adds into the calculation those discouraged workers, those working part time for economic reasons, and, in the department’s words, those “marginally attached to the labor force.” After these adjustments, the combined measure of unemployment and underemployment comes to 12.2% of the workforce, down from 13.9% a year ago, but hardly the stuff that would get the Fed to cease worrying over the jobs situation and change policy.

Payrolls  
This indicator is more stable than the unemployment rate. Aside from the perspective it offers, the Fed no doubt also values it because it is truly independent of the unemployment rate. Whereas the Labor Department develops the unemployment rate from a monthly survey of households, this figure comes from data provided by businesses. The payrolls data are, however, not without flaws. Because it is more difficult to get timely information from small businesses than large, the directions taken by those larger employers tend to dominate current payroll figures. The Labor Department uses estimates to bridge this gap, but these can either overstate or understate reality, especially when employment trends in large and small businesses diverge, which they frequently do.           

Payroll data do point to a marginally improved picture. During the past 12 months, net additions to payrolls have averaged 214,000 a month. That is up from 194,300 a month in 2013 and 186,300 in 2012. But such improvements, welcome as they are, are not likely on their own to move the Fed. Its policymakers are well aware how weak even these recent gains look compared with past cyclical recoveries, when payrolls grew typically by more than 300,000 a month, even decades ago when the economy and the labor force were smaller than they are today. The Fed also is well aware that total payroll employment only just recently surpassed its previous peak from six and a half years ago. The Fed knows that past recoveries have made much faster progress than this. Surely, the Fed wants further gains before it is willing to declare labor markets healthy and act on that judgment. No one at the Fed will, of course, say how much net gain will make policymakers comfortable, but it surely exceeds the 0.5% by which most recent total employment figure exceeds that distant past peak.

Still More Data      
If past Fed commentary is any indicator, monetary policymakers also are concerned about the mix of employment, in particular how much is full time and secure. The Fed will, as a consequence, also likely include in its deliberations a consideration of Labor Department statistics on part-time employment. Here, too, the figures suggest a while before anyone would judge the jobs situation healthy. Part-time jobs today constitute almost 5.5% of all jobs, down from a whopping 6.9% at the depths of the Great Recession in 2008–09, but still a bigger portion of the whole than in any other recovery. Indeed, today’s improved figure is still worse than the worst recorded in most past recessions. In all likelihood, the Fed will want to see considerably more progress here before it moves decisively to change policy.             

Other gauges that may well find their way into Fed deliberations include average weekly hours, particularly overtime, especially in concert with weekly earnings. Policymakers know that they must change policy before an inflationary wage momentum takes hold. If they do not, they will have to overcome, not just forestall, a difficult trend. But they also know that weekly wage figures reflect overtime, especially among hourly manufacturing workers who earn time and a half for weekly work above 40 hours. Policymakers will strive to distinguish such wage effects from anything more fundamental and so inflationary. In the past year, as overtime has increased 6.3% and the average workweek overall has increased 0.3%, weekly wages have increased 2.4%. Such a combination of events implies no underlying, inflationary wage pressure. If, however, overtime or the average workweek were to stabilize or drop and weekly wage gains were to accelerate, even modestly, it would signal the Fed that competition for workers was picking up and that policy should perhaps turn in a less supportive direction.      

A Final Word
No doubt the Fed will rely on still other data points to form its picture of labor markets and determine when they warrant policy modification. This brief review of some likely influences should nonetheless give a sense of the more general picture the Fed has painted of its plans. Its policymakers will avoid a single gauge and instead will weigh one indicator against another, taking account of each measure’s inadequacies to form their picture of labor markets and, from that complex analysis, steer policy.

 

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