Say it with confidence: Consumer surveys as a leading indicator of jobs

It turns out people are better employment forecasters than economists. A report from New York Fed economists finds that confidence measures gleaned from consumer surveys are very tightly correlated with the path of U.S. employment.

The paper offers some illustrative charts that make a rather convincing case.

The chart below plots the Present Situation Index against the unemployment rate, whose scale is inverted so that high levels represent strong labor market conditions (low unemployment) and vice versa. One readily apparent feature is that the two series move together very closely throughout the period and, most notably, during all five of the recessions since 1977. It’s hard to tell from inspecting the chart, but the highest correlation (0.89) occurs at a two-month lead; that is, the Present Situation Index is even more strongly correlated with the unemployment rate two months into the future than it is with the concurrent rate.

The next chart looks at the relationship between changes in this index and payroll job growth – both over twelve-month intervals. This measure of employment is based on a different survey than the survey for the unemployment rate, but payroll employment is typically growing when unemployment is declining and vice versa. Once again, it’s very apparent that the two measures move closely together, and again formal analysis reveals that the Present Situation Index tends to foreshadow movements in employment by a couple of months. In particular, twelve-month changes in the index are most highly correlated with twelve-month job growth four months into the future – the correlation is 0.83.

The authors appear surprised by their own findings, but ultimately find a way to rationalize them:

All of this, of course, begs the question: Why would the general public be able to give a slightly earlier read on the job market than the employment data do? One likely reason is that many people (survey respondents) are in the labor force, and almost everyone has close friends and relatives that work. So it stands to reason that most would be attuned to the general tone of the job market—at least in their region or neighborhood. For instance, people may well be aware, before layoffs actually begin, that a company’s business is slumping or that budgets are tight. Conversely, people are likely to be aware of a flurry of new job openings or a company’s need to increase staff before those new jobs actually get filled and are measured as new employment in the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ labor market report.

Before the crash: Ambling through the ‘archives’

Moving from one house or apartment to another is mainly onerous, but one of its few pleasures is coming across papers you have not seen for years: the adventure stories your grown son wrote when he was eight years old or the book report he wrote on William Shakespeare’s Richard III when he was 10.

Another potential source of amusement is finding an older newspaper or magazine article or column, preserved on purpose or inadvertently. One reads these pieces with the benefit of time: You, dear reader, have seen the future at which the columnist, either hapless or prescient, could only make a guess, educated or otherwise.

So herewith are excerpts from two side-by-side columns published in the Summer 2005 edition of TIAA-CREF’s “advance,” two years before the financial crisis sent the global economy into its worst downturn since the Great Depression.

Lower future jobless rate may give Fed little comfort

While Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke was noting the recent strengthening of the U.S. job market is “out of sync” with an otherwise slow recovery on Monday, economists at the New York Fed drew attention to the jobless rate itself by saying that some big changes lie ahead for U.S. labor.

The jobless rate may fall faster than expected to less than 5 percent in five years’ time, the economists said in the first in a series of posts but that seems likely to be due more to the fact that fewer people will be in the labor market than to future job creation.

The post notes how, between 2008 and 2012, the employment to-population ratio had a different pattern than in previous economic cycles, with the unemployment rate falling “because the participation rates declined substantially”. Given the U.S. aging population, with 10,000 baby boomers turning 65 each day, this rate is likely to decline even more. The argument has interesting implications, including a potential decline in the usefulness of the jobless rate as a gauge of well-being.

Inflation expectations: It depends on how you ask

How high or low are the public’s expectations for future inflation? It depends on how you ask the question, according to New York Fed research.
The closely-watched Michigan Survey of Consumers asks questions about “prices in general” to measure expected and perceived inflation.
But New York Fed researchers found survey questions that use the word ‘prices’ instead of ‘inflation rate’  “may bias expectations upwards.”
Responses to questions about “prices in general,” were significantly higher than responses for “the rate of inflation” when asking for expectations of the next 12 months, they found.
Why?  Questions that used the word ‘prices’  “focused respondents relatively more on personal price experiences and elicited expectations that were more strongly correlate to the expected price increases for food and transportation,” the researchers wrote.
The Federal Reserve keeps a close eye on inflation expectations, as they can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Read the full report here

Spitzer: NY Fed “an absolute sinkhole”

To say former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer is no fan of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York would be an understatement.

After arguing financial regulatory reform proposals being discussed in Washington fall short, he said:

“One institution needs to be completely overhauled: The New York Fed,” he said.