Tag Archives: Natural Rate of Unemployment

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