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April 7, 2021
CFOs Growing More Optimistic, See Only Modest Boost from Stimulus Plan
During the past few months, alongside an increase in COVID-19 vaccinations and amid a fresh round of fiscal support, optimism about the economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic has grown. Although reasons for concern over the potential unevenness of the recovery still exist, many economists, policymakers , and market participants have ratcheted up their growth expectations for 2021.
This growing optimism extends to decision makers who participate in The CFO Survey—a collaborative effort among the Atlanta Fed, Duke University's Fuqua School, and the Richmond Fed. CFOs and other financial decision makers in our survey grew more optimistic about the U.S. economy and their own firms' financial prospects, according to the first quarter's data released on April 7. Moreover, these firms see stronger prospects for sales revenue and employment growth in 2021 (similar to results from other business surveys, including the Atlanta Fed's Survey of Business Uncertainty).
Many people think the recently passed $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) is behind these brighter expectations. However, the results of our CFO Survey suggest that many firms anticipate that the fiscal stimulus will have only a modest impact on their own future business activity.
In the first-quarter CFO Survey (fielded March 15–26, 2021), we posed a question asking respondents about the impact that ARPA might have their own firm's revenue growth, number of employees, representative price (the price of the product, product line, or service that accounts for the majority of their revenue), and total wage and salary costs (see chart 1). Firms had five response options, ranging from "decrease significantly" to "increase significantly." A majority of firms expect the recent fiscal measure to have "little to no impact" across all areas of their business activity. The results are perhaps most striking for employment, as nearly 80 percent of firms anticipate ARPA to bring little to no change in that area.
Considering the tepid impact of the stimulus on employment expectations, the survey results for total wage and salary costs are also interesting. Here, nearly 30 percent of the panel anticipates modest to moderate upward pressure on wage and salary costs, with another 5 percent or so expecting "significant" impact on their wage bill. The reasons for the expected effect on firms' total wage and salary costs are unclear, but we should note that labor quality and availability remain very high on CFOs' list of most pressing concerns.
Expectations around ARPA's impact on revenue growth appear a bit more diffuse. Though the survey's typical (or median) firm still anticipates that the bill will bring little to no change in sales revenue growth, nearly 40 percent of respondents expect the legislation to have a positive impact on sales, and a very small share of firms anticipate a negative impact on revenue.
Given the nature of these responses, we were curious whether CFOs who anticipated a positive impact from ARPA also held higher quantitative expectations for firm-level growth than firms who saw little-to-no impact. t. The CFO Survey elicits firms' quantitative expectations for sales revenue, employment, price, and wage growth early in the questionnaire, providing a useful way to check for consistency. Table 1 reports these results.
Apart from firms' anticipated growth in wage and salary costs, it does appear that firms that foresee a boost from the fiscal stimulus also hold higher growth expectations. The increase in expectations is particularly stark for employment growth and prices.
If we dig a little deeper into the small share of firms anticipating increased employment due to the stimulus—45 total—we find that 40 of them are in service-providing industries and employ fewer than 500 workers. We know from academic research, government statistics, and anecdotal reports that the COVID-19 pandemic has hit smaller, service-providing firms particularly hard, so it's perhaps not surprising to see these types of firms expecting the stimulus to aid in a rebound. These firms are also anticipating a stimulus-induced boost to the prices they can charge. The price growth for services has slowed markedly since the onset of the pandemic. As the economy begins to open up more fully, these firms might believe that measures to bolster household income (among other aspects of ARPA) will lead to a bit more pricing power.
Overall, however, our results suggest that the majority of firms anticipate ARPA to have little to no impact on their sales revenue, employment, prices, and wages. The smaller share of firms that do anticipate increased activity resulting from the stimulus largely expect the increase to be modest to moderate.
Importantly, these results do not rule out a surge in growth as the pandemic recedes and the vaccination rollout continues. As we've noted, most CFOs expect growth to occur regardless of ARPA's role in that growth. But the survey shows that firms, in general, do not pin any surge in demand on the legislation.
