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The deceivingly low unemployment rate in the US

The Labor Department just reported that the unemployment rate is at 5%.  The Federal Reserve considers a base unemployment rate (the U-3 rate) of 5.0 to 5.2 percent as “full employment” in the economy.  Classic economic theory predicts that a tight labor market develops when “full employment” is reached.  Specifically according to this theory, once “full employment” is reached, employers begin having more difficulty filling job vacancies, followed by increases in wages (beyond the inflation rate), either to keep their employees from leaving, or to recruit good employees from someone else.  However, the US unemployment rate has been at or below this 5.0 – 5.2% range since July, 2015, with essentially no increase in wages during this time.  What gives?

Clearly, it is time for the Fed to adjust it’s definition of what “full employment” is, because if it means that it is the time when wages begin to meaningfully rise, then an unemployment rate of 5.0 to 5.2% is too high.

One clue to make sense of this is to look at a measure called the labor-force participation rate.  The “full employment” of 5.0-5.2% idea was conceived during the days when the labor-force participation rate was much higher than it is today.  Experts have even stated with an optimistic tone that recently the participation rate has increased from 62.9% to 63%, stating that it is at its highest rating in two years, and further using the upward turn to the right of the figure from the Bureau of Labor Statistics below as evidence of an uptrend:

However, what happens when we look at a longer period of time, such as all data post-WWII, when the ratio of single earner to dual earner households was much higher than it is today? Well, we see two disturbing truths in the longer term trend, particularly since 2008:

One is that from a peak of nearly 67.5% to today’s 63% (ie 4.5%) is nearly a 50% drop to it’s long term rate of just over 58% (pre-1966) when most households had one earner, not two. Given that a much higher percentage of households are dual earner today compared to pre-1966, one would expect this chart to remain above 66%  Certainly the retirement of “baby boomers” will cause some of this decrease, but not all.  The second disturbing trend more evident in the long term chart is that any recent uptrend in this chart is tenuous at best.  Rather, it is just as likely that we will not get a “V shaped” recovery in this trend, and that the continual downward trend since 2009 will continue unless more drastic changes are made to put more working class people to work, including those that have given up hope.

Maybe economists need to switch to a combination of the unemployment rate and the labor-force participation rate, and not just state the unemployment rate as a measure of “full employment”.  If this is done, it is likely that this alternate measure will more accurately predict when “a tight labor market will develop”, which would in fact bring meaningful increases in wages.

Perhaps just as importantly or more so, political policies that have been in existence since 2009 will need to change to eventually truly bring about “full employment”.  Economists can devise a more accurate measure of unemployment for today’s society, but they are not in position to get this job done.  It is up to US citizens to elect the appropriate leaders to get this done, at the State and especially at the Federal level.

World Economic Tug of War

While it may be a bit presumptuous to say that the US economy is still the “epicenter” of the world economy, given that some of the developing countries, especially China continue to grow, albeit slowing, more than the US, the US is still the #1 powerhouse and force in the world economy. Therefore, it is still valid to consider this “epicenter” and it’s current health. However, as world economies become increasingly interdependent, we must more than ever consider the complex interactions between world economies in order to more completely understand the big picture.
The checks and balances, both within the US economy and between the US and other economies, remains quite interesting. The US economy has been expanding for over 5 years, which has caused the US dollar to appreciate significantly vs. other currencies during this time. Naturally, when this happens for a long enough period of time, US-made goods become more expensive for foreign buyers, which ultimately puts a cap on US growth, allowing other economies to grow in relative terms.
While the time has not yet come for another US recession, especially considering that gas prices at the pump may remain low for an extended period of time as some predict, the relative health of the US economy should remain intact at least for the next few months. Consider that lower gas prices during the 4th quarter of 2014 alone translated into a whooping $130 BILLION in savings for consumers, much of which will drive consumption growth for goods other than gas. Add this reality to the fact that non-US consumers will continue to invest in the US, it will only further prop the US economy and stock market, if only because the US remains the best, brightest, and safest market for investors.