Though never far from the headlines, the Federal Reserve’s dual mandate comes front and center again with the announcement today of President Obama’s nomination of Fed Vice Chair Janet Yellen as the next chair of the Board of Governors. Inevitably, analysis will turn to discussions of who is a hawk and who is a dove, who cares relatively more about inflation, and who cares relatively more about growth and employment.
That’s unfortunate, because such characterizations really do miss the point. The debate among different policymakers is not about whether person A is more concerned about jobs and unemployment than person B, but about legitimate and longstanding conversations about what accounts for the performance of labor markets and what role monetary policy might have in the event that performance is judged to be subpar.
As it happens, the Atlanta Fed’s most recent contribution to this discussion came last week in the form of the annual employment conference sponsored by the Bank’s Center for Human Capital Studies. Organized, as in past years, by Richard Rogerson (Princeton University), Robert Shimer (University of Chicago), and Melinda Pitts (Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta), the conference explored the causes of the continued weak labor market recovery in the United States. The existing literature has suggested a number of possibilities: wage rigidities, mismatch between workers’ skills and the skills required by new jobs, extended unemployment insurance benefits and other government policy changes, and firms’ reorganizing and asking workers to do more. The papers sought to analyze and document the importance of these factors for the slow recovery.
One notable policy change in the recent recession was the unprecedented expansion of unemployment insurance (UI) benefits to as long as 99 weeks for a very large fraction of UI-eligible workers. Did this increase play an important role in high levels of unemployment? Two papers from the conference addressed this question from different perspectives. “Do Extended Unemployment Benefits Lengthen Unemployment Spells? Evidence from Recent Cycles in the U.S. Labor Market,” by Henry S. Farber and Robert G. Valetta, assessed the extent to which extended UI benefits result in higher unemployment because workers choose to remain unemployed longer. They find a statistically significant effect of longer UI durations on the duration of unemployment spells, but they conclude that the overall contribution to the unemployment rate was less than half a percentage point. Because the aggregate unemployment rate rose by more than 5 percent, this effect accounts for less than 10 percent of the overall increase.
“Unemployment Benefits and Unemployment in the Great Recession: The Role of Macro Effects,” by Marcus Hagedorn, Fatih Karahan, Iourii Manovskii, and Kurt Mitman, offered a different perspective. The authors look at the evolution of unemployment rates in counties that are adjacent but lie in different states. They use the fact that the timing of extended benefits occurs at different times across states to identify the effect of extended UI durations on country-level unemployment. They find that the effects are sufficiently large that the increase in UI duration can account for virtually all of the increase in unemployment.
While seemingly at odds, the results of these two studies are consistent. The first paper shows that the decrease in the job-finding rate for workers with relatively longer benefits did not increase that much compared with the rate for workers with shorter-duration benefits, holding the overall unemployment rate constant. The second paper argues that the job-finding rate decreases for everyone when benefits are extended. The authors find that when some workers have access to longer-duration UI benefits, being unemployed is not as painful for them, which puts upward pressure on wages. To the extent that firms cannot target their job openings toward workers without access to UI, firms may be less likely to create jobs, making it harder for all workers to get job offers. The impact on uninsured workers may be as large as the impact on insured workers, and so the microeconomic estimates in Farber and Valetta will not necessarily uncover UI’s total impact on the unemployment rate.
The possible role of wage rigidities has figured prominently in many accounts of the large increase in unemployment during the recent recession. Two papers considered the importance of this explanation. “Wage Adjustment in the Great Recession,” by Michael Elsby, Donggyun Shin and Gary Solon, used microdata from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey to examine the extent to which wages are sticky. The paper finds that there has been less response in average real wages during the recent recession than in previous recessions, perhaps suggesting that real wage rigidity contributed to the large increase in unemployment. However, they also show that wages at the individual level are really quite flexible. Specifically, relatively few individuals have zero nominal wage growth from one year to the next, and many people experience decreases in nominal wage rates.