March 23, 2021
Hourly and Weekly Perspectives on Wage Growth during the Pandemic
Despite record-setting job losses during the COVID-19 pandemic, median growth in the hourly rate of pay for those who stayed employed has held up remarkably well, which we can see in the Atlanta Fed's Wage Growth Tracker (see chart 1).
The Wage Growth Tracker compares individual hourly wages in the current month with what the same individual's hourly wage was 12 months earlier and calculates the change. The fact that the median wage growth has not slowed, despite the increase in unemployment, suggests that the pandemic's impact on the labor market has been quite unusual.
During the Great Recession, the slowing in median hourly wage growth coincided with a large increase in the share of workers reporting that their hourly rate of pay was unchanged from a year earlier. As chart 2 shows, the share of workers reporting zero change in their hourly rate of pay has ticked up a bit during the COVID-19 pandemic, but so far, what we see differs from observations we made during the Great Recession.
Why did the COVID-19 pandemic have a relatively smaller impact on median hourly wage growth compared to the Great Recession? One explanation is that the supply of unemployed job seekers far exceeded job vacancies in the earlier recession. That is, employers typically received many more applicants for each available position. As chart 3 shows, at the Great Recession's peak, there were 6.5 unemployed workers for each job posting and 5.7 unemployed not on temporary layoff for each job posting. I think unemployed workers not on temporary layoff is a more useful measure of unemployed job seekers because those on temporary layoff expect to be recalled by their employer and hence are not necessarily looking for another job. Contrast that with January 2021, when there were 1.5 unemployed workers for each opening and 1.1 unemployed workers not on temporary layoff for each job vacancy. In this sense, the labor demand and supply during the COVID-19 pandemic has been more in balance than during the Great Recession. Compared with the Great Recession, apart from the period during the initial lockdown, total vacancies by firms has scaled back relatively modestly during the pandemic while the number of workers looking for a job has increased by less.
Nonetheless, during both the Great Recession and the COVID-19 pandemic, many workers who remained employed have experienced an involuntary reduction in their work hours, which has dragged down workers' weekly paychecks even when their hourly rate of pay hasn't fallen. In February 2021, about 6.5 million workers were classified by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) as working part-time for economic reasons—almost 2 million more than in February 2020, just before the pandemic hit the U.S. economy. For this reason, I've constructed an alternate version of the Wage Growth Tracker, which shows the median growth of individual weekly earnings. This new measure uses the same data (from the Current Population Survey, jointly administered by the BLS and the U.S. Census Bureau) as the hourly earnings measure, and I show both series in chart 4 for comparison.
Generally, the two series move in tandem, with the weekly series slightly outpacing the hourly series during economic expansions as hours worked tend to rise. However, as we see here, during both the Great Recession and the COVID-19 pandemic, reduced hours worked each week lowered many workers' median growth in weekly earnings relative to hourly earnings.
As the economy recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic, watching both the hourly and weekly versions of the Wage Growth Tracker will be useful. As fewer worker face reduced hours, I expect to see median weekly wage growth recover and at least match the pace of hourly wage growth. A tighter labor market should result in higher wage growth on both an hourly and weekly basis. I'll write about the developments using new Wage Growth Tracker data we'll post soon, so check back.
Note: If you are interested in tracking the hourly and weekly versions of the Wage Growth Tracker you can do that here, or via the EconomyNow app, which also features several other Atlanta Fed data tools.
March 22, 2021
Inflation Expectations Reflect Concerns over Supply Disruptions, Crimped Capacity
As the COVID-19 pandemic stretches into its second year, we've seen evidence of changes in how it, and attendant policy measures designed to support the economy, are affecting firms. Early in the pandemic, firms generally appeared more concerned with flagging demand and falling revenue than issues of having sufficient supplies (notwithstanding obvious acute issues at grocery stores). Rather, at least through August 2020, firms saw the COVID-19 pandemic as disproportionately a concern of demand rather than supply —so much so, in fact, that firms scaled back on wages, expected to lower near-term selling prices, and lowered their one-year-ahead inflation expectations to a series low (going back to 2011). These findings, based on our Business Inflation Expectations (BIE) survey, are consistent with other academic research based on quarterly earnings calls of public firms and research out of the Harvard Business School.
