More Weak Job Data: Have We Reached The Natural Rate?

by: Ed Dolan

The June report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows continued weak growth of payroll jobs. Just 80,000 new jobs were reported for the month, while an upward revision to the May data was cancelled by a downward revision for April. The unemployment rate remains stuck at 8.2%. What is more, the broad measure of unemployment, U-6, is actually climbing again after three years of decline. The broad measure includes discouraged workers and those involuntarily working part time. Is this as good as it is going to get?

The answer depends on which of two different stories of stalling job growth turns out to be true. The pessimistic view is that the recession has caused lasting structural damage to the labor market, so that the skills of some unemployed workers have become obsolete and they are unlikely ever to find work. In technical terms, that would mean that the natural rate of unemployment has risen. The natural rate is the lowest rate of unemployment that the economy can reach without risk of an unsustainable inflationary boom.

Alternatively, it may be that we are still well below the natural rate of unemployment, but something is holding back the expansion- overly cautious monetary policy, fiscal drag, a weak global economy, or some combination of the three. In that view, we can expect employment eventually to recover to historical levels once the expansion accelerates again.

On the face of it, there is some evidence for each of these views in the latest jobs report. In support of the pessimistic view, the rate of long-term unemployment remains at a level that is unprecedented compared with previous post-World War II recessions. In June, 41.9% of unemployed workers had been out of work for 27 weeks or more. That was down a bit from May, but the long-term unemployment rate has fallen just 0.7 percentage points over the past year. Before the recession began, fewer than 20% of unemployed workers had been without jobs that long.

In support of the view that there is still room for improvement, the latest jobs report shows signs of continuing fiscal drag, in the form of the loss of another 4,000 government jobs. With government employment in steady decline, the private sector must add even more jobs to bring the unemployment rate down.

Rather than pore over each month's data for clues, why not resolve the issue by measuring the natural rate of unemployment directly? That is just what Murat Tasci, a research economist at the Cleveland Fed has tried to do. In a recent research report, Tasci explains why he thinks that the natural rate of unemployment has not risen as sharply during the Great Recession as some people believe.

Tasci's approach begins from the observation that unemployment is, by definition, a process of job search. Although U-6, the broad unemployment rate, does include workers who are not looking for jobs because they think there are none, the standard unemployment rate includes only those who are actively looking for work. That being the case, short-term changes in unemployment depend on the relationship between flows into and out of the pool of unemployed workers. Those flows, in turn, depend on the balance between two groups, one consisting of those who lose their jobs or quit to find a better one, and the other consisting of those who find jobs or become discouraged and stop looking.

During the Great Recession, the unemployment rate rose sharply because separations increased and job-finding decreased. However, those changes do not greatly alter the longer-term trends that underlie cyclical changes. In the model used by Tasci and his colleagues, the long-term job-finding trend has decreased greatly over the past decade, but at the same time there has been a parallel downward trend in separations. As the following chart shows, the result is that the natural rate, which reflects the balance between separations and job finding, has moved up and down only modestly around a steady trend value of about 5.5%.

If the Great Recession has not changed the natural unemployment rate, then why has it taken so long for joblessness to return to its equilibrium level? Tasci offers two explanations.

One is that the economy as a whole has been growing slowly. As mentioned above, that may be because monetary policy is not allowing nominal GDP to grow fast enough, because of fiscal drag from falling federal defense expenditures and the budget squeeze on state and local governments, or because of troubles in major trading partners like Europe and China.

The other reason is that with both separations and job turnover trending downward, labor turnover as a whole is very slow. Recovery from a recession always requires some structural shifts in the labor force, for example, a move from construction jobs to service jobs following the collapse of the housing bubble. If total turnover is slow, that structural adjustment takes longer. The high long-term unemployment rate is one sign of that.

On balance, then, this line of research undermines the argument that the economy is already at its natural rate. What we see in the June job numbers are not, after all, as good as it is going to get. Things will get better-just not as quickly as we would like.