It is that time of the year again when the world’s central bankers gather together in Wyoming to sort out the economic conditions of the global economy. This year most bankers will be looking at labor growth, or lack thereof, and what to do about it.
In this country we have seen some surprising gains in the employment picture this year despite a less than stellar economic growth rate. Unemployment has dropped from above 7% to 6.2% in less than a year. Fed officials are somewhat pleasantly puzzled by that performance. FOMC members are watching things like how many part-time jobs are being filled versus full-time positions. They are also looking for hints of wage growth and under what circumstances it is rising. Some members have their fingers on the interest rate trigger advocating a raise sooner than later, while others urge a wait-and-see attitude.
Janet Yellen, our Federal Reserve chairwoman, kicked off the Jackson Hole, WY event, with an address to the central bankers and the press. She urged a pragmatic approach to policy when dealing with the labor markets. Using the unemployment rate alone to guide monetary policy is too simplistic, she argued. Although the jobless rate has declined, there are still millions of Americans who can’t find jobs or have only been able to land part-time work with no benefits. Even more have given up looking for work, discouraged after years of trying to find a job.
Then there is the trend toward retirement by this nation’s Baby Boomers. Two hundred and twenty-five thousand Americans turn 65 every month. In 2010, for example, only 10% of that demographic age group was retired. Today, that number has reached 17% and is climbing. Nearly 25% of all Americans born between 1946-1964 are planning on retiring in the years ahead. How does that impact our idea of full employment when calculating what are structural unemployment (essentially permanent) issues versus cyclical issues?
Yellen presents a good argument. It is a fact that the unemployment rate does not account for part-time workers, discouraged workers, retiring workers and shifts in the nature of the economy. If we have jobs that are going unfilled because the nation lacks workers with sufficient skills and education to do the job, then that is a structural issue. The same is true when dealing with the growing number of Baby Boomer retirees.
No amount of interest rate declines and stimulus money is going to dent a structural issue. In which case, it would be time to raise interest rates early and sooner than the markets expect. Anything the Fed says that implies that we are approaching an unemployment rate that is bumping up against “structural” problems then (as far as the markets are concerned), look out below.
On the other hand, if keeping rates lower for longer would generate more economic growth and therefore more jobs (cyclical employment) then investors would like that. It would mean the markets still have a green light to make new highs and continue the rally based on a zero interest rate policy. Therefore investors were content to hear that the Fed will be taking a “pragmatic” approach to the labor markets.
As long as easy money is on the table, the markets will continue to go up. It also means that the cottage industry of Fed watchers that have sprung up over the past five years will continue to try and out guess what the Fed will do next. Of course the Fed has no idea what they will do next (the pragmatic approach) but we will continue to read and listen to the pundits anyway.