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Regional labor markets: Some initial signs of improvement

In a speech last week to the Augusta Metro Chamber of Commerce, Atlanta Fed President Dennis Lockhart said that inventory replenishment and business spending are keys to unlocking the trajectory of the economic recovery. He added that:

"The third and maybe most important factor I'm watching is the labor market. I expect a very slow recovery of employment markets and, therefore, a slow decline of the unemployment rate. But it's worth noting that as the recovery got under way in the second half of last year, businesses relied on productivity enhancements to expand production and were able to defer hiring.

"A shift from productivity-driven expansion to jobs-driven expansion could materialize as benefits of earlier cost and head-count reductions reach their limit. The additional hiring that would follow would likely improve business and consumer confidence and feed a virtuous cycle."

There is little hard data showing a turnaround in the regional labor market, in part because most state-level labor market data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics are only available through December (January data will be released March 10). However, we do see evidence that job losses tapered off. For example, initial claims for unemployment insurance continue to decelerate:


In addition, the number of job losses declined steadily throughout 2009:


Anecdotal information is mixed as well. Temporary help agencies in the Southeast noted an increase in job orders in January and early February. Yet, according to our business contacts as a whole, overall job creation remained tepid. Businesses continued to describe attempts to do more with less, such as combining the duties of several jobs into one.

The Chicago Fed's Bill Testa blogged on the Midwest economy last week and noted another useful indicator that can bridge the gap between official releases from the BLS.  Bill writes:

"The Conference Board tracks national and state online job vacancies on a monthly basis. Their recent release reports a third consecutive month of strong national gains in advertised vacancies. Their recent release reports a third consecutive month of strong national gains in advertised vacancies. The gains were widespread across U.S. regions, including the Midwest."

Southeastern states also saw increases in January from December in the total number of online job vacancies.

President Lockhart concluded his remarks on the outlook in Augusta by saying:

"I expect businesses to be very cautious with respect to inventory accumulation, capital spending, and hiring. But I will be watching carefully for signs that an alternative, faster-growth scenario is developing."

Through February, we see little evidence that a faster-growth scenario is building in regional labor markets. We are hopeful that the positive signs we see in temporary employment increases and in job advertisements in the region feed through into measurable job gains, but as of now we continue to expect a very slow recovery in employment.

Michael Chriszt, an assistant vice president in the Atlanta Fed's research department

February 24, 2010 in Labor Markets , Productivity , Unemployment | Permalink


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