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US Labour Market – stronger at the start of the year

Summary:
On February 7, 2020, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) released their latest labour market data – Employment Situation Summary – January 2019 – which reveals a labour market was stronger in January by a considerable margin. Employment growth was robust and the participation rate rose by 0.2 points, which meant that the labour force change outstripped the net jobs added and unemployment rose as a consequence. But the employment-population ratio rose by 0.1 points. The Broad labour underutilisation ratio (U-6) remains high, and rose in January by 0.2 points, because there were more underemployed workers. An examination of the transition probabilities show that there is still strong growth into employment from those who were previously outside the labour force (in inactivity). The

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On February 7, 2020, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) released their latest labour market data – Employment Situation Summary – January 2019 – which reveals a labour market was stronger in January by a considerable margin. Employment growth was robust and the participation rate rose by 0.2 points, which meant that the labour force change outstripped the net jobs added and unemployment rose as a consequence. But the employment-population ratio rose by 0.1 points. The Broad labour underutilisation ratio (U-6) remains high, and rose in January by 0.2 points, because there were more underemployed workers. An examination of the transition probabilities show that there is still strong growth into employment from those who were previously outside the labour force (in inactivity). The corresponding entry from outside the labour force into unemployment continues to fall. So the US labour market is absorbing new entrants straight into employment at increasing rates, which is a good sign. Overall, these appears to be excess capacity that can still be tapped if growth is strong enough. And while workers are still being absorbed into paid employment from outside the labour force is a sign of a strengthening labour market, as regular readers will know, I have documented the strong bias in the US to lower paid and precarious work. So getting workers into paid employment is one thing. Paying them decent wages and providing them with secure jobs is another.

Overview for January 2020:

  • Payroll employment rose by 225,000 – a step up from the 2019 monthly average.
  • There was a substantial recasting of the labour force survey data as a result of updated population benchmarks
  • Total labour force survey employment rose (after netting out the impact of the changes) by 418 thousand (net).
  • The seasonally adjusted labour force rose by 574 thousand.
  • Official unemployment rose by 156 thousand to 5,892 thousand.
  • The official unemployment rate rose by 0.1 points to 3.6 per cent.
  • The participation rate rose by 0.2 points to 63.4 per cent but remains well below the peak in December 2006 (66.4 per cent). Adjusting for age effects, the rise in those who have given up looking for work for one reason or another since December 2006 is around 3,271 thousand workers. The corresponding unemployment rate would be 4.76 per cent, far higher than the current official rate.
  • The broad labour underutilisation measure (U6) rose by 0.2 points to 6.9 per cent largely because of a rise in the number in the part-time for economic reasons cohort (the US indicator of underemployment).

For those who are confused about the difference between the payroll (establishment) data and the household survey data you should read this blog post – US labour market is in a deplorable state – where I explain the differences in detail.

Payroll employment trends

The BLS noted that:

Total nonfarm payroll employment increased by 225,000 in January, compared with an average monthly gain of 175,000 in 2019. Notable job gains occurred in construction in health care, and in transportation and warehousing.

The first graph shows the monthly change in payroll employment (in thousands, expressed as a 3-month moving average to take out the monthly noise). The gray lines are the annual averages.

This month saw the change in payroll employment rise (225) well above the average monthly change for 2019 (175 thousand). Whether this demonstrates a step-up in the trend is to be determined as the months unfold.

US Labour Market – stronger at the start of the year

The next graph shows the same data in a different way – in this case the graph shows the average net monthly change in payroll employment (actual) for the calendar years from 2005 to 2020 (the 2020 average obviously is just the January result).

The red diamond is the current month’s increase.

The slowdown that began in 2015 continued through 2017 was reversed last year. The 2018 average was 223 thousand compared to 179 thousand in 2017.

The final average for 2019 was 175 thousand.

US Labour Market – stronger at the start of the year

To put the current recovery into historical perspective the following graph shows the average annual growth in payroll employment since 1960 (blue columns) with the decade averages shown by the red line.

It reinforces the view that while payroll employment growth has been steady since the crisis ended, it is still well down on previous decades of growth.

