How much is fiscal uncertainty holding back hiring? The answer seems to depend on whom you ask. Early in January, the Atlanta Fed spoke to 670 businesses in the Southeast about employment. Conditional on the respondents’ 2013 hiring plans (expand, hold steady, or contract), the following set of charts summarizes the results for how the businesses viewed activity relative to their own interpretation of “normal” along three dimensions: their current employment level, the amount of effort required from their staff per hour, and the average hours worked per employee. These questions were modeled on questions asked in the Atlanta Fed’s December 2012 Business Inflation Expectations Survey. In the following three charts, the green bars represent firms that said they planned to expand employment in 2013. The grey bars represent firms that said they did not plan to change their employment level in 2013, and the red bars represent firms that planned to reduce employment in 2013.
The first chart shows the results for current employment. Regardless of hiring plans over the next 12 months, most firms said they were currently at or below normal employment levels. Those planning on increasing employment over the next 12 months were a bit more likely to say they have already surpassed normal levels of employment than other firms, while those looking to shed employees were very likely to say their employment level is below normal employment levels.
Chart 2 shows that businesses are generally pushing hard along the effort dimension. Firms were quite likely to say that their staff’s effort per hour worked was currently at or above normal, whether or not they were planning to change employment in 2013.
Chart 3 shows that firms planning to expand were very likely to say that average hours worked were at or above normal (28 percent said hours were above normal, 60 percent about normal), whereas firms planning to contract were more likely to say that hours were at or below normal (48 percent about normal, 39 percent below normal).
Taken together, these results suggest that some firms are approaching the limit of how far they can go along the intensive margins of effort and hours before they have to hire more workers. With effort elevated, as more firms increase average hours worked to above-normal levels, one might expect more hiring to follow.
Each business was also asked how uncertainty about future fiscal policy was affecting its hiring plans. Firms planning to reduce employment tended to cite fiscal uncertainty as having a negative impact on their hiring plans. However, for those firms, hours also tended to be well below normal, so it is unlikely that removing fiscal uncertainty would move many of those firms into expansion mode (although it may help stabilize their outlook).
In contrast, fiscal uncertainty was generally viewed as having less impact by those planning to expand employment and those planning to hold employment levels steady. Presumably, reducing fiscal uncertainty would move some of the firms planning to hold steady into expansion mode, and those planning to expand would do so a bit more. To get some idea of this potential, Chart 4 shows the responses by firms who reported above-normal effort per hour and above-normal average hours worked. About 40 percent of those businesses said that fiscal uncertainty had caused them to scale back their hiring plans.
It is unclear whether eliminating fiscal uncertainty would have a big impact on the hiring plans of these firms. But these results suggest that it sure couldn’t hurt.
By John Robertson and Ellyn Terry