The Atlanta Fed's SouthPoint offers commentary and observations on various aspects of the region's economy.
The blog's authors include staff from the Atlanta Fed's Regional Economic Information Network and Public Affairs Department.
Postings are weekly.
Seeking the Slack
Where is the excess slack in the labor force?
Last week, the April Employment report from U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the unemployment rate (U-3) edged down slightly to 5.4 percent (after rounding) over the prior month, which is well below the high of 10.0 percent in late 2009. Despite this encouraging improvement, wage growth remains low, and many agree that slack remains in the labor market. The consensus of the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) has been that more progress can be made, as noted in the Chair’s press conference in March. One factor we have been paying particular attention to here at the Atlanta Fed is excess slack in the labor market captured in the U-6 unemployment rate, which includes the unemployed, those who are working part-time but would prefer full-time employment (part-time for economic reasons, or PTER), and those who have stopped looking for work during the last 12 months but were willing to work (marginally attached).
Below is a chart showing the U-3 unemployment rate (depicted in blue) and the U-6 rate (in red). The difference between the two is often referred to as “the gap,” and this area shaded below in light red represents the excess slack in the labor force. Between 2000 and 2008 the gap averaged 3.7 percentage points but then rose to a high of 7.3 percentage points during the recession. Since late 2011, the gap has declined and was 5.4 percentage points in April, but it remains well above the usual amount of excess slack in the labor force experienced earlier in the decade. Earlier analysis by my Atlanta Fed colleague Pat Higgins identified a significant connection between U-6 and the subdued wage growth the economy has experienced in recent years.
Just as the U-3 unemployment rate varies widely across states, so too does U-6.
Below is a map that shows where the gap between U-6 and U-3 was greatest during the first quarter of 2015. States shaded in red have a gap higher than the United States overall, and states with a lower-than-average gap are shaded in green.
Twenty-one states are shaded red, and they are mostly concentrated along the West Coast, the Southeast, and the Great Lakes region. The gaps were largest in Arizona, Nevada, and California, respectively—the so-called Sand States—where the housing boom and bust were most dramatic.
The gap was below the U.S. average in 29 states and Washington, DC. Notably, the central part of the country is shaded green. The smallest gap is in North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wyoming, states that have benefited in recent years from a boom in mining activity or energy extraction.
Of course, a large or small gap relative to the U.S. average does not tell us if the gap is unusual. For example, the red states in the chart also tend to be states whose U-3 rate and U-6 rate are also above the U.S. averages.
A way to get a sense of whether the gaps are abnormally high is to compare the gap on a state-by-state basis with that state's average gap prior to the Great Recession. (Here, I use data from 2003 to 2007 to create a prerecession baseline for each state.) As the map below shows, most states remain above their prerecession average gap and are shaded red, although a few exceptions are shaded green and sit slightly below the prerecession average. Nevada and Arizona's gaps remain stubbornly high and actually worsened in the latest quarter.
Clearly, many states have a ways to go to attain the average labor market conditions they experienced prior to the Great Recession.
By Whitney Mancuso, a senior economic analyst in the Atlanta Fed's research department
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Middle Tennessee Consumer Confidence on the Rise
Last week, the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta's research director Dave Altig wrote a macroblog post that emphasized the importance of consumer spending as the economy tries to rebound from a disappointing first quarter. Incoming data indicate that consumers haven't been willing to open up their wallets as much as expected considering recent economic conditions. The underlying fundamentals that influence consumer spending would suggest a higher level of consumption than the economy is currently experiencing. In a recent speech, Atlanta Fed President Dennis Lockhart pointed out these fundamentals, which included real personal income growth, household wealth, access to credit, and consumer confidence. According to the Middle Tennessee Consumer Outlook Index, released on May 1, Middle Tennessee has the confidence fundamental covered.
The Middle Tennessee Consumer Confidence survey is conducted by the Office of Consumer Research at Middle Tennessee State University, headed by Professor Timothy Graeff. Students in Graeff's marketing research course conduct the survey by phone. The 11-question survey asks questions related to economic conditions in the United States as well as Middle Tennessee.
The overall index rose to its highest level since June of 2004 (see the chart).
Participants felt particularly more optimistic about the local economy than the national economy. A solid 65 percent of survey participants indicated that business conditions in Middle Tennessee were good, but only 27 percent felt that conditions were good for the nation.
Looking forward, the future expectations index also rose since the last survey, suggesting that people are more optimistic about the economy over the near term. When asked what conditions for Middle Tennessee would be like in six months, 44 percent indicated things would be better, and 50 percent felt things would be about the same. The national numbers were less optimistic than the local but still represented an improvement over the last survey, with 26 percent indicating conditions would improve and 57 percent stating conditions would stay about the same.
