Unemployment Drop Masks Labor Malaise: Chart of the Day

One reason the Federal Reserve may be unable to reach consensus on an unemployment target: the jobless rate can be a misleading gauge of labor market health.

While unemployment has fallen to 8.1 percent from 10 percent in 2009, the CHART OF THE DAY shows the percentage of people working, known as the employment-population ratio, has remained near its lows of the recession, suggesting limited progress toward a recovery in jobs.

“In a better economy we would see an improvement in this data,” said Adolfo Laurenti, deputy chief economist at Mesirow Financial Inc. in Chicago. While the ratio has fallen as the baby boomer generation retires and because more students are returning to school “the tougher nut to crack is those people who are truly discouraged workers, who could be in the job market but are leaving.”

The employment-population ratio climbed to a record high 64.7 percent in April of 2000 before falling as low as 58.2 percent in December 2009, the lowest level since 1983. A lack of labor-market improvement, even with the drop in the unemployment rate, prompted the Fed to begin a third round of asset purchases, or QE3, in which it’s buying $40 billion a month of mortgage-backed securities.

While Fed policy makers have proposed continuing the Fed’s accommodative policies until the unemployment rate hits a certain level, as long as inflation remains contained, they haven’t been able to reach consensus on a jobless target.

“We want to see the unemployment rate come down, but that’s not the only indicator, obviously, of labor market conditions,” Fed Chairman Ben S. Bernanke said in a Sept. 13 press conference. “The unemployment rate came down last month because participation fell; that’s not necessarily a sign of improvement.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Joshua Zumbrun in Washington at jzumbrun@bloomberg.net

Ilan Kolet in Ottawa at ikolet@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Marco Babic at mbabic@bloomberg.net

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