Growing Consensus that Labor Market Slack Remains: The Fed Should Stay the Course and Wait to Increase Rates Until the Weakness Has Lessened Substantially

Nominal wage growth’s failure to significantly increase over the last several months (and years) is evidence enough that there’s sufficient labor market slack to convince the Federal Reserve to keep its foot off the economic brakes and not increase short-term interest rates. Nominal hourly wages have grown at only around 2.0-2.3 percent annually, far below wage growth that would be consistent with the Fed’s own 2 percent inflation target, 1.5 percent trend productivity growth, and a stable labor share of income. It’s clear from the evidence that the Fed should not even consider raising interest rates to forestall inflation until wage growth is consistently above this target.

One of the leading forces (besides the 30+ year trend in workers losing bargaining power ) behind sluggish wage growth is the fact that there’s still much labor market slack left in the economy today. The headline unemployment rate underestimates this slack because some of it shows up as cyclically depressed rates of labor force participation instead of elevated unemployment. Over the last couple of years, we’ve been tracking what we call “missing workers”—potential workers who, because of weak job opportunities, are neither employed nor actively seeking a job. In other words, these are people who would be either working or looking for work if job opportunities were significantly stronger. Because jobless workers are only counted in the labor force if they are actively seeking work, these missing workers are not included in the labor force and hence are not classified as officially unemployed.

While it’s clear that some structural forces (aging of the Baby Boomers, for example) are putting downward pressure on labor force participation rates, it’s clear that some of the depressed participation rate is still reflecting cyclical weakness. New evidence released today backs up our “missing worker” interpretation that the unemployment rate is underestimating the true degree of labor market slack because labor force participation remains cyclically depressed. The Goldman Sachs Global Macro Research US Daily (sorry, no link: paywall) points out that research from the New York Fed implies that the overall “jobs gap” may be 3 million, even while the Fed’s estimates of the ”unemployment gap”—the gap between today’s unemployment rate and the rate consistent with stable inflation— is much lower. In short, the headline unemployment rate does indeed continue to obscure how much labor market slack remains. The Goldman team draws out the policy implications:

“This implies much less urgency to start normalizing monetary policy . . . and it is an important reason why we think it would be better for the FOMC to wait until 2016 before starting the normalization process.”

I couldn’t agree more. Sluggish wage growth and depressed labor force participation continue to show signs of a weak economy and the Fed should continue staying the course until the economy is considerably stronger. Acting too soon, would be a mistake for the economy and the people in it.