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Policy Hub: Macroblog provides concise commentary and analysis on economic topics including monetary policy, macroeconomic developments, inflation, labor economics, and financial issues for a broad audience.

Authors for Policy Hub: Macroblog are Dave Altig, John Robertson, and other Atlanta Fed economists and researchers.

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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).

Chart 1 of 4: Wage Growth Tracker

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.

Chart 2 of 4: Share of Workers Reporting No Change in Hourly Rate of Pay

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.

Chart 3 of 4: Number of Unemployed per Job Vacancy

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 SurveyOff-site link, 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.

Chart 4 of 4: Wage Growth Tracker

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.

February 11, 2021

Insights from the Updated Labor Force Participation Dynamics Tool

We recently updated our Labor Force Participation (LFP) Dynamics tool with 2020 data. The new data highlight the impact that the COVID-19 pandemic had on the U.S. labor force in 2020. For example, the fraction of the adult population aged 25–54 employed or looking for work dropped from 83.0 percent to 81.2 percent between the fourth quarters of 2019 and 2020 (see the chart).

chart 01 of 01: Labor Force Participation Rate
Source: Current Population Survey from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, author's calculations

The 1.8 percentage point drop is mostly accounted for by a 1.1 percentage point rise in the share of people saying they want a job but are not actively looking (a segment often called the shadow labor force), combined with a 0.5 percentage point rise in the share of adults saying they had family responsibilities that kept them from looking for work, and a 0.3 percentage point rise in reasons not otherwise specified (but most likely attributable to concerns about COVID-19). Only partly offsetting these increases in nonparticipation was a 0.1 percentage point drop stemming from being in school or training, which could also be a result of COVID-19.

The Labor Force Dynamics tool allows users to dig into different demographic groups to investigate COVID-19's disparate impact on labor market engagement. For instance, for Black non-Hispanics aged 25–54, the decline in LFP is almost 3 percentage points: much larger than the overall decline. Over two-thirds of the decline for prime-age Blacks is attributed to a rise in the share of Black adults who want a job but are not currently searching for work. For Hispanic women, the participation decline is just over 2 percentage points, with half of that decline attributable to increased family responsibilities, which could be due to the lack of childcare options.

I encourage you to check out the updated LFP Dynamics tool. One interesting comparison would be to contrast what has happened over the last year with what happened to LFP and the reasons for nonparticipation between the fourth quarters of 2007 and 2010 (during the Great Recession). You will find some common features, but also some important differences. Enjoy!

October 7, 2020

Two Quite Different Paths for U.S. Unemployment

Editor's note: In December, macroblog will become part of the Atlanta Fed's Policy Hub publication.

Here are two charts that I think are very telling for the recovery of the U.S. labor market. Chart 1 shows the unemployment rate for people who reported being temporarily laid off from their job and anticipate being recalled. Chart 2 shows the unemployment rate for those who reported being laid off permanently, with no prospect of being recalled. They are on very different trajectories.

Chart 1: Temporary Layoff Unemployment Rate
Chart 2: Permanent Layoff Unemployment Rate

I've computed these rates as a share of the civilian labor force. Other reasons for unemployment include reentrants or new entrants to the labor force as well as those completing temporary jobs and are not shown.

The good news is that after increasing to a never-before-seen level in April, the temporary unemployment rate has improved markedly as many businesses have reopened and recalled their temporarily laid-off staff. The bad news is that as the pandemic has unfolded, an increasing number of unemployed workers are reporting being laid off permanently—and they account for a rising share of the labor force. Those on permanent layoff have a lower rate of reemployment in general than those on temporary layoff, and the flow into employment is currently similar to the low level seen in the wake of the Great Recession. Also troubling is the fact that the reemployment rate of those on temporary layoff is also lower than normal—meaning that for some, temporary is starting to look more permanent.

While the level of permanent layoffs is not close to that seen during the Great Recession, the increase indicates that a near-term return to prepandemic labor market conditions is unlikely. In fact, as last week's macroblog post pointed out, survey evidence suggests that many firms don't anticipate getting back to prepandemic employment levels for several years.