US Labour Market – stronger at the start of the year

Labour Force Survey – employment growth remains positive

The BLS report that:

Both the unemployment rate, at 3.6 percent, and the number of unemployed persons, at 5.9 million, changed little in January.

The data for January was affected by the updated population benchmarks, which makes comparison over time difficult.

The BLS wrote:

Effective with data for January 2020, updated population estimates were incorporated into the household survey. Population estimates for the household survey are developed by the U.S. Census Bureau. Each year, the Census Bureau updates the estimates to reflect new information and assumptions about the growth of the population since the previous decennial census. The change in population reflected in the new estimates results from adjustments for net international migration, updated vital statistics, and estimation methodology improvements.

In accordance with usual practice, BLS will not revise the official household survey estimates for December 2019 and earlier months.

The impacts on the LFS aggregates are shown in the following Table (from BLS Table C):

So, for example, the changes in the population benchmark controls led to the labour force being reduced by 524 thousand on the December 2019 level but the actual change in the monthly estimate was 50 thousand. So removing the population control impact, gives an overall increase in the December-January labour force of 574 thousand.

Category Dec-Jan change as published 2020 Population update impact Dec-Jan Change after removing Population update
Civilian non-institutional population -679 -811 132
Civilian labour force 50 -524 574
Participation rate 0.2 0.0 0.2
Employed -89 -507 418
Employment-population ratio 0.2 0.0 0.2
Unemployed 139 -17 156
Unemployment rate 0.1 0.0 0.1
Not in Labour Force -729 -2875 -442

Focusing on Column 4 of the Table then, we conclude that employment as measured by the household survey rose by 418 thousand netnet, while the labour force rose by 574 thousand.

As a result (in accounting terms), total unemployment rose by 156 thousand and the unemployment rate rose by 0.1 points to 3.6 per cent.

This sustains the unemployment rates last seen in the late 1960s.

I won’t publish the usual graph shows the monthly employment growth since January 2008 until the population benchmarks have been fully absorbed.

But the summary conclusion:

1. Once the disruption to the time series from the population benchmark changes are taken into account, employment grew by 0.26 per cent in January, which is well above the recent trend growth.

2. Notwithstanding that boost in jobs, there is still no coherent positive and reinforcing trend in employment growth since the recovery began back in 2009. There are still many months where employment growth, while positive, remains relatively weak when compared to the average labour force growth prior to the crisis or is negative.

There are also months where employment growth is negative.

As the previous table shows, the population benchmarking did not impact on the ratios, including the Employment-Population ratio.

This is a Good measure of the strength of the labour market because the movements are relatively unambiguous because the denominator population is not particularly sensitive to the cycle (unlike the labour force).

The following graph shows the US Employment-Population from January 1948 to January 2020. While the ratio fluctuates a little, the January 2020 ratio rose by 0.2 points to 61.2 per cent, the first rise since September 2019 and the highest value since November 2008.

Over the longer period though, we see that the ratio remains well down on pre-GFC levels (peak 63.4 per cent in December 2006), which is a further indication of how weak the recovery has been so far and the distance that the US labour market is from being at full capacity (assuming that the December 2006 level was closer to that state).

It is usually a positive sign though when total employment outstrips or keeps up with the underlying growth in the working age population.

US Labour Market – stronger at the start of the year

Unemployment and underutilisation trends

The first graph shows the official unemployment rate since January 1950 which is currently at 3.6 per cent, up 0.1 points on the previous month.

Once the benchmarking impact is removed, it is clear that the change in employment lagged behind the labour force growth, which was stimulated by a 0.2 point increase in the participation rate.

The result is that unemployment rose by 156 thousand, which pushed the rate up slightly.

But it remains that the US labour market is now maintaining unemployment rates not seen since the late 1960s.

With inflation stable, the continued low unemployment rates make a mockery of official NAIRU estimates of full employment coinciding with an unemployment rate of 4.6 per cent.

US Labour Market – stronger at the start of the year

The official unemployment rate is a narrow measure of labour wastage, which means that a strict comparison with the 1960s, for example, in terms of how tight the labour market, has to take into account broader measures of labour underutilisation.

