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June 25, 2013
Getting Back to Normal?
Central to any discussion about monetary policy is the degree to which the economy is underperforming relative to its potential, or in more ordinary language, how much slack exists. OK, so how much slack is there, and how long will it take to be absorbed? Well, if you ask the Congressional Budget Office (and a lot of people do), they would have told you last February (their latest estimate) that the economy was underperforming just a shade more than 4 percent relative to its potential last summer, and that slack was likely to increase a little by this summer (to around 4.7 percent). Go to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and they tell a very similar story in their April World Economic Outlook. The IMF estimates that the amount of slack in the U.S. economy was about 4.2 percent last year, and they expected it would rise a little to about 4.4 percent this year.
As devotees of our Business Inflation Expectations survey know (and you know who you are), the Atlanta Fed has a quarterly, subjective measure of economic slack in the economy as seen by business leaders. This month, businesses told us something pretty interesting—the amount of slack they think they have narrowed pretty sharply between March and June.
Last March, the panel told us that their unit sales were 7.7 percent below "normal"—similar to their assessments in December and September. This month, however, the group cut their estimate of slack to 4.3 percent below normal, on average (see the table).
What we find most encouraging about this assessment (well, besides the speed at which the slack was being taken up) is that the improvement was most prominent among small and medium-sized firms. These are firms that, according to our survey and other reports (like this one from the National Federation of Independent Business), have been lagging behind in the recovery. Indeed, in June, mid-sized firms indicated that unit sales were only 1.5 percent below normal, a shade better than the big firms in our panel (see the table).
A look at the industry composition of our survey reveals that the pickup of slack was relatively broadly based too. Only the firms in the mining and utilities, and the professional and business services areas reported more slack relative to March (and the amounts were pretty small at that). Elsewhere, the amount of slack appears to have narrowed quite a bit.
OK, so slack is shrinking, and according to these estimates, it shrank quite a bit between March and June. Does that mean we should be anticipating growing price pressure? Well, we can turn to our panelists again for an answer, and they say no. Projecting over the year ahead, our panelists report little change in either their inflationary sentiment or their inflation uncertainty (see the table).
Last Wednesday, at the conclusion of its June meeting, the Federal Open Market Committee said that the recovery is proceeding and the labor market is improving, but inflation expectations remain stable. Our June poll of business leaders appears to have also endorsed this view of the economy.
By Mike Bryan, vice president and senior economist,
Brent Meyer, economist, and
Nicholas Parker, senior economic research analyst, all in the Atlanta Fed's research department
May 16, 2013
Labor Costs, Inflation Expectations, and the Affordable Care Act: What Businesses Are Telling Us
The Atlanta Fed’s May survey of businesses showed little overall concern about near-term inflation. Year-ahead unit cost expectations averaged 2 percent, down a tenth from April and on par with business inflation expectations at this time last year.
OK, we’re going to guess this observation doesn’t exactly knock you off your chair. But here’s something we’ve been keeping an eye on that you might find interesting. When we ask firms about what role, if any, labor costs are likely to play in their prices over the next 12 months, an increasing proportion have been telling us they see a potential for upward price pressure coming from labor costs (see the chart).
To investigate further, we posed a special question to our Business Inflation Expectations (BIE) panel regarding their expectations for compensation growth over the next 12 months: “Projecting ahead over the next 12 months, by roughly what percentage do you expect your firm’s average compensation per worker (including benefits) to change?”
We got a pretty large range of responses, but on average, firms told us they expect average compensation growth—including benefits—of 2.8 percent. That’s about a percent higher than the average over the past year (as estimated by either the index of compensation per hour or the employment cost index). But a 2.8 percent rise is also about a percentage point below average compensation growth before the recession. We’re included to read the survey as a confirmation that labor markets are improving and expected to improve further over the coming year. But we’re not inclined to interpret the survey data as an indication that the labor market is nearing full employment.
We’ve also been hearing more lately about the potential for the Affordable Care Act (ACA) to have a significant influence on labor costs and, presumably, to provide some upward price pressure. Indeed, several of our panelists commented on their concern about the influence of the ACA when they completed their May BIE survey. So can we tie any of this expected compensation growth to the ACA, a significant share of which is scheduled to go into effect eight months from now?
Because a disproportionate impact from the ACA will fall on firms that employ 50 or more workers, we separated our panel into firms with 50 or more employees, and those employing fewer than 50 workers. What we see is that average expected compensation growth is the same for the bigger employers and smaller employers. Moreover, the big firms in our sample report the same inflation expectation as the smaller firms.
But the data reveal that the bigger firms are a little more uncertain about their unit cost projections for the year ahead. OK, it’s not a big difference, but it is statistically significant. So while their cost and compensation expectations are not yet being affected by the prospect of the ACA, the act might be influencing their uncertainty about those potential costs.
By Mike Bryan, vice president and senior economist,
Brent Meyer, economist, and
Nicholas Parker, senior economic research analyst, all in the Atlanta Fed’s research department
April 16, 2013
Improvement in the Outlook? The BIE Panel Thinks So
Earlier this month, Dennis Lockhart, the Atlanta Fed’s top guy, gave his assessment of the economy and monetary policy to the Kiwanis Club of Birmingham, Alabama. Here’s the essential takeaway:
There are encouraging developments in the economy, to be sure, but the evidence of sustainable momentum that will deliver “substantial improvement in the outlook for the labor market” is not yet conclusive. ... How will I, as one policymaker, determine that the balance has shifted and the time for a policy change has come? Well, one key consideration is the array of risks to the economic outlook and my degree of confidence in the outlook.