A key issue in the theoretical literature is the extent to which wage stickiness affects new hires versus existing workers. In “How Sticky Wages in Existing Jobs Can Affect Hiring,” authors Mark Bils, Yongsung Chang and Sun-Bin Kim show that even if wages for new hires are completely flexible, they may nonetheless have large effects on unemployment fluctuations when one allows for an “effort decision” for existing workers. This decision means that in response to negative shocks, firms require existing workers to expend more effort given that their wage is fixed, decreasing the need to hire new workers. The authors show that this effect is quantitatively significant and can come close to resolving the unemployment volatility puzzle, which relates to the large fluctuations in unemployment relative to productivity.
An empirical regularity that has appeared in the last few years is an outward shift in the Beveridge curve, which relates the unemployment rate to the level of vacancies. One interpretation of this upward shift is that the matching of unemployed workers and vacancies has worsened. Yet there is a lot of variety in the job-search effort by workers with different characteristics, such as the length of unemployment, whether they are on temporary layoff, and so on. In “Measuring Matching Efficiency with Heterogeneous Jobseekers,” Robert Hall and Sam Schulhofer-Wohl devise a method for incorporating this heterogeneity into the analysis and show that there has indeed been a decrease in the matching rate for workers during the last few years. It will be important for future research to determine how much this decrease reflects a decline in search intensity or whether the lower job-finding rates represent a decrease for a given level of search intensity.
Related to the two issues of nominal rigidities and mismatch, in the paper “Labor Mobility within Currency Unions,” Emmanuel Farhi and Ivan Werning study the role of labor mobility in diminishing the effects associated with nominal rigidities. For example, some researchers have suggested that a key difference between the apparent success of the United States relative to the euro zone is U.S. labor is more mobile. Farhi and Werning argue that one should not assume the mobility necessarily reduces the effects of nominal rigidities. In particular, they conclude that mobility eases the effects of nominal rigidities only if goods markets are well integrated.
Two papers focused on the nature of worker mobility across firms in the recent recession. In “Worker Flows over the Business Cycle: The Role of Firm Quality,” Lisa Kahn and Erika McEntarfer examine recent changes in flows of workers between firms that offer jobs of differing quality. They find that that lower-quality firms decreased both hiring and separations by large and equal amounts, whereas high-quality firms have much smaller declines in both hiring and separations. The net result is that the fraction of workers in lower-quality jobs tends to increase during recessions.
In closely related work, “Did the Job Ladder Fail after the Great Recession?” by Giuseppi Moscarini and Fabien Postel-Vinay, uses data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey (JOLTS) to study the hiring and separation patterns across firms of different sizes. They determine that the pattern of firm growth across size classes was different during this recession than in previous recessions. In particular, they find that following the Lehman Brothers collapse, smaller firms actually fared worse than larger firms, perhaps because financing constraints had more severe consequences for smaller firms.
As the provisions in the Affordable Care Act (ACA) take effect in the coming months, there may be large effects not only on the market for health care but also on the labor market. In particular, the ACA will implicitly introduce taxes and subsidies that will differ across firms and workers of different types. In “Effects of the Affordable Care Act on the Amount and Composition of Labor Market Activity,” Trevor Gallen and Casey Mulligan develop a framework to think about how these provisions will influence labor market outcomes across different sectors and worker types, and they use a calibrated version of the model to quantify the effects. The authors predict that the ACA will substantially reduce the return to market work for low-skilled individuals and that a large number of individuals who currently receive health insurance through their employers will end up purchasing insurance through the exchanges established as part of the ACA.
The conference also featured a presentation by Ed Lazear, “The New Normal? Productivity and Employment during the Recession and Recovery.” The talk highlighted three themes from Lazear’s recent research. First, productivity did not decline in the recent recession—as it typically had done in previous recessions—perhaps reflecting that workers expend more effort during periods of high unemployment since they fear unemployment more in a weak labor market. Second, the unemployment rate is a less useful indicator of the overall state of the labor market during the current recovery (in recent years the decline in the unemployment rate has not been accompanied by an increase in the employment-to-population ratio, since labor force participation has declined). The third theme is that the deterioration in labor market outcomes during the recent recession should be interpreted as cyclical rather than structural and, hence, a labor market recovery is likely once GDP growth is stronger.
We certainly wouldn’t claim that the conference put to rest any of the relevant questions that will confront the Federal Open Market Committee and its new chair going forward. But we do believe that continuing to support the dissemination of the type of research presented at this conference gives us a fighting chance.