Category Archives: Unemployment

Least educated workers a symbol of recovering US economy

During the GFC the American workers who suffered the most were those without a high school diploma – their unemployment rate was 15.6% in the summer of 2009 more than three times the peak unemployment rate for college graduates – refers to cyclical unemployment. Furthermore this particular group of unemployed were also those that found it hardest to get back into employment. However by July this year the Labour Department recorded that the unemployment rate for those without a high school diploma fell to 5.1 percent in July this year. This is surprising considering that low-skilled workers, who makeup 7.2% fo the labour force, were seen as the least likely to recover from a recession

Cyclical unemployment (or demand deficient) occurs when there is not enough demand to employ all those who want to work. It is a type that Keynesian economists focus on particularly, as they believe it happens when there is a disequilibrium in the economy. It is also often known as cyclical unemployment because it will vary with the trade cycle. When the economy is booming, there will be lots of demand and so firms will be employing large numbers of workers. Demand-deficient unemployment will at this stage of the cycle be fairly low. If the economy slows down, then demand will begin to fall. When this happens firms will begin to lay workers off as they do not need to produce so much. Demand-deficient unemployment rises. The behaviour of demand-deficient unemployment will exactly mirror the trade cycle.

The increasing trade war between the USA and China seems to have done little to put a damper on hiring. The manufacturing sector, which is particularly sensitive to exports, was robust, adding 37,000 jobs.

Source: New York Times – 2nd August 2018

Shorter hours, higher productivity and yoga

According to surveys today’s millennial job applicants don’t want to work all hours – it seems that younger workers place a work-life balance ahead of career progression. During the GFC an applicant who asked a prospective employer about leaving work early on a Friday to go to yoga wasn’t taken seriously. However with the global economy growing at its fastest rate since 2011, qualified jobseekers are scarce so workers can start to make demands.

IG Metall – Germany’s biggest trade union – struck a deal that allows members to work 28-hour weeks for up to 2 years, typically when they have small children. Although Germany is unique, other national economies might follow suit if they have a limited supply of workers. It is important to note that in boom times the substitution effect comes into play as more people want to substitute money for leisure time – this is shown by the backward bending supply curve of labour. In most A2 courses income and substitution effects are examined. The textbook identifies each as follows:

Income effect – higher real wages might persuade people to work less hours and enjoy extended leisure time (see graph – SS2).

Substitution effect – people have an incentive to work extra hours because the financial rewards of working are raised, and the opportunity cost of not working has increased (see graph – SS1).

Work-life balance is typically discussed as a personal issue and again Germany has been leading the way:

1960 – average West German working year = 2,163 hours
2018 – average German working year = 1,363 hours

Furthermore once they leave work in the mid afternoon a lot of them are actually free of the office and more importantly emails. Daimler automatically erase emails to employees who are on holiday.

Workaholic countries slowing down

Countries that are renowned for working long hour – South Korea, China and Thailand – have already limited school homework. South Korea wants to reduce average annual working hours to less that 1,800 from 2,069 in 2016 – the most for any OECD high-income country.

Average wages are not above pre-crisis levels in all developed countries except the UK and Greece. The eurozone’s jobless rate is the lowest and US wage growth the fastest since 2009. Shorter hours won’t help the poorest paid workers, who can’t afford to work less but for the broad middle in rich countries a new working life is emerging. It could look like Germany – shorter workdays, high productivity and yoga.

Source: Why the 30-hour week is almost here – Simon Kuper – FT Magazine February 15 2018

The NAIRU in New Zealand

Below is an extract from a RBNZ paper from March this year on Estimating the NAIRU and the Natural Rate of Unemployment. Especially useful for A2 students.


The headline unemployment rate in New Zealand has been trending down over time. This fall in the unemployment rate has not been accompanied by a rise in inflation, suggesting that the underlying natural rate and the NAIRU may have also declined through time. In this section, we document some of the changes in the New Zealand economy that have influenced the unemployment rate over history.

As a first step, we disaggregate the unemployment rate into three sub-components as follows:

a. Cyclical unemployment results from changes in aggregate demand conditions over the course of a business cycle. As firms experience weaker demand, existing workers may be laid off and fewer new workers will be hired.
b. Frictional unemployment refers to the regular short-term churn in the labour market, both within, and in and out of, the labour force. It is determined by the efficiency of the matching process given the diversity of job-seekers and vacancies.
c. Structural unemployment represents a more fundamental mismatch between those hiring and job seekers given their skills and geographic location. This could arise from long-lasting changes in the structure of the economy such as socio-demographic trends, technological change, or a rapid change in the mix of industries.

