Monday, February 14, 2011

SF Fed: What Is the New Normal Unemployment Rate?

by Bill McBride on 2/14/2011 01:52:00 PM

An economic letter from Justin Weidner and John Williams at the SF Fed: What Is the New Normal Unemployment Rate?

In the past, the U.S. labor market has proven to be very flexible and recessions have not usually been followed by long-lasting increases in the unemployment rate. But, in the wake of the most recent recession, many economists are concerned that developments such as mismatches in the skills of workers and jobs, extended unemployment benefits, and a rise in long-term joblessness may have raised the “normal” or “natural” rate of unemployment above the 5% level that was thought to be typical before the downturn. Indeed, a few economists have gone so far as to argue that the rise in the unemployment rate to its current level of 9% primarily reflects an increase in the natural rate, implying there is little slack in labor markets and therefore little downward pressure on inflation.
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[see paper for estimates of “natural” rate of unemployment]
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Economists have cited a number of possible reasons why the natural rate of unemployment may have risen in recent years. In early 2009, eligibility for unemployment benefits was extended from 26 weeks to as much as 99 weeks. Extended benefits reduce the hardship on unemployed workers and their families during this severe downturn. However, they may also reduce the incentive of the unemployed to seek and accept less desirable jobs, which in turn may raise the measured unemployment rate.
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A second explanation is that the degree of mismatch between job seekers and potential employers has increased. The construction, finance, and real estate sectors have shrunk after the bursting of the housing bubble and the subsequent financial crisis. The skills of workers who used to be employed in those sectors may not be easily transferable to growing sectors such as education and health care (see Rissman 2009 and Barnichon et al. 2010). Similarly, the housing bust has left millions of homeowners underwater on their mortgages, which locks them into their homes and may make it more difficult for them to move to higher growth areas. These sectoral and geographic mismatches between workers and job openings may be making it harder for employers to fill vacancies.
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A third explanation involves the sizable increase in long-term unemployment over the past few years. Workers out of jobs for extended periods may experience higher rates of unemployment owing to deterioration of skills and weakening labor market attachment.
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Mounting evidence suggests that structural factors may have increased the “normal” rate of unemployment to about 6.7%. Much of this increase is likely to be temporary. In particular, the extension of unemployment benefits probably accounts for about half of the increase. But, even with a 6.7% natural rate, current and forecasted levels of unemployment imply that significant labor market slack will persist for several years. It is important to stress that each of the methods used to estimate the natural rate is subject to considerable error, especially given the limited experience of very high unemployment in the post-World War II U.S. economy.
The key is most of the increase in the unemployment rate is cyclical.