The national consumer confidence indexes have trended up overall since the depths of the recession but still have not reached levels seen in the mid-2000s (see the chart).
Still, as Dave Altig pointed out in his macroblog post and President Lockhart in his speech, the fundamentals suggest that consumer spending will pick up in the not-too-distant future. Our confidence may be slightly guarded, but we are optimistic. Just like Middle Tennessee.
By Troy Balthrop, a senior Regional Economic Information Network analyst in the Atlanta Fed's Nashville Branch
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Trials and Tribulations in Transportation
Members of the Atlanta Fed's Trade and Transportation Advisory Council convened on April 7 at the Atlanta Fed's Jacksonville Branch to discuss the Southeast latest developments in this sector.
Just over half of council members reported an expansion of overall activity compared with the same period last year. A few members reported reduced freight activity, citing the primary causes as both a decrease in movement of materials related to oil exploration and the appreciation of the U.S. dollar against the euro. Members noted that severe winter weather affected shipments for railroads and truckers primarily throughout the north and northeast United States, and the West Coast ports situation disrupted supply chains across the country. East Coast port volumes are now over capacity as shippers began diverting cargo away from the West Coast. Council members anticipate that it will be August before the backlog of port cargo will be cleared, a situation that may adversely affect the peak fall shipping season. However, members believed that many of the structural problems of the West Coast ports will remain in place long after the labor situation is resolved.
Employment, wage picture largely mixed
A majority of council members reported that employment levels were flat or slightly higher compared with this time last year, and two-thirds of council members expect higher workforce levels this time next year.
Truck driver shortages remained an almost universal concern for the industry. Technicians (formerly referred to as mechanics) are also in demand and harder to find as new federal emission requirements demand workers with more specialized skills.
Responses regarding wage pressures were mixed. Trucking companies continued to raise driver pay, as finding willing and qualified truck drivers remained difficult. Outside of specific areas of expertise, such as railroad engineers and technicians, employers were easily filling nondriver positions without increasing starting salaries. Logistics firms, however, perceived the labor market as tightening and reported more frequent voluntary turnover with "higher pay" being cited as a reason for leaving. Additionally, candidates were receiving multiple offers and enhanced benefits packages.
Nonlabor input costs and prices
A number of council members reported seeing some upward cost pressures in nonlabor inputs such as commercial insurance, equipment, locomotives and leases, ocean freight rates, and domestic trucking rates. The sharp decline in fuel costs, however, has helped keep overall costs down.
Almost all council members reported better pricing power since the last meeting in October 2014. Members indicated that some customers understand market forces and work to negotiate the best deal possible with their current carrier, but others shop around for the lowest cost. All council members anticipate greater ability to raise prices one year out and beyond, citing constrained capacity and expected higher commodity prices as the principal reasons, along with seeking to recover increased regulatory compliance costs.
International trade rises modestly
Council members with insight into international trade indicated modest growth in imports, related to the strong U.S. dollar against the euro and other foreign currencies and an improved domestic economy. Regions expected to drive demand for U.S. exports are South America and Asia as those economies continue to expand consumer buying power. Near-shoring is expected to become a bigger trend, and the automotive sector's investments in Mexico will drive greater cross-border growth between the United States and Mexico.
Two-thirds of council members expect higher growth in the short term. Over the next two to three years, three-quarters of members expect higher growth. When asked about the most challenging issues facing the transportation sector, responses varied by sub-industry. Driver shortages continued to be the headliner, along with regulatory issues, which continued to drive capacity out of the market and significantly push up operations costs. Broadly, the supply chain has been adversely affected by infrastructure constraints, and this impact could persist: the United States has a great need for well-planned and properly funded hard infrastructure investment in ports and road networks to get goods to market.
The council meets again in October, and SouthPoint will report whether the summer months reflect improving conditions for the movement of goods.
By Sarah Arteaga, a Regional Economic Information Network director in the Atlanta Fed's Jacksonville Branch
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- Southeastern Transportation: Tapping the Brakes?
- Southeast Manufacturing Slows in August
- It's Mostly Sunny in Florida
- Auto Manufacturing an Economic Boon for Tennessee
- Southeast Manufacturing Rebounded in June
- Southeast Manufacturing Dips in May
- Assessing the Impact of Oil Price Declines on Louisiana's Economy
- Seeking the Slack
- Middle Tennessee Consumer Confidence on the Rise
- Trials and Tribulations in Transportation
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