Fed’s Lockhart explains what he means by “substantial improvement” on jobs

November 1, 2012

Federal Reserve officials have linked their open-ended stimulus program to substantial improvement in the labor market. So now, it’s up to Fed watchers to hone in on a definition of substantial, no small task in a world of multiple and often conflicting indicators on the job market.

In a speech to the Chattanooga Rotary Club on Thursday, Dennis Lockhart offered some insights into how he’s thinking about the process:

For policy purposes, I think it’s appropriate to be cautious about relying on a single indicator of labor market trends—for example, the unemployment rate—to determine whether the condition of “substantial improvement” has been met. The official national unemployment rate published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics is the most prominent statistic in the mind of the general public. As a policymaker, I want to have confidence that a decline of this headline number is reinforced by other indicators and evidence of broad labor market improvement in its many dimensions. The challenge my FOMC colleagues and I will face is communicating in simple and trackable terms what this phrase “substantial improvement” means while respecting the complex reality of many moving parts. […]

The starting point certainly should be the headline unemployment rate and the payroll jobs number. The interpretation of movements in these two statistics would be enriched and reinforced by a review of additional data elements.

Here are examples of what I would look for:

First, I would look for lower unemployment rates that are driven by increased flows of job seekers into employment. I would not interpret discouraged workers dropping out of the labor force as a sign of improvement, even if the unemployment rate falls as a consequence.

Conversely, I’d like to see growing public confidence in the labor market as measured by increased movement of people from out-of-the labor-force status into the labor force—that is, growing labor force participation. I would interpret a reduction in the number of marginally attached workers as a sign of improvement, even if the unemployment rate goes temporarily higher.

Third, I’d look for employment gains that are associated with reductions in underemployment. I would interpret a pickup in job growth less positively if it is associated with increases in part-time jobs for people who seek full-time work.

Finally, I’d like to see signs that improvements in all these indicators are gaining momentum and are sustainable. A framework for assessing labor market conditions needs to include forward indicators of labor market health, such as falling claims for unemployment insurance.”

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