Haver Analytics
Haver Analytics

Viewpoints: 2024

  • The widely followed employment cost index (ECI) jumped 1.2% in Q1 2024, faster than the 0.9% increase in Q4 2023, raising fears that labor costs are re-accelerating. As big as the jump in the ECI was in Q1, another labor cost measure (ECEC) shows employee costs are rising even faster.

    The Bureau of Labor Statistics, the government agency in charge of reporting labor market data, provides two crucial measures of employee costs: the employment cost index (ECI) and employer costs for employee compensation (ECEC). Both measures, with a similar scope covering 5500 to 5600 private industry establishments and 23000 occupational observations, play a pivotal role in labor cost analysis. However, it's important to note that the ECI excludes employment shifts among occupations and industries, while the ECEC does not, making the ECEC an equally important comprehensive measure of total current employment costs.

    The two measures are simple to understand: the starting point for both measures is the change in wages, but if people move to higher-paying jobs or shift occupations because of the promise of higher pay, the ECEC measures will grow faster than the ECI. In contrast, if the opposite is true, when the jobless rate is high, job openings are low, and people have to accept lower-paying jobs, the ECI would increase faster than the ECEC.

    In the last several years, the labor market has been characterized by a record number of job openings, which have encouraged people to shift industries and occupations in search of higher pay. The labor cost data confirms this did happen. Private industry wage costs in the ECEC have outpaced the increases in the ECI every year, and the increase in 2023 of 6.9% was the largest on record and 270 basis points over the increase in the ECI.

    The Q1 2024 report for ECEC is due on June 18. Based on the still high number of job openings and low jobless rate, the Q1 rise in the ECEC index should exceed the ECI increase, adding to current fears of higher labor costs feeding into inflation numbers.

  • The US economy is stronger than suggested by the “soft” 1.6% increase in GDP in the first quarter, while a sharp upturn of inflation puts Fed rate cuts on hold for at least several months.

    Look to final sales to private domestic purchasers, not GDP, for a better indication of the economy’s underlying strength. The initial (“advance”) report of the national accounts for the first quarter of 2024 should be interpreted carefully. Looking beyond the headline figures, the economy’s underlying growth momentum was notably stronger than the disappointing figure of 1.6% quarterly GDP growth in the first quarter. GDP growth was held down by declines in components that tend to be more volatile --- inventories and net exports --- in contrast to solid growth in other components, including consumer spending and private investment. Personal consumption expenditures (PCE) posted solid growth (of 2.9%). Business fixed investment also rose 2.9%, while residential investment jumped 13.9%, continuing a recovery that began in the second half of 2024.

    A more telling indicator of the US economy’s underlying strength is final sales to private domestic purchasers, which rose at a solid 3.1% annual rate in the first quarter, virtually identical to increases in the third and fourth quarters of 2023 of 3.0% and 3.3%, respectively. This is a clear if preliminary indication that the economy retains solid momentum for growth.

    Together, declines in inventory investment and net exports subtracted 1.2 percentage points from GDP growth in the first quarter, but those components are not likely to continue to subtract large amounts from GDP growth on an ongoing basis, even though quarterly swings could be significant (in either direction) from time to time. The level of inventory investment ($35 billion in the first quarter) is broadly sustainable, suggesting that repeated large declines are not the most likely outcome. Net exports have been in a sideways waffle since the second half of 2022. Future large declines are possible if foreign demand were to collapse or the dollar were to appreciate sharply, but neither of those outcomes appear to be highly likely at this juncture. In short, the 3.1% growth in final sales to domestic purchasers is a better indicator of underlying strength in demand than the smaller 1.6% increase in GDP in the first quarter.

    Of course, GDP and other estimates are subject to revision, so the picture of first-quarter growth could be altered in coming months.

    Inflation surged in the first quarter, nearly eliminating any prospect for a Fed rate cut prior to this fall. Another major component in today’s report on the national accounts was a disturbing increase in consumer inflation. The price index for personal consumption expenditures (PCE) rose at a 3.4% annual rate in the first quarter, the largest increase since the first quarter of 2023. Meanwhile, the core PCE price index rose at an even higher 3.7% annual rate in the first quarter, far above the increase of 2.0% in the final two quarters of last year. This is a direct challenge to any hope that the Federal Reserve will begin to lower interest rates in coming months. As of the first quarter, the annual (four-quarter) increase in the core PCE price index was 2.9%. It is likely that tomorrow’s report on monthly PCE will show annual (12-month) inflation at or slightly above February’s 2.8% reading.