The lines between these categorisations can be indistinct. For example, some argue that a prolonged period of cyclical unemployment could also lead to hysteresis effects that could spill over to structural unemployment. For example, an extended period of unemployment may lead to an erosion of human capital making workers less attractive to employers and hence reducing their bargaining power. In principle, frictional unemployment and structural unemployment should be captured by the trend in the NAIRU or the natural rate, as both forms of unemployment may continue to exist even if the labour market is in equilibrium. This is because those that are structurally unemployed may not be easily drawn back into employment despite an increase in labour demand and an upward adjustment in wages. In addition, the level of frictional unemployment is largely determined by the efficiency with which potential workers and employers can find jobs. In contrast, cyclical unemployment captures when the labour market may be operating below capacity as a result of a shortfall in demand.

Monetary policy has little influence over the level of frictional and structural employment. These are largely determined by the evolution of technology and the obsolescence of skills, and by structural policies to facilitate the acquisition of new skills and improve the match between employers and job-seekers. For example, policies that affect the cost of hiring (e.g. employment protection laws), the incentives for job finding (e.g. unemployment insurance), or the bargaining power of workers (unionisation and labour contract laws).

In Figure 3, we decompose the pool of unemployed workers on the basis of unemployment durations. In particular, we categorise those who have been unemployed for less than 4 weeks as contributing to frictional unemployment, 4 to 52 weeks as cyclical unemployment, and greater than 52 weeks as structural unemployment.

New Zealand’s Phillips Curve 1993-2017

Bill Phillips (a New Zealander) discovered a stable relationship between the rate of inflation (of wages, to be precise) and unemployment in Britain from the 1850’s to 1960’s. Higher inflation, it seemed, went with lower unemployment. To economists and policymakers this presented a tempting trade-off: lower unemployment could be bought at the price of a bit more inflation. The downward-sloping Phillips curve is apparent in the graph below which plots core inflation against headline unemployment for New Zealand.

There has been also an apparent shift inwards of this relationship where lower rates of unemployment have become possible for a given level of inflation, particularly relative to the 1990s. The simple plot in the graph does not take into account other factors such as changes in import prices, inflationary expectations and capacity constraints which also have the potential to shift the Phillips Curve. These are discussed further below:

1. The price of imports. As the price of imports increase whether it is raw materials or finished products, the price of local goods become more expensive which increase the general price level. Also if a country finds that its exchange rate depreciates the price of imports rises. Oil is a very inelastic import and with a barrel of oil below $30 in 2016 there was little pressure on the CPI. Where inflation has been higher is in those countries that have withdrawn price subsidies and also had sharply falling currencies – Argentina 24% and Egypt 32%.

2. Public Expectations. In recent years more attention has been paid to the psychological effects which rising prices have on people’s behaviour. The various groups which make up the economy, acting in their own self-interest, will actually cause inflation to rise faster than otherwise would be the case if they believe rising prices are set to continue.

Workers, who have tended to get wage rises to ‘catch up’ with previous price increases, will attempt to gain a little extra compensate them for the expected further inflation, especially if they cannot negotiate wage increases for another year. Consumers, in belief that prices will keep rising, buy now to beat the price rises, but this extra buying adds to demand pressures on prices. In a country such as New Zealand’s before the 1990’s, with the absence of competition in many sectors of the economy, this behaviour reinforces inflationary pressures. ‘Breaking the inflationary cycle’ is an important part of permanently reducing inflation. If people believe prices will remain stable, they won’t, for example, buy land and property as a speculation to protect themselves. In Japan firms and employees have become conditioned to expect a lower rate of inflation. Prime minister Shinzo Abe has called for companies to raise wages by 3% to try and kick start inflation.

3. Capacity pressures. This refers to how much ‘slack’ there is in the economy or the ability to increase total output. If capacity pressures are tight that means an economy will find it difficult to increase output so there will be more pressure on prices as goods become more scarce. Unemployment is the most used gauge to measure the slack in the economy and as the economy approached full employment the scarcity of workers should push up the price pf labour – wages. With increasing costs for the firm it is usual for them to increase their prices for the consumer and therefore increasing the CPI. However many labour markets around the world (especially Japan and the USA) have been very tight but there is little sign of inflation. This assumes that the Phillips curve (trade-off between inflation and unemployment) has become less steep. Research by Olivier Blanchard found that a drop in the unemployment rate in the US has less than a third as much power to raise inflation as it did in the mid 1970’s.

