Wednesday, February 08, 2012

The impact of changes in the participation rate on the unemployment rate

by Bill McBride on 2/08/2012 11:27:00 AM

Yesterday Goldman Goldman Sachs economist Sven Jari Stehn argued that the labor force participation rate would remain "broadly flat at 63.7% through the end of 2013". He argued there would be a cyclical boost to the participation rate this year from the recovering economy, but a structural decline in the participation rate due to demographics. (Note: some decline in the participation rate has been expected over the next couple of decades).

The updated population controls from the 2010 Census showed a higher percentage of younger and older workers compared to the prime working age group (25 to 54), and also more women (participation rate is lower for women) than originally estimated - so the aggregate participation rate is now at 63.7%. Stehn argues that structural factors alone could push the aggregate participation rate down further to 63.1% by the end of 2012, but that this will probably be offset by more people returning to the labor force as the economy recovers.

The participation rate plays a key role in calculating to unemployment rate. First a few definitions from the BLS Glossary:

Civilian noninstitutional population: Included are persons 16 years of age and older residing in the 50 States and the District of Columbia who are not inmates of institutions (for example, penal and mental facilities, homes for the aged), and who are not on active duty in the Armed Forces.

Labor force: The labor force includes all persons classified as employed or unemployed in accordance with the definitions contained in this glossary.

Labor force participation rate: The labor force as a percent of the civilian noninstitutional population.

Unemployment rate: The unemployment rate represents the number unemployed as a percent of the labor force.

So a lower participation rate - with the same level of employment - would mean a lower unemployment rate.

Below is a table showing the sensitivity of the unemployment rate to three levels of the participation rate (centered around Goldman's forecast) and three rates of job creation for 2012. (note: this is mixing two different surveys - the household survey for the participation rate and unemployment rate, and the establishment survey for payroll jobs. Over time these two surveys move together, but there can be significant variability in the short run).

December 2012 Unemployment Rate based on Jobs added and Participation Rate
 Participation Rate
Jobs added per month (000s)1507.6%8.0%8.5%

If the January pace of payroll employment growth continues (around 250 thousand jobs per month), and the participation rate stays at 63.7%, then the unemployment rate could fall to 7.3% in December 2012. But even at a slower pace of payroll growth, the unemployment rate could be at or below 8% by the end of the year - unless the participation rate rises or the economy slows sharply.

The recent FOMC projections (see below) are for the unemployment rate to be in the 8.2% to 8.5% range by Q4 2012, and perhaps the FOMC was expecting the participation rate to increase this year.

If the participation rate doesn't increase, and payroll growth continues (even at 150 thousand per month), then the FOMC projections are too high. But even if the FOMC revises down their unemployment rate forecast, they will still view a 7.5% to 8% unemployment rate at the end of 2012 as unacceptably high.

Unemployment projections of Federal Reserve Governors and Reserve Bank presidents
Unemployment Rate1201220132014
January 2012 Projections8.2 to 8.57.4 to 8.16.7 to 7.6
1 Projections for the unemployment rate are for the average civilian unemployment rate in the fourth quarter of the year indicated.