However, as the pandemic continued to unfold and as relief and support continued to flow into the economy via ongoing monetary and fiscal policy efforts, many firms have begun to indicate a shift in concerns—from flagging demand toward concerns about fulfilling demand. Although the recovery remains decidedly uneven across industries, strong shifts in consumer activity (toward durable goods purchases) amid crimped production due to COVID-19 restrictions appear to have disrupted supply chains, to the extent that shipping containers sit mired in ports amid "floating traffic jams." Along with these difficulties, firms continue to indicate issues with employee availability, which hampers their operating capacity.
To investigate the breadth and intensity of these disruptions in supply chains and business operating capacity, we posed a few questions to our BIE panel during the first week of March. Specifically, we asked whether they'd recently experienced some form of supply chain disruption (anything from supplier delays to delays in shipping to their customers) as well as their experiences with crimped operating capacity (due to a variety of issues, ranging from employee availability to physical distancing issues). While we borrowed those two questions more or less directly from the U.S. Census Bureau's Small Business Pulse Survey, we also extended them by asking firms to gauge the intensity of these disruptions (on a scale ranging from "little to none" to "severe"). In addition, we posed these questions to medium-sized and larger firms in addition to those with fewer than 500 employees.
Chart 1 below shows the results. Regarding supply chain difficulties, we found that more than half of the firms in our panel felt some form of supplier delay, and the level of disruption is "moderate to severe" for 40 percent of them—a striking finding for a few reasons. First, our panel, like the nation, is disproportionately weighted toward service-providing firms (roughly 70 percent service firms to 30 percent goods producers). Second, just a few months ago (December 2020), firms ranked "supply chain concerns" as eighth out of their top 10 concerns for 2021. These results align with well-known diffusion indexes—the Institute for Supply Management Manufacturing and Business Services surveys—that have shown that a greater share of firms are experiencing slower deliveries and lower inventories in recent months.
In addition to issues receiving raw materials and intermediate goods from suppliers, a little more than one in three firms in the BIE panel also indicated that they themselves experienced delays in fulfillment, and the responses to the question on disruptions to operating capacity allow us some insight into the potential causes of these delays.
Here, a third of firms indicated that they were having difficulties with their employees' availability for work. Presumably, these issues stem from employees' concerns over contracting the virus, outbreaks causing production delays, or employees' inability to work due to familial issues such as childcare or the care of other dependents. One out of five respondents indicated that the intensity of disruption to operating capacity stemming from employee availability was moderate to severe. The same share of panel respondents—a fifth—indicated that a lack of adequate supplies and inputs on hand (likely due to supplier delays) caused a shortfall in production relative to capacity.
Comparing these responses to the Census Bureau's Small Business Pulse Survey, we find that the relative rankings of sources of disruption are quite similar—supplier delays far outweigh other supply chain disruptions, and the availability of employees for work are the most frequently cited sources of disrupted operations. Yet we find a greater incidence of disruption (even if we restrict our sample only to small firms). For example, 40 percent of firms surveyed by the Census Bureau indicated supplier delays, which slightly more than half of firms indicated to us. Such a discrepancy is unlike previous comparisons to other Census Bureau work (which match quite closely) and could be the result of a number of survey-specific factors. For instance, the types of respondents differ markedly—whereas the BIE elicits responses mainly from those in the C-suite and business owners, the census typically aims for someone in the accounting department. The number of response options also differs, and census respondents have seen these questions on disruption to supply chains and operating capacity numerous times over the pandemic.
