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Friday, August 22, 2014

Fed Chair Yellen: Unemployment Rate "somewhat overstates" Improvement in Labor Market

by Calculated Risk on 8/22/2014 10:00:00 AM

From Fed Chair Janet Yellen at Jackson Hole Economic Symposium: Labor Market Dynamics and Monetary Policy. Excerpts:

One convenient way to summarize the information contained in a large number of indicators is through the use of so-called factor models. Following this methodology, Federal Reserve Board staff developed a labor market conditions index from 19 labor market indicators, including four I just discussed. This broadly based metric supports the conclusion that the labor market has improved significantly over the past year, but it also suggests that the decline in the unemployment rate over this period somewhat overstates the improvement in overall labor market conditions.
emphasis added
More excerpts:
[W]ith the economy getting closer to our objectives, the FOMC's emphasis is naturally shifting to questions about the degree of remaining slack, how quickly that slack is likely to be taken up, and thereby to the question of under what conditions we should begin dialing back our extraordinary accommodation. As should be evident from my remarks so far, I believe that our assessments of the degree of slack must be based on a wide range of variables and will require difficult judgments about the cyclical and structural influences in the labor market. While these assessments have always been imprecise and subject to revision, the task has become especially challenging in the aftermath of the Great Recession, which brought nearly unprecedented cyclical dislocations and may have been associated with similarly unprecedented structural changes in the labor market--changes that have yet to be fully understood.

So, what is a monetary policymaker to do? Some have argued that, in light of the uncertainties associated with estimating labor market slack, policymakers should focus mainly on inflation developments in determining appropriate policy. To take an extreme case, if labor market slack was the dominant and predictable driver of inflation, we could largely ignore labor market indicators and look instead at the behavior of inflation to determine the extent of slack in the labor market. In present circumstances, with inflation still running below the FOMC's 2 percent objective, such an approach would suggest that we could maintain policy accommodation until inflation is clearly moving back toward 2 percent, at which point we could also be confident that slack had diminished.

Of course, our task is not nearly so straightforward. Historically, slack has accounted for only a small portion of the fluctuations in inflation. Indeed, unusual aspects of the current recovery may have shifted the lead-lag relationship between a tightening labor market and rising inflation pressures in either direction. For example, as I discussed earlier, if downward nominal wage rigidities created a stock of pent-up wage deflation during the economic downturn, observed wage and price pressures associated with a given amount of slack or pace of reduction in slack might be unusually low for a time. If so, the first clear signs of inflation pressure could come later than usual in the progression toward maximum employment. As a result, maintaining a high degree of monetary policy accommodation until inflation pressures emerge could, in this case, unduly delay the removal of accommodation, necessitating an abrupt and potentially disruptive tightening of policy later on.

Conversely, profound dislocations in the labor market in recent years--such as depressed participation associated with worker discouragement and a still-substantial level of long-term unemployment--may cause inflation pressures to arise earlier than usual as the degree of slack in the labor market declines. However, some of the resulting wage and price pressures could subsequently ease as higher real wages draw workers back into the labor force and lower long-term unemployment. As a consequence, tightening monetary policy as soon as inflation moves back toward 2 percent might, in this case, prevent labor markets from recovering fully and so would not be consistent with the dual mandate.