Is the Unemployment Rate Really 4.9 Percent?
A first glance at last week's jobs report might lead you to believe that all is well in the U.S. economy - and perhaps that is true. But there are recurring indications that some long-term negative trends may persist.
Let's start with the good news. The unemployment rate dropped to 4.9 percent, the lowest level since February 2008. Back then, the economy was entering the Great Recession and the unemployment rate rose to 7.3% by the end of that year. The graph below shows the unemployment rate since 2005. It really is nice to see the steady declines over the past five years.
In addition, the 151,000 now jobs added to nonfarm employment extends a streak of more than five years now (since October 2010) of gains in nonfarm employment. So the total number of jobs is growing and the unemployment rate is dropping. What can possibly be bad about the labor market?
Digging a little deeper, we see continued evidence of a disturbing long-term trend that many economists are watching closely. In particular, the labor force participation rate (LFPR) is still very low as more than 94 million remain outside the labor force. The graph below shows the labor force participation rate going back twenty years to January 1996.
I've covered this before (see here and here), but a quick review is in order. When the LFPR falls, it means that some work-eligible adults are no longer working or actively seeking work. But it also means that GDP is being produced by a smaller fraction of the population. More and more people are "sitting on the sidelines."
Where are all these potential workers? Economists are still teasing out the answer, but one big reason is demographic and the other big reason is a weak macroeconomy. The demographic piece is due to the aging labor force: baby-boomers are now retiring and this will continue for the next 15 years. But, as you can see in the graphic above, the weak economy drove many workers out of the labor force and many have not re-entered. For many, job prospects are just not as good as they were prior to the Great Recession.
This biases the unemployment rate downward. Imagine the LFPR rose again to pre-Great Recession levels. In December 2007, at the onset of the Great Recession, the LFPR was 66 percent. If the LFPR climbed to 66% again tomorrow, more than 8 million workers would enter the labor force. If none of these workers found jobs, this would drive the unemployment rate up to 9.65 percent. More realistically, if half the workers found jobs, the unemployment rate would climb to 7.34 percent. That seems more in line with the economy I live in.
The bottom line is that the economy is not doing as well as the unemployment data indicates. Much of the reason why we only see 4.9% unemployment is because the labor force has shrunk. Let's hope this is not a permanent change. of late.