Friday, April 2, 2010

Fed May Tie Interest Rate Increases To Job Growth

At least one member of the Federal Reserve Bank's management team has indicated that the Federal Reserve should only increase interest rates when the job market improves. However, he has also indicated that his recommendation is contingent upon continuing low inflation, indicating that rates may begin to increase even in the absence of a significant recovery in the labor market. See the following article from Economist's View.

I'm encouraged that at least one Federal Reserve policymaker (though not a voting member of the FOMC) is linking increases in the target federal funds rate, i.e. moving away from a zero interest rate policy, to improvements in the labor market. However, if expected inflation begins increasing, all bets are off.

That's the part that concerns me. How quickly will policymakers abandon efforts to stimulate employment by maintaining a zero interest rate policy if they start to get worried about inflation? What, exactly, is the tradeoff here? Will any sign of inflation whatsoever cause policymakers to panic and start aggressively raising interest rates even if unemployment remains elevated, or will concerns over employment cause them to be patient and accept some inflation in the short-run? Again, it's encouraging that employment concerns are coming to the forefront of the policy decision, but will those concerns carry sufficient weight if there are signs that inflation expectations are increasing? I'm worried that they won't:
Prospects for Sustained Recovery and Employment Gains, by Dennis P. Lockhart, President and Chief Executive Officer, Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta: After the deepest and longest recession in the past half century ... the U.S. economy is now in recovery. Today I want to discuss the prospects that the recovery ... is sustainable—and the implications ... for perhaps the most vexing current problem coming out of the recession: unemployment. ...

The economy remains in a transitional phase from a period that depended on support of public sector programs to a period of resumed growth based on private spending. For the recovery to be sustained, we need consumers to consume and businesses to spend on inventory, investment goods, and human resources. Economic forecasts hinge on how formidable those positive forces will be and on the strength of countervailing headwinds.

Views about the economic outlook fall roughly into two narratives. The more optimistic scenario is a V-shaped bounce back from severe recession. ... By contrast, the second scenario is a relatively modest recovery, with slow reduction of unemployment. ... In ... Atlanta..., our outlook is closer to the second narrative.

Perspective on labor markets
As already suggested, an implication of this slow recovery scenario is the very gradual decline of today's unacceptably high rate of unemployment. ... Today, the rate stands at 9.7 percent, down from a high of more than 10 percent in October.

I view unemployment as a daunting economic challenge—and very likely a dominant political issue—of the period ahead. ... Today, there are about 130 million payroll jobs in the United States, and that number is about 8.4 million lower than at the beginning of the recession. ...

About 15 million people in the United States are unemployed. ... Also, underemployment is prevalent. The underemployed include both discouraged workers... as well as individuals who are working part-time but want to work full-time. The unemployment rate that combines the fully unemployed and underemployed workers is about 17 percent.

Another indication of underemployment is reduced hours of work. Average hours of work per week are still well below prerecession levels...

Despite the weak state of labor markets, there are signs that the worst may be behind us. The rate of job loss is slowing. The rate of decline in payroll employment has been close to zero in the last couple of months. Also, while initial and continuing unemployment claims are at historically high levels, both have fallen.

Another bright spot is temporary employment. The temporary services sector shed more than 800,000 jobs during the recession but has seen a notable increase since last fall. This improvement is noteworthy as temporary employment is often viewed as a leading indicator.

The normal state of affairs in the country's labor market is a dynamic mix of separations from employment and new job creation. There are two causes of separations—layoffs and voluntarily quitting a job, or so-called quits. ... Today's slow pace of employment gains is due more to the slow pace of job creation, not the high rate of layoffs.

Job gains, as conventionally understood, require two things: a vacancy and a worker able to fill that vacancy. For most of 2009, vacancies were relatively flat while unemployment continued to rise. This condition suggests the existence of what labor economists call "match inefficiencies."

There are two key types of match inefficiency. One is geographic mismatch. In 2008, the percentage of individuals living in a county or state different than the previous year was the lowest recorded in more than 50 years of data. People may be reluctant to relocate for a new job if the value of their house has declined. In addition, many who would like to move are under water in their mortgage or can't sell their homes.

The second inefficiency is skills mismatch. In simple terms, the skills people have don't match the jobs available. Coming out of this recession there may be a more or less permanent change in the composition of jobs. Skill mismatches require new training, and there is evidence that adult education institutions have responded to this need. For instance, officials at Miami-Dade College in Florida, which is the largest college in the country and a grantor of associate and vocational degrees, told us they have recently seen a strong increase in enrollment, especially of men in their 20s.

This evidence of retooling is encouraging, but, to be realistic, structural adjustment takes time. ...

All things considered, labor market trends appear to be headed in the right direction. But it's quite possible the recovery could be well advanced before any significant reduction of unemployment materializes. It's also quite possible circumstances justifying the start of a cycle of policy tightening will develop well before the unemployment rate has found a satisfactory level. ... So let me now comment on how I'm thinking about the relationship between the Fed's employment mandate and monetary policy.

Implications for monetary policy
As you know, monetary policy is highly accommodative. And I think this stance is appropriate at present. I continue to support ... a low federal funds rate target for an extended period. ... As long as inflation remains subdued and inflation expectations anchored, a key factor for me is improvement of employment markets.

Going forward, I will be looking for signs that employment gains are likely to repeat and accumulate and, once achieved, are likely to be durable.

What might such signs be? One indication would be that the process of job creation is improving. In January, we saw a sizable increase of job openings, according to the BLS. I'm looking for that to become a trend. A second sign would be a decline in the measured rate of underemployment. And the third sign would be a string of employment gains large enough to appreciably move the unemployment rate down over time.

There are hopeful, if tentative, signs of improvement in employment markets. We have a long way to go, and for that reason I believe it is premature to assume an imminent reversal of the Fed's accommodative policy. But you can interpret the fact that I am here discussing the conditions under which such a reversal will be appropriate as an indication of my conviction that we are, finally, moving in the right direction.
This article has been republished from Mark Thoma's blog, Economist's View.
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