May 27, 2020

COVID-19 Mortgage Relief—The Role of Income Support

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a large number of furloughs, layoffs, reductions in hours worked, and wage cuts. Anticipating that many homeowners would consequently have problems paying their monthly mortgage bill, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development ordered all mortgage servicers of federally backed debt to provide forbearance to any homeowners affected by the crisis. In addition, bank regulators encouraged lenders to forbear and restructure mortgages for borrowers affected by the shutdown, actions that staved off an immediate wave of foreclosures. At the end of the forbearance window, borrowers will likely be offered a series of repayment schemes: starting with a period of catch-up payments, then moving to extended terms on their mortgage or possibly even rate reductions. However, if the borrower has not returned to work, paying for what is effectively a new mortgage obviously poses a challenge. Options such as creating a modified repayment plan, lowering the mortgage interest rate, or extending the term of the loan might not be enough for a borrower who has experienced a substantial income loss.

In 2009, researchers at the Boston Fed proposed an alternative policy of supplemental mortgage payment assistance targeted to underwater borrowers experiencing a significant reduction in disposable income due to factors such as employment loss or medical costs associated with illness. That 2009 research built on earlier Boston Fed research demonstrating that—during a previous housing market downturn—most underwater households continued to pay their mortgages unless they were hit with a further reduction in earnings or increase in expenses. The idea that mortgage default is caused by both a negative house price shock and a negative income/employment shock is known as the "double trigger" theory of default. However, the empirical evidence on the double trigger theory was limited. Underwater homeowners in areas with increased unemployment appeared to default more, but this was mostly an interesting correlation, not necessarily a causal relationship.

Since the Great Recession, considerable research (here, for example) has tried to identify the central role income shocks play in default. The econometric challenge is that shocks to income from changes in employment or wages tend to be capitalized into house prices. So a community experiencing the second trigger from widespread job loss, say, will likely also experience a drop in house prices, making it difficult to isolate the real cause of default. In a forthcoming paper we consider the unique sources of changes in employment and income arising from the hydraulic fracking boom in Pennsylvania in the late 2000s to isolate the second trigger from the first.

Fracking involves injecting large amounts of water, sand, and potentially toxic chemicals underground at great pressure to break shale formations and release the trapped natural gas. The fracking process also involves piercing aquifers, storing and treating large quantities of contaminated water, and employing heavy equipment. Some evidence shows that these real or perceived negative features lower the value of homes near fracking wells. At the same time, the shale boom increased demand for middle- and low-skilled workers and generated significant royalty payments to many property owners.

Observing the performance of mortgages that originated before fracking began allows us to treat the resulting shale boom as an experiment where household incomes were sustained (or increased) even as housing prices were flat or declining. Using geological information to predict the location of fracking activity, we find that fracking wells significantly raised total household income, from both wages and royalties, and the wells appear to have increased employment in fracking-related industries. At the same time, fracking does not appear to have raised house prices or made it less likely that a household has negative equity. However, fracking does significantly reduce the probability that a mortgage becomes seriously delinquent (that is, when a borrower misses more than a few payments).

In addition, when we use only geology to predict the location of fracking wells, we get a much larger decline in mortgage delinquency, suggesting that more vulnerable communities were quicker to embrace fracking. Finally, the ameliorative effects of fracking were concentrated among borrowers who are likely to be underwater on their mortgages (the first trigger), consistent with the double trigger hypothesis, since the theory predicts that borrowers with positive equity are unlikely to default in the first place.

Our results suggest that an effective strategy for preventing a foreclosure crisis in the current situation is direct support of household income. Indeed, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (commonly known as the CARES Act) contains several income transfers to help sustain household budgets, including expanded unemployment insurance, direct cash payments to most households, and loans to small firms that are forgivable on the condition that they sustain employment through the shutdown. It is our view that these programs are not simply helping to sustain families during the crisis, but they're also limiting disruption to the housing market. Depending on how the crisis evolves in the coming months, further income support for affected households may forestall the need for less efficacious interventions to aid distressed borrowers.