This flatter Phillips curve suggests that the cost for central banks in higher inflation of delaying interest-rate rises is rather low.

Is the Natural Rate of Unemployment in the US lower than economists think?

The natural rate of unemployment is the difference between those who would like a job at the current wage rate – and those who are willing and able to take a job. In the above diagram, it is the level (Q2-Q1).

Source: economicshelp.org

The natural rate of unemployment will therefore include:
Frictional unemployment – those people in-between jobs
Structural unemployment – those people that don’t have the skills that fit the jobs that are available.

It is also referred to as the Non-Accelerating Inflation Rate of Unemployment (NAIRU) – the job market neither pushes up inflation nor holds it back.

US Labour Market – tight but little wage growth.

The recent (February 2018) US Federal Reserve Monetary Policy Report stated that the US labour market appears to be near or a little beyond full employment. In theory this should suggest major labour shortages which ultimately end in higher wages for workers. Although employers report having more difficulties finding qualified workers, hiring continues apace, and serious labour shortages would likely have brought about larger wage increases than have been evident to date. The unemployment rate appears to be below most estimates of the natural rate.

January US unemployment rate = 4.1%
Congressional Budget Office’s (CBO) current estimate of the natural rate = 4.6%

The Unemployment Gap


The unemployment rate gap is the unemployment rate minus the CBO’s estimate of the natural rate of unemployment. The shaded bars indicate periods of business recession.

The median of Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) participants’ estimates of the longer-run normal rate of unemployment and the CBO’s estimate of the natural rate of unemployment have both been revised down by about 1% over the past few years, one indication of the substantial uncertainty surrounding estimates of the “full employment” rate of unemployment.

The US Fed have suggested that with many advanced economies experiencing such low inflation that more persistent factors may be restraining price growth therefore the NRU could be lower in some countries than many economists think. Prices in many industries have been subdued due to technological changes – internet shopping which allows easy comparison – which restricts businesses ability to demand higher prices.

What could be the reasons for less wage growth?

• Employees need less compensation as the inflation rate has been low
• An increase in part-time employment
• Spare capacity in the labour market
• Employees keen on job security so put less emphasis on wage bargaining
• Increasing number of people participating in the labour force.
• Shorter working week
• Ageing and declining working age population

Although in the US there have been labour shortages in some areas of the economy, this hasn’t flowed through into the aggregate labour market. However speculation of higher inflationary pressure through higher wages has alerted markets that the US Fed may increase interest rates although they will remain reluctant to tighten too aggressively.

Source: US Federal Reserve Monetary Policy Report – February 2018.

Full v Fulfilling Employment

Just going through the Natural Rate of Unemployment with my A2 class and I remembered a post I did last year. Free Exchange in The Economist had an article which looked at the change in terminology used by Janet Yellen ex-chairman of the Federal Reserve. In a statement last year she alluded to the US economy near maximum employment and that rate rises could ensue. However only 69% of American adults have a job.

Full employment has normally been the concept that has been used to describe a situation where there is no cyclical or deficient-demand unemployment, but unemployment does exist as allowances must be made for frictional unemployment and seasonal factors – also referred to as the natural rate of unemployment or Non-Accelerating Inflation Rate of Unemployment (NAIRU). If a central bank wishes to stimulate demand below this level there is the concern that inflation will increase therefore they take a guess as to what is the natural rate of unemployment – the lowest rate of unemployment where prices don’t accelerate. Maximum unemployment is the same in that it refers to the labour market being as tight as it can be without increasing prices. Natural rates in the US have varied – around 5.3% in 1950 and then peaking at 6.3% in the stagflation period before falling 4.9% in 2008 and then rising to 5.1% after the GFC, see graph below.

NRU and its causes

The NRU mainly depends on the level of frictional unemployment – defined as those who are in between jobs. This number can vary as at different times of the business cycle as there can be a delay in matching those looking for work with the vacancies themselves – a mismatch sometimes referred to as Structural Unemployment. The increase in frictional unemployment in the 1970’s and 80’s was largely due to the decline in manufacturing jobs with the advent of automation and more right wing policies (Reagan and Thatcher). Workers would stay unemployed in the hope that good high paid manufacturing jobs would reappear.