To help the boss assess the risks to the outlook, we reached out to our Business Inflation Expectations (BIE) panel to get a sense of how they view the outlook for their businesses and, notably, how they assess the risks to that outlook. Specifically, we asked:
Projecting ahead, to the best of your ability, please assign a percent likelihood to the following changes to UNIT SALES LEVELS over the next 12 months.
The table below summarizes the answers and compares them to the responses we got to this statement last November.
First, the business outlook of our panel has improved decidedly since last November. On average, our panel sees unit sales growth averaging 1.8 percent. OK, not a spectacular number, but, to our eyes at least, much improved from the 1.2 percent the group was expecting when we queried five months ago.
And how about the assessment of the risks President Lockhart indicated was also a key consideration? Here again, the sentiment in our panel appears to have shifted favorably. Last November, our panel put the likelihood that their year-ahead unit sales growth would be 1 percent or less at 50 percent. The group now puts the chances of a downshift in business activity at 37 percent. Meanwhile, the upside potential for their sales has grown. Last November, the panel put the chances of a “significant” improvement in unit sales at about 20 percent; this month, the group thinks the likelihood is 30 percent.
And this improved sentiment isn’t centered in just a few industries—it’s spread across a wide swath of the economy. Firms in construction and real estate, which were, on average, projecting 12-month unit sales growth of 1.1 percent last November, now put that growth number at 1.8 percent. The average sales outlook of general-services firms has risen from 1 percent to 2.2 percent; finance and insurance companies went from 0.5 percent to 1.3 percent; and retailers/wholesalers’ unit sales projections rose from 1.5 percent to 2 percent. And manufacturers, who posted relatively strong expectations last November, reported about the same sales outlook this month as they did five months ago.
To be clear, President Lockhart’s recent comments—and the Federal Open Market Committee statement on which they are based—indicate he is looking for a substantial improvement in the outlook for the labor market, not sales. But we’re going to assume that it’s unlikely to have one without the having the other. And is our panel’s unit sales forecast “substantially” improved? Well, what constitutes “substantial” is in the eye of the beholder, but if this isn’t a substantial improvement in the outlook, it’s certainly a move in that direction.
By Mike Bryan, vice president and senior economist, and
Nick Parker, economic research analyst, both in the Atlanta Fed’s research department
November 20, 2012
Rose-Colored Glasses Make the Future Look Blurry: Sales Uncertainty as Seen by the November BIE
Uncertainty is widely cited as being a significant contributor to the economy's subpar growth. Reddy and Thurm report in yesterday's Wall Street Journal that "half of the nation's 40 biggest publicly traded corporate spenders have announced plans to curtail capital expenditures this year or next," in large measure because of rising economic uncertainty. But how uncertain is the current economic outlook? A few economists have attempted to measure business uncertainty, often by using the degree of disagreement between various forecasts, the volatility of certain economic indicators, or some combination of the two. (Two such approaches can be found here and here.)
We thought we'd use our Business Inflation Expectations (BIE) survey to see if we could gauge the degree of business uncertainty directly. Last week, we asked our panel to assign probabilities to various sales outcomes for their businesses for the coming year. (This methodology is the same one we have been using to measure inflation uncertainty, except in this case our business panel was asked to reveal their expectations for unit sales growth over the year ahead.)
Specifically, we put to our panel the following statement:
Projecting ahead, to the best of your ability, please assign a percent likelihood to the following changes to unit sales over the next 12 months.
Panelists were given the following five unit sales outcomes:
- down (less than –1 percent)
- about unchanged (–1 percent to 1 percent)
- up somewhat (1.1 percent to 3 percent)
- up significantly (3.1 percent to 5 percent)
- up very significantly (greater than 5 percent)
One hundred and ninety-four businesses responded, and here's what they told us: On average, firms expect unit sales growth of about 1.2 percent in the coming year. That's more pessimistic than the real gross domestic product (GDP) forecast of the consensus of economists for the year (about 2 percent). But the range of possible outcomes seemed, to our eyes a least, to be large and unbalanced.
Consider the chart below, which shows the probabilities the panel, on average, assigned to the various sales outcomes. They assigned a 48 percent chance that their unit sales will grow 1 percent or less in the coming year, balanced against only 23 percent likelihood that unit sales will grow more than 3 percent over the next 12 months. In other words, in the minds of our BIE panel, the range of likely sales outcomes over the year ahead is pretty wide, with a fairly weighty chance that unit sales growth may not move in a positive range at all.
Perhaps we are making a bit too much of the size of the uncertainty businesses are attaching to the outlook. After all, we don't know what uncertainties firms face even in the best of times (since this is the first time we've asked this question). But when we dug into the data a little deeper, we found something else of interest. The degree of economic uncertainty varies widely by firm. Moreover, the greatest uncertainty about the future was held by the panelists who have the most optimistic sales outlook.
Check out the table below. It shows the degree of sales forecast uncertainty on the basis of whether a firm's sales projection is high or low.
Panelists with the most optimistic sales expectations (the 39 firms with the highest sales forecasts) predicted unit sales growth of a little more than 3.5 percent this year, compared with about a 0.5 percent decline in unit sales for the 39 most pessimistic panelists. But also note that those who are relatively optimistic about the coming year have much greater uncertainty about their future than those who are relatively pessimistic—in fact, they're almost twice as uncertain.
What the November BIE survey seems to be saying is that it isn't just that an uncertain business outlook is reining in our growth prospects, but that the outlook is especially uncertain for the firms that think they have the best opportunity for expansion. Apparently, those wearing rose-colored glasses are having trouble seeing through them.
Note: The regular November Business Inflation Expectations report will be released Wednesday morning.
By Mike Bryan, vice president and senior economist,
Laurel Graefe, economic policy analysis specialist, and
Nicholas Parker, economic research analyst, all with the Atlanta Fed
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