The next graph shows the BLS measure U6, which is defined as:

Total unemployed, plus all marginally attached workers plus total employed part time for economic reasons, as a percent of all civilian labor force plus all marginally attached workers.

It is thus the broadest quantitative measure of labour underutilisation that the BLS publish.

In December 2006, before the effects of the slowdown started to impact upon the labour market, the measure was estimated to be 7.9 per cent.

In January 2020 the U6 measure increased by 0.2 points to 6.9 per cent. This was driven, in part, by the rise in the category ‘Part-time for economic reasons’ – a measure of underemployment in the US data context) – it rose by 34 thousand or 0.8 per cent.

U-6 was 8.0 per cent at the beginning of 2019.

US Labour Market – stronger at the start of the year

The U-6 measure is now below the pre-GFC level, and, while, signalling improvement, there is still some scope to go before full capacity is reached.

Feature this month: Gross Flows analysis

One way to think about the extent of the supply-side capacity is to examine the flows data from the labour force survey.

I discuss the use of gross flows data in this blog post (among others) – What can the gross flows tell us? (July 14, 2009).

I don’t intend to do a full analysis here of the latest data.

Gross flows analysis allows us to trace flows of workers between different labour market states (employment; unemployment; and non-participation) between months. So we can see the size of the flows in and out of the labour force more easily and into the respective labour force states (employment and unemployment).

Each period there are a large number of workers that flow between the labour market states – employment (E), unemployment (U) and not in the labour force (N). The stock measure of each state indicates the level at some point in time, while the flows measure the transitions between the states over two periods (for example, between two months).

The net changes each month – between the stock measures – are small relative to the absolute flows into and out of the labour market states.

National statisticians measure these flows in their monthly labour force surveys. The various stocks and flows are denoted as follows (single letters denote stocks, dual letters are flows between the stocks):

  • E = employment stock, with subscript t = now, t+1 the next period.
  • U = unemployment stock.
  • N = not in the labour force stock.
  • EE = flow from employment to employment (that is, the number of people who were employed last period who remain employment this period)
  • UU = flow of unemployment to unemployment (that is, the number of people who were unemployed last period who remain unemployed this period)
  • NN = flow of those not in the labour force last period who remain in that state this period
  • EU = flow from employment to unemployment
  • EN = flow from employment to not in the labour force
  • UE = flow from unemployment to employment
  • UN = flow from unemployment to not in the labour force
  • NE = flow from not in the labour force to employment
  • NU = flow from not in the labour force to unemployment

The following Matrix Table provides a schematic description of the flows that can occur between the three labour force framework states.

Labour Market Flows Matrix
US Labour Market – stronger at the start of the year

The various inflows and outflows between the labour force categories are expressed in terms of numbers of persons which can then be converted into so-called transition probabilities – the probabilities that transitions (changes of state) occur.

We can then answer questions like: What is the probability that a person who is unemployed now will enter employment next period?

So if a transition probability for the shift between employment to unemployment is 0.05, we say that a worker who is currently employed has a 5 per cent chance of becoming unemployed in the next month. If this probability fell to 0.01 then we would say that the labour market is improving (only a 1 per cent chance of making this transition).

From the table above – sometimes called a Gross Flows Matrix – the element EE tells you how many people who were in employment in the previous month remain in employment in the current month.

Similarly the element EU tells you how many people who were in employment in the previous month are now unemployed in the current month. And so on. This allows you to trace all inflows and outflows from a given state during the month in question.

The transition probabilities are computed by dividing the flow element in the matrix by the initial state. For example, if you want the probability of a worker remaining unemployed between the two months you would divide the flow (UU) by the initial stock of unemployment. If you wanted to compute the probability that a worker would make the transition from employment to unemployment you would divide the flow (EU) by the initial stock of employment. And so on.

So the 3 Labour Force states in the Matrix Table above allow us to compute 9 transition probabilities reflecting the inflows and outflows from each of the combinations.

Analysing movements in these probabilities over time provides a different insight into how the labour market is performing by way of flows of workers.

