By Whitney Mancuso
As the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) meets amid much speculation about the next steps for monetary policy, it does so in in the context of an August 2013 Employment Situation report that was generally viewed as a mixed bag. The employment numbers undershot the consensus among most market observers, while the unemployment rate edged down again. But even the drop in the unemployment rate — a cumulative 0.8 percentage point over the past 12 months — failed to impress everyone. Martin Feldstein, for instance:
The official unemployment rate has declined sharply (to 7.3% last month from 10% in October 2009) only because so many people have stopped looking for work or are working part-time.
Part of what Professor Feldstein is referring to, of course, is the labor force participation rate (LFPR), which measures the share of the adult population that is in the labor force. LFPR includes those who are employed and those who are unemployed but looking for a job, but not those who are unemployed and are not looking for a job (which includes retirees and discouraged workers).
We generally refrain from direct commentary about issues related to monetary policy in the time surrounding FOMC meetings. I won't break with that tradition but am more than happy to highlight a resource that can help you draw your own conclusions about all things having to do with the labor market, including the LFPR.
Our Center for Human Capital Studies' Federal Reserve Human Capital Compendium is a collection of Federal Reserve System research published on topics related to employment, unemployment, and workforce development. Our latest update offers several entries that address the LFPR and its implications for the labor market. Two recent additions:
Will a Surge in Labor Force Participation Impede Unemployment Rate Improvement? Researchers at the Richmond Fed concluded that, in the short run, the LFPR and the unemployment rate are negatively correlated. This conclusion is derived from the fact that unemployed participants in the labor force are more likely to leave the labor force than those who are employed. Also, movement from unemployed non-participant to employed participant (basically skipping the unemployed-participant phase) is more likely in an improving labor market. They concluded that movements in the LFPR lag six months behind movements in the unemployment rate.
Cyclical versus Secular: Decomposing the Recent Decline in U.S. Labor Force Participation. Researchers at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston found that since 2008, the decline in the LFPR largely reflects demographic effects of an aging population. Furthermore, the cyclical response of the LFPR during the latest recession and recovery period has been smaller than expected, so the unemployment rate would have been three-quarters of a percent lower if the LFPR had followed historical norms. They conclude that going forward, the unemployment rate should give an accurate read on labor market conditions and that further cyclical declines in the LFPR are unlikely if the labor market continues to improve.
But much more information on the LFPR and other topics including wages and earnings, outsourcing, and productivity is available. If you're looking for something to do while you await the FOMC's decision, one option is building a little human capital of your own with our Human Capital Compendium.