Although disrupted supply chains and crimped operating capacity are significant enough to warrant attention on their own merits, another aspect of these issues deserves attention. Concurrent with widespread supply chain disruption and hobbled operating capacity, firms have ratcheted up both their perceptions of current inflation and their expectations for unit costs going forward (see chart 2).
When we survey firms' expectations around inflation, we prefer to gauge their views on the nominal aspects of the economy through the lens of their own-firm unit costs, as other Atlanta Fed research shows. After falling to the lowest levels on record during the depths of the pandemic, firms' perceptions of unit cost growth over the past year have risen sharply. Interestingly, these perceptions correlate tightly with movements in official aggregate price indexes, such as the gross domestic product price index (also called the GDP deflator) and the personal consumption expenditures price index.
Firms also appear to anticipate higher unit-cost growth in the year ahead. Since hitting a low in April 2020, firms' unit-cost (basically, inflation) expectations for the year ahead have surged to all all-time high just 11 months later. Not only does that kind of volatility speak to the dramatic and disparate impact COVID-19 has had on business activity, but it also suggests that the underlying drivers of these expectations have shifted markedly. (Incidentally, chart 2 shows that this measure of firms' inflation expectations moves in lockstep with professional forecasters' views.)
Indeed, in sharp contrast to their views early in the crisis, firms' one-year inflation expectations appear to have risen sharply alongside their views on supply chain and operating capacity disruption. Chart 3 shows a simple scatterplot between firms' one-year-ahead inflation expectations and a summary measure of the intensity of their disruption. To create this measure, we first assigned a score from 0 to 4 to each special question response based on whether they responded "None," "Little to none," "Mild," "Moderate," or "Severe." We then add their scores to obtain their disruption index. The mean disruption index value for firms in goods-producing industries is 9.3 and 6.6 for service-providing firms. And consistent with anecdotes and news stories, the disruption is highest in manufacturing industries (9.75) and trade and transportation industries (9.1).
Chart 3 visualizes the relationship between inflation expectations and the index of supply chain disruption. Although supply chain disruption isn't the only factor influencing year-ahead unit cost expectations, we can see that firms with the largest levels of disruption tend to be those that hold higher expectations for inflation in the year ahead.
For another perspective, chart 4 shows that the relationship between inflation expectations and disruption depends on whether the responding firm belongs in the goods-producing sector or the service-providing one. While both have strong positive relationships, it's interesting to note that the relationship is even stronger among firms in the goods-producing sector. While perhaps an unsurprising result, it is a reassuring one given that the most-cited reason for supply chain disruptions—supplier delays—is more likely to affect goods-producing firms.
Overall, when one contrasts the early portion of the pandemic with the more recent period, significantly more firms indicate that they are experiencing disruptions in their supply chain and operating capacity. More than 50 percent of our survey panelists indicated delayed deliveries from suppliers (and for most of those respondents, the disruption is moderate to severe). Combined with crimped operating capacity due largely to uncertain employee availability and lack of inputs, firms are beginning to view these disruptions as factors that are driving up their unit costs and leading to higher inflation expectations. We can connect the dots from firms' year-ahead inflation expectations to the intensity of these supply and production disruptions. Firms experiencing the most intense disruption tend to be those with the highest expectation of future inflation. This explanation tamps down the speculation that the potential inflationary impact of recent fiscal stimulus on demand is behind heightened year-ahead inflation expectations.
February 24, 2021
WFH Is Onstage and Here to Stay
Chances are you recognize the relatively new acronym WFH as "working from home." In less than a year, WFH has become a ubiquitous, inescapable facet of life for many people, so much so that newswires now ask which cities are best for WFH, and online job boards compile lists of companies that allow remote work on a full-time, permanent basis.
Many people are debating the pros and cons of WFH. For employees, gone are the long commutes and cramped cubicles, but other work-related stresses have emerged. As the pandemic drags on, some workers experience feelings of loneliness and isolation, health problems, and challenges related to work-life balance.