Examining the flows from outside the labour force into employment and unemployment is a useful way of understanding how much spare capacity there might be on the supply-side of the US labour market.

The following graph shows these flows from February 1990 to January 2020 (in thousands).

The data shows that the NE transition (not in labour force to employment) is at record highs (the data was first published in 1990) and the upward trend is not slowing.

Workers are being drawn back into employment from inactivity in record numbers as the expansion continues.

With the participation rate still well down on historic highs (even after adjusting for ageing), one has to conclude that there is still supply-side capacity to be absorbed within the US labour market.

US Labour Market – stronger at the start of the year

The next graph shows the flows in terms of transition probabilities (the likelihood that the flow will occur) from January 2007 to January 2020.

In January 2020, a worker who is currently outside the labour force has a 5.1 per cent chance of entering the labour force by gaining employment (depicted NE) compared to the 1.7 per cent change of entering the labour force via unemployment (depicted NU).

That is a dramatic shift from the situation that prevailed in April 2010 when the respective probabilities were NE 4.2 per cent, NU 4 per cent.

US Labour Market – stronger at the start of the year

The final graph shows the transition probabilities for all 9 states (the straight line is the linear trend) from December 2007 to January 2020.

Be careful to note that the vertical scales are quite different for each graph.
US Labour Market – stronger at the start of the year

Conclusion

On February 7, 2020, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) released their latest labour market data – Employment Situation Summary – January 2019 – which reveals a labour market was stronger in January by a considerable margin. Employment growth was robust and the participation rate rose by 0.2 points, which meant that the labour force change outstripped the net jobs added and unemployment rose as a consequence. But the employment-population ratio rose by 0.1 points. The Broad labour underutilisation ratio (U-6) remains high, and rose in January by 0.2 points, because there were more underemployed workers. An examination of the transition probabilities show that there is still strong growth into employment from those who were previously outside the labour force (in inactivity). The corresponding entry from outside the labour force into unemployment continues to fall. So the US labour market is absorbing new entrants straight into employment at increasing rates, which is a good sign. Overall, these appears to be excess capacity that can still be tapped if growth is strong enough. And while workers are still being absorbed into paid employment from outside the labour force is a sign of a strengthening labour market, as regular readers will know, I have documented the strong bias in the US to lower paid and precarious work. So getting workers into paid employment is one thing. Paying them decent wages and providing them with secure jobs is another.

The January 2020 US BLS labour market data release tells me that the US labour market was stronger in January by a considerable margin.

Employment growth was robust and the participation rate rose by 0.2 points, which meant that the labour force change outstripped the net jobs added and unemployment rose as a consequence.

The employment-population ratio rose by 0.1 points, which tells us that employment growth is outstripping the growth in the underlying population.

Taken together these are good signs.

But, the Broad labour underutilisation ratio (U-6) remains high, and rose in January by 0.2 points, because there were more underemployed workers.

An examination of the transition probabilities show that there is still strong growth into employment from those who were previously outside the labour force (in inactivity).

The corresponding entry from outside the labour force into unemployment continues to fall. So the US labour market is absorbing new entrants straight into employment at increasing rates, which is a good sign.

Overall, these appears to be excess capacity that can still be tapped if growth is strong enough.

And while workers are still being absorbed into paid employment from outside the labour force is a sign of a strengthening labour market, as regular readers will know, I have documented the strong bias in the US to lower paid and precarious work.

The worry is that the jobs being added represent a significant hollowing out of jobs in the median wage area (the so-called ‘middle-class’ jobs), which is reinforcing the polarisation in the income distribution and rising inequality.

Taken together, we can conclude that the US labour market is not yet at full employment despite the low unemployment rate.

Getting workers into paid employment is one thing. Paying them decent wages and providing them with secure jobs is another.

That is enough for today!

(c) Copyright 2020 William Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.

Bill Mitchell
Bill Mitchell is a Professor in Economics and Director of the Centre of Full Employment and Equity (CofFEE), at the University of Newcastle, NSW, Australia. He is also a professional musician and plays guitar with the Melbourne Reggae-Dub band – Pressure Drop. The band was popular around the live music scene in Melbourne in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The band reformed in late 2010.

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