The Unemployment Rate is Just One Indicator

One criticism of the Fed’s recent communication strategy has been that it relied too heavily on the unemployment rate as an indicator of the health of the labor market and communicated that reliance to the market. As I wrote earlier, the unemployment rate is falling, but the economy is barely improving. In his June prepared statement, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke said:

And if the subsequent data remain broadly aligned with our current expectations for the economy, we would continue to reduce the pace of purchases in measured steps through the first half of next year, ending purchases around midyear. In this scenario, when asset purchases ultimately come to an end, the unemployment rate would likely be in the vicinity of 7 percent, with solid economic growth supporting further job gains

The Fed projections at the time expected the unemployment rate to be at 7.2-7.3% in the fourth quarter of this year. In August, the unemployment rate fell to 7.3%, well ahead of the Fed’s projections. Except this was not the result of above-average economic growth. On the contrary, financial markets tightened and the August jobs report was disappointing.  The drop in the unemployment rate was not representative of the overall economy.

Bernanke had hinted that the unemployment rate would be around 7% when asset purchases fully ended, but it had not even begun tapering yet. That was one major reason that so many journalists and investors expected the taper last week. Yet, this is once again not the Fed’s fault. The central bank could have done better in a number of areas. The long silence from the Fed governors provided little guidance for investors and Bernanke should have emphasized more that the Fed uses many different pieces of economic data to judge the labor market, not just the unemployment rate. But fundamentally, this was the market misreading the Fed.

Investors took one economic indicator and assumed the Fed would base its monetary policy on it. Worse, they knew that the drop in the unemployment rate was not the result of improving economic growth. It should have been common sense that the Fed would not that into account. But it wasn’t. There’s no doubt the Fed and Bernanke could have been more clear, like NY Fed president BIll Dudley was today and Bernanke was in his press conference last week. There, the chairman emphasized that the Fed looks at other economic indicators as well:

Last time, I gave a 7 percent as an indicative number to give you some sense of, you know, where that might be. But as my first answer suggested, the unemployment rate is not necessarily a great measure in all circumstances of the–of the state of the labor market overall. For example, just last month, the decline in unemployment rate came about more than entirely because declining participation, not because of increased jobs. So, what we will be looking at is the overall labor market situation, including the unemployment rate, but including other factors as well. But in particular, there is not any magic number that we are shooting for. We’re looking for overall improvement in the labor market

Too many commentators overreacted to what Bernanke said in June. The 7% unemployment rate number was treated as a trigger, not a threshold, even as Bernanke emphasized that it was the opposite. The unemployment rate was treated as the pivotal economic indicator influencing Fed decision-making. If you take a step back and look at the economic growth the past three months, there were few reasons the Fed would taper and many it wouldn’t.  The most important thing is that the economy underperformed Fed expectations. Yet, it was conventional wisdom that the taper was coming. That doesn’t mean Bernanke couldn’t have been clearer in June, but it means it was a fundamental misreading by journalists and investors. The Fed’s over-reliance on one economic indicator doesn’t change that.

The Fed’s Real Mistake: Tapering Too Soon

Last week, I argued that the Federal Reserve had not made a communication error when it announced in its June FOMC statement that it would begin tapering later in the year if the economy continued to improve at a moderate pace. The problem was that the market did not listen to the Fed correctly. The Fed’s non-taper was not to correct a miscommunication. It was to correct the market’s misreading of that statement. That’s not to say that the Fed’s policies have been optimal. On the contrary, while the Fed did not make a mistake in its communication strategy, its’ making an even worse one in tapering prematurely.

When Ben Bernanke announced that the Fed was going to start a new round of quantitative easing (QE3), the unemployment rate stood at 8.1%. Today, it’s down to 7.3%, but this overstates the extent to which the economy has improved in that time. In particular, workers have dropped out of the labor market at an alarming rate, causing the unemployment rate to drop for the wrong reasons. Some of those workers are baby boomers retiring, but many more are simply people who are so discouraged that they give up looking for a job.

A better indicator of the state of the labor market is the employment-to-population ratio:

Employment to Population Ratio.
As you can see, the employment-to-population ratio crashed during the Great Recession as millions of workers lost their jobs. Since then, the economy has muddled along. It’s unlikely that we’ll return to a ratio of 63-64% anytime soon, because as the country gets older, we will have fewer working-age Americans. Nevertheless, the current rate of 58.6% is unacceptable. In June, the rate was 58.7%. Before that, the economy was certainly not growing at a quick enough pace for the Fed to begin reducing its pace of bond-buying.

That’s the Fed’s real mistake.

Bernanke should have announced that the Fed would continue its asset purchases until the economy showed substantial, consistent improvement. He should’ve said that the Fed always follows the unemployment rate closely, but would track a number of economic indicators. It would continue its unconventional monetary policy until either inflation began creeping upwards or the economy returned to full employment. In a perfect world, the Fed should implement NGDP targeting, but given that such a policy is not happening anytime soon, the Fed should focus on using its current unconventional policy to provide support for the economy. That means not reducing the rate of asset purchases when the economy is barely improving.

Except that is exactly what the Fed intends to do. That was what Bernanke announced in June. Unfortunately, economic growth over the past three months has been below the Fed’s forecast so it adjusted its policy and delayed tapering. But when the economy does improve more and the Fed decides to taper, it will make a big mistake. The Fed could correct its policy and decide to continue its bond-buying for a longer period of time until the economy grows stronger. But that would be an entirely different message than the one Bernanke delivered in June. Then, the miscommunication criticism would ring true.

However, there are no signs that this will be the case. Everything Bernanke said at this past press conference indicates that the Fed is ready to begin tapering once the economy grows at a slightly faster rate. It’s not a mistake of miscommunication. It’s a policy mistake. And since it’s going to hurt economic growth and weaken an already weak labor market, that’s a much worse mistake to make.