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Powell's Dashboard Shows How Far US Economy Has to Go on Jobs

Powell's Dashboard Shows How Far US Economy Has to Go on Jobs
Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell (AP)

Sunday, 07 March 2021 07:02 AM

Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell says he and his colleagues have learned a lot over the last decade about the meaning of full employment. Now, they’re looking at a new set of labor-market indicators as they chart a recovery from the steepest economic downturn on record.

Call it the Powell dashboard.

The Fed chair has recently highlighted several data points that underscore the central bank’s shift in focus beyond headline numbers and toward the most vulnerable sections of the workforce. It’s an important development for Fed-watchers to graspin guaging how long policy makers will keep interest rates near zero as they judge incoming data, including Friday’s jobs report.

The approach marks an evolution from that of Powell’s immediate predecessor, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, who maintained a “dashboard” of metrics to help determine remaining slack in the labor market created by the Great Recession. It focused Fed-watchers on an array of statistics like job openings, layoffs, underemployment and long-term joblessness that applied to the entire labor force.

By comparison, the statistics on Powell’s list home in on things like Black unemployment, wage growth for low-wage workers and labor force participation for those without college degrees, categories that historically have taken longer to recover from downturns than broader metrics.

“It’s a pretty notable change,” said Seth Carpenter, a former Fed official who is now chief U.S. economist at UBS. The new definition of full employment reflects a growing understanding among policy makers that they can’t conclude the economy has reached such a state until “you really are starting to see businesses compete for workers at every part of the income distribution,” he said.

Here are some of the numbers Powell is watching that underscore the challenges ahead:

Black Unemployment

Covid sent Black unemployment surging to 16.7% in April and May of last year. By January it had recovered to 9.2%. But it reversed some of that progress last month, rising to 9.9%, according to Labor Department figures published Friday.

The Fed has faced growing pressure to acknowledge the uneven expansion in recent years, and the experience of the pandemic has only added to it. Powell has repeatedly said he wants to see broad-based gains in employment, and not just in the aggregate or at the median. In August, the Fed announced changes to its monetary policy strategy to codify a more inclusive approach.

The long economic expansion that preceded the pandemic continually defied forecasts of accelerating inflation even as unemployment dwindled, indicating potential for further labor-market gains. By mid-2019, Black unemployment had fallen to 5.2% -- a record low in nearly a half-century of data.

During the financial crisis of 2008, Fed officials cut their benchmark interest rate to nearly zero, and didn’t begin raising it until December 2015. By then, the overall unemployment rate had recovered from a high of 10% to just 5%. But they didn’t take into account the unemployment rate for Black Americans, which at the time stood at 9.4%.

Low-Wage Earnings

As Fed chair, Yellen often cited wage growth as a metric for judging progress toward full employment, including a measure produced by the Atlanta Fed in her dashboard.

In a Feb. 10 speech, Powell cited pay for the bottom 25% of earners in particular. Just before the onset of the pandemic in the U.S., wage growth for this group of workers was 4.7% on a 12-month average basis, according to the Atlanta Fed. That marked its highest rate relative to overall wage growth since the late 1990s.

By January of this year, the latest month for which data are available, it had moderated to 4%. In the wake of both the 2001 and the 2007-09 downturns, earnings growth for the lowest wage quartile took almost three years to bottom out.

No College

Powell has also highlighted labor force participation rates specifically for those without college educations. The pandemic has had an outsize effect on them. As of last month, their participation rate was just 54.7%, according to the Labor Department figures published Friday.

Compare that with February 2020, when it stood at 58.3%, up from a low of 56.9% in 2015.

The magnitude of job losses during the Great Recession made the recovery from it a slow process. Many individuals looking for work eventually became discouraged and gave up, leading them to stop being counted as unemployed.

Under Yellen, the Fed elevated the labor force participation rate in its analysis of the state of employment to account for the likelihood that many of the so-called labor-force dropouts would take jobs if work was available. But the slow pace of recovery fanned arguments among policy makers over whether everyone who had lost work -- especially the least-educated -- would be able to find new employment and should therefore be counted in the shortfall.

In 2015, the year Yellen’s Fed began raising rates, “many forecasters worried that globalization and technological change might have permanently reduced job opportunities for these individuals, and that, as a result, there might be limited scope for participation to recover,” Powell said in his Feb. 10 speech.

But the next five years proved them wrong as those without college degrees were increasingly drawn back into the workforce.

As the Fed chair put it during an event on March 4: “Today, we’re still a long way from our goals.”

© Copyright 2021 Bloomberg News. All rights reserved.

Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell says he and his colleagues have learned a lot over the last decade about the meaning of full employment. Now, they're looking at a new set of labor-market indicators as they chart a recovery from the steepest economic downturn on...
Sunday, 07 March 2021 07:02 AM
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