Unions can also influence the NRU with protecting workers jobs and pushing up wages so that employers find it too costly to employ more labour. However the fall in the 1990’s could be due to the advent of technology in the hiring process and the growth of part-time jobs which assisted those workers facing a career change.

Another influence on the NRU is wage growth as with the higher wages you attract more of the labour force to engage in actively looking for work.

A central bank will have to use trial and error to make a decision on how much spare capacity there is in an economy. Only when prices start to increase do they have an idea how capacity is running.

Quality not Quantity

As alluded to by The Economist the goal of full employment must consider the quality of jobs as well. With the acceleration of technology over labour, maximum employment should consider more than capacity constraints or inflationary pressure.

Rather, governments need to consider the options available to workers: not just how easily they can find jobs they want, but also how readily they can refuse jobs they do not. By lifting obstacles to job changes and giving workers a social safety net that enables them to refuse the crummiest jobs, societies can foster employment that is not just full, but fulfilling.

Sources: The Economist 28th January 2017, St Louis Federal Reserve – Natural Rate of Unemployment

A2 Economics – Introducing Unemployment with UB40

I recently started teaching the Unemployment topic to my Year 13 A2 class and remembered that one of the first albums I bought was UB40 Signing Off – released in 1980 (see right). The front cover and reverse has been made to look like the UB40 unemployment benefit attendance card from which the band took their name. Their UK top-ten hit “One In Ten” was an attack on Thatcherism and is mistakenly cited as referring to the number of unemployed in the UK at that time. It is in fact a song about government statistics in general, and how politicians use them to de-humanise problems. Useful way to introduce the subject especially if the class like reggae. I found it useful to have two windows open and play the video along side the lyrics. Click here for the lyrics of the song and here to see UB40 perform on Top of the Pops in 1981.  I was surprise at how many of the class knew of the band.

Economic Theory v Economic Reality

Most theories in economics rest on the premise that people, companies, and markets behave according to the abstract, two-dimensional illustrations of an introductory economics textbook, even though the assumptions behind those diagrams virtually never hold true in the real world.

Below is a table that I found in James Kwak’s book “Economism”. It takes theories found in most introductory economics textbooks and suggests what actually might happen to these theories in the real world.

 

Does a higher minimum wage mean higher unemployment?

In most economics textbooks the labour market is shown with a simple graph of the supply of labour and the demand for labour and where they intersect the wage that employees receive for their service and the amount employed. The theory is based on the following:

Demand for Labour
In this context the demand for labour is determined by the marginal revenue product where workers are paid the value of their marginal revenue product to the firm. The demand for labour is downward sloping as when there is a fall in the wage rate the firm will expand employment as the labour input has become relatively cheaper for a given level of productivity, compared to other inputs. A rise in the wage rate will causes a contraction of labour demand.

Supply of Labour
Economic theory would suggest that the real wage (adjusted for inflation) is a key determinant of the number of hours. Therefore the supply curve for labour slopes upward because people want to work more hours if you pay them more, at least in theory. An increase in the real wage on offer in a job should lead to someone supplying more hours of work over a given period of time, although there is the possibility that further increases in the going wage rate might have little effect on an individual’s labour supply.

The Minimum Wage

The minimum wage distorts the market equilibrium as there is now a wage floor – a level which the wage cannot fall below. If the minimum wage is below the equilibrium wage then there is no impact as the market will ensure that is reaches equilibrium. However a minimum wage above the equilibrium means that companies will hire fewer workers and therefore result in more unemployment. On the graph below a minimum wage of W1 means that the level of employment has fallen but those prepared to work but are involuntary unemployed has increased. However the people still employed are better off as they are paid more for the same work; their gain is exactly balanced by their employers’ loss. The jobs that someone would have been willing to do at less than the wage of We and for which some company would have been willing to pay more than We. Those jobs are now gone, as well as the goods and services they would have produced.

Real Impact of the Minimum Wage.

In reality the theory of the minimum wage explained above is not as simple as it is made out to be. From records in the USA there is no obvious relationship between the minimum wage and unemployment: adjusted for inflation, the federal minimum wage was highest from 1967 through 1969, when the unemployment rate was below 4%. One study in 1994 by David Card and Alan Krueger evaluated an increase in New Jersey’s minimum wage by comparing fast-food restaurants on both sides of the New Jersey – Pennsylvania border. They concluded, “contrary to the central prediction of the textbook model … we find no evidence that the rise in New Jersey’s minimum wage reduced employment at fast-food restaurants in the state.”