Back in May 2020, the Atlanta Fed's Survey of Business Uncertainty (SBU) elicited firms' views on WFH and found that, on average, firms anticipated that WFH would triple to 16.6 percent of paid workdays after the pandemic ends, up from 5.5 percent before it struck. Eight months later, we were curious to see whether and how plans had changed. So, in the January 2021 SBU, we asked two special questions very similar to ones we posed last May. Specifically, to gauge the extent of WFH, we asked, "Currently, how often do your full-time employees work from home?" To assess the future extent of WFH, we asked, "How often do you anticipate that your full-time employees will work from home after the coronavirus pandemic ends?" We asked firms to sort the fraction of their full-time workforce into six categories, ranging from five full days WFH per week to rarely or never.
It turns out that current plans are similar to those in May, with one important exception: firms increasingly favor a hybrid model for the postpandemic economy, walking back plans for the share of staff that will work exclusively from home. Chart 1 summarizes the responses to WFH questions posed in January's SBU and compares them to our May results. We also compare the results to statistics computed from the American Time Use Survey, conducted by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2017–18, which provides a useful benchmark. Aside from the striking similarity in pre-COVID levels of WFH across the surveys, several findings are worthy of note.
First, according to the January SBU, more than 35 percent of employees currently WFH at least one day per week. This estimate is plausible in light of work by Jonathan Dingel and Brent Neiman of the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business, which indicates that nearly 40 percent of U.S. jobs can be done at home . Moreover, the current WFH configuration tilts toward multiple days at home. All told, 25 percent of paid workdays are currently performed at home.
Second, firms report surprisingly similar figures in May 2020 and January 2021 for the share of employees whom they expect to work from home at least one day per week after the pandemic. Given the unprecedented nature of the pandemic recession, eight months is a long time over which to hold such stable expectations, suggesting that firms are serious about their intentions.
However, expectations have adjusted in one key respect: last May, firms anticipated that 10 percent of the postpandemic workforce would be fully remote, as compared to just 6 percent as of January. While still double the pre-COVID share, the revised expectation suggests many firms are coalescing around hybrid arrangements, whereby employees split the workweek between home and employer premises. These plans entail a large break from prepandemic working arrangements, but they imply more limited scope for employees to live anywhere—or for employers to hire from anywhere.
Chart 2 shows how the extent of actual and planned WFH varies by industry. Every major industry sector saw dramatic increases in WFH during the pandemic. With the exception of retail and wholesale trade, firms in every sector anticipate that a tenth or more of paid workdays by full-time employees will take place at home after the pandemic ends. For firms in business services, information, finance, and insurance, the postpandemic figure is 30.6 percent. And for the economy as a whole, it's 14.6 percent—nearly triple the prepandemic level.
Further digging into our survey results reveals the finding that COVID-19 shifted employment growth trends in favor of industries with a high capacity of employees to WFH and against those less able to accommodate remote work. Firms with a high WFH capacity experienced much higher stock returns in the past year than did firms with a low capacity. In addition, urban residences have become cheaper relative to suburban ones since the pandemic struck, suggesting that a shift to WFH has lowered the desirability of urban living. More WFH also means fewer people commuting into city centers and less worker spending on meals, coffee, personal services, shopping, and entertainment near employer premises. A recent study finds that a permanent shift to WFH will directly reduce postpandemic spending in major city centers by 5–10 percent relative to prepandemic circumstances. Of course, such changes also mean lower sales tax revenue for cities that had high rates of inward commuting before the pandemic.
To summarize, firms have largely stuck to their early expectations about the extent of WFH in the postpandemic economy. There has, however, been a notable drop in plans for employees to work from home five days a week. Remarkably, in every major industry sector except retail and wholesale trade, firms anticipate that WFH will account for one-tenth or more of full workdays by full-time employees, far above prepandemic levels. These shifts toward more remote work are driving a reallocation of jobs across industries and locations, contributing to fewer jobs, lower sales tax revenues, and lower property values in city centers. Our results suggest that these effects are likely to persist.
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