    The Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) will almost certainly not begin to seriously contemplate rate cuts without clear indications that inflation is easing and well on track to fall to 2% over time. The latest inflation figures suggest that progress on bringing inflation down has stalled. It will take more than one or two “good” monthly inflation reports to convince policymakers that it is appropriate to begin cutting interest rates. This makes any rate cut prior to this fall a low probability outcome and adds to the risk that there might not be any Fed rate cut in 2024.

  • The Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia’s state coincident indexes in March showed some moderate variance. Four states were down slightly from February. The largest increase was Arizona’s .8 percent; three other states (Iowa, Delaware, and Vermont) had gains of at least .5 percent. Over the three months since December, Massachusetts was up 1.9 percent, while 8 other states (scattered across the nation) rose more than 1 percent. Over the last 12 months, Massachusetts again led, with an increase of 4.9 percent, while New York’s 3.6 percent was a fairly distant second. 5 states were down over the period, with Montana’s slump continuing, with a loss of 3 percent.

    The independently estimated national figures of growth over the last 3 months (.75 percent) may be a touch higher than the state estimates would have suggested, but the 12-month figure (2.9) percent) looks to be roughly in line with the state numbers.

  • State labor markets were little-changed in March, but on the whole the report looked better than February’s. Only five states had statistically significant gains in payrolls (Arkansas, Georgia, Kansas, Kentucky, and Virginia), with two having .5 percent increases (Arkansas and Virginia). The other states, and DC, had insignificant changes, though numbers had point increases comparable to those that were deemed significant. For instance, California had an increase of about 30,000, though that was less than .2 percent, and New Jersey was up around .3 percent.

    Six states had statistically significant declines in their unemployment rates in January, while one had a significant increase. The only move larger than .1 percentage point was a decline of .3 percentage point in Arizona. The highest unemployment rates were in California (5.3%), DC (5.2%) and Nevada (5.1%). States with unemployment rates of 4.8% (one point above the national rate)were Illinois, New Jersey, and Washington. Maryland, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, Vermont, and Wyoming had rates of 2.8% or lower, with North Dakota at 2.0%.

    Puerto Rico’s unemployment rate moved up to 5.8 percent, while the island’s job count moved up by 2,200.

  • In an April 16, 2024 Bloomberg News article entitled “What If Fed Rate Hikes Are Actually Sparking US Economic Boom?”, it is argued that the Fed’s increase in the federal funds rate from 0.08% in March 2022 to 5.33% in July 2023, which, in turn, pushed up other interest rates, stimulated US domestic aggregate demand for goods and services by increasing interest income to holders of fixed-income assets. Wow! This novel hypothesis, if valid, turns monetary policy theory on its head.

    Let’s look at some data. As can be seen in Chart 1, there does indeed seem to be some positive correlation between the level of the federal funds rate and the level of personal interest income. For example, when the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) hiked the federal funds rate from the beginning of 2016 through the first quarter of 2019, personal interest income moved up sympathetically. Although personal interest income had started increasing in 2014, before the FOMC had begun raising the federal funds rate. Similarly, as the FOMC began hiking the federal funds rate in 2022, personal interest income starting rising, too. So far, so good for this hypothesis that FOMC federal funds hikes raise personal interest income.

  • The Federal Reserve's persistent use of the 'forward guidance' policy tool, which involves offering forecasts of growth, inflation, and policy rates to influence financial market conditions, is a misguided approach. This tool operates under the assumption that the Fed can accurately predict the future, a notion that is inherently flawed given the unpredictable nature of economic conditions.

    In 2023, policymakers used its forward guidance policy tool to signal an end to its tightening policy cycle, thinking it had or would, in time, arrest the cyclical inflation cycle. At the end of the year, it went further, as it offered forecasts for 2024 that promised three official rate cuts.

    Yet, in hindsight, forward guidance backfired. Promises of no more rate hikes followed by promises of lower official rates triggered a 100-basis drop in long bond interest rates and double-digit increases in equity prices. The dramatic change towards much easier financial conditions has helped produce economic results that the Fed was not expecting in its forward guidance. (Note: Q1 real GDP growth is estimated at 3%, while core consumer prices rose at an annualized rate of 5%, compared to forward guidance growth