The idea that a higher minimum wage might not increase unemployment goes against the the theory in textbooks as if labour becomes more expensive firms will take on less employees. But there are several reason why this might not be the case:

  • The standard model states that firms will replace labour with machines if wages increase, but what happens if labour saving technologies are not available at a reasonable cost.
  • Some employers may not be able to maintain their business with fewer workers especially in service based industries. Therefore, some companies can’t lay off employees if the minimum wage is increased.
  • Small firms are traditionally labour intensive and can’t afford large capital investment. Therefore the minimum wage doesn’t have the impact of laying off workers.
  • If employers have significant market power that the theory of the supply and demand for labour doesn’t exist, then they can reduce the wage level by hiring fewer workers (only those willing to work for low pay), just as a monopolist can boost prices by cutting production (think of an oil cartel, for example). A minimum wage forces them to pay more, which eliminates the incentive to minimize their workforce.
  • Even though a higher minimum wage will raise labour costs many companies can recoup cost increases in the form of higher prices; because most of their customers are not poor, the net effect is to transfer money from higher-income to lower-income families. In addition, companies that pay more often benefit from higher employee productivity, offsetting the growth in labor costs.
  • Higher wages boost productivity as they motivate people to work harder, they attract higher-skilled workers, and they reduce employee turnover, lowering hiring and training costs, among other things. If fewer people quit their jobs, that also reduces the number of people who are out of work at any one time because they’re looking for something better. A higher minimum wage motivates more people to enter the labor force, raising both employment and output.
  • Higher pay increases workers’ buying power. Because poor people spend a relatively large proportion of their income, a higher minimum wage can boost overall economic activity and stimulate economic growth, creating more jobs.

All the above add a range of variables that are not considered in the simple supply and demand model for labour. It maybe useful as a starting point in discussing the minimum wage but has its limitations in the more complex real world

Source: Economism by James Kwak

Where is global inflation?

The Economist had an article in its Finance and Economics section on the fact that after record low interest rates and extended quantitative easing global inflation seems stubbornly low – see graph. In order to explain this you need to consider the model that central banks use to explain inflation. There are three elements to this model:

1. The price of imports. As the price of imports increase whether it is raw materials or finished products, the price of local goods become more expensive which increase the general price level. Also if a country finds that its exchange rate depreciates the price of imports rises. Oil is a very inelastic import and with a barrel of oil below $30 in 2016 there was little pressure on the CPI. Where inflation has been higher is in those countries that have withdrawn price subsidies and also had sharply falling currencies – Argentina 24% and Egypt 32%.

2. Public Expectations. In recent years more attention has been paid to the psychological effects which rising prices have on people’s behaviour. The various groups which make up the economy, acting in their own self-interest, will actually cause inflation to rise faster than otherwise would be the case if they believe rising prices are set to continue.

Workers, who have tended to get wage rises to ‘catch up’ with previous price increases, will attempt to gain a little extra compensate them for the expected further inflation, especially if they cannot negotiate wage increases for another year. Consumers, in belief that prices will keep rising, buy now to beat the price rises, but this extra buying adds to demand pressures on prices. In a country such as New Zealand’s before the 1990’s, with the absence of competition in many sectors of the economy, this behaviour reinforces inflationary pressures. ‘Breaking the inflationary cycle’ is an important part of permanently reducing inflation. If people believe prices will remain stable, they won’t, for example, buy land and property as a speculation to protect themselves. In Japan firms and employees have become conditioned to expect a lower rate of inflation. Prime minister Shinzo Abe has called for companies to raise wages by 3% to try and kick start inflation.

3. Capacity pressures. This refers to how much ‘slack’ there is in the economy or the ability to increase total output. If capacity pressures are tight that means an economy will find it difficult to increase output so there will be more pressure on prices as goods become more scarce. Unemployment is the most used gauge to measure the slack in the economy and as the economy approached full employment the scarcity of workers should push up the price pf labour – wages. With increasing costs for the firm it is usual for them to increase their prices for the consumer and therefore increasing the CPI. However many labour markets around the world (especially Japan and the USA) have been very tight but there is little sign of inflation. This assumes that the Phillips curve (trade-off between inflation and unemployment) has become less steep. Research by Olivier Blanchard found that a drop in the unemployment rate in the US has less than a third as much power to raise inflation as it did in the mid 1970’s.

This flatter Phillips curve suggests that the cost for central banks in higher inflation of delaying interest-rate rises is rather low. See graph below showing New Zealand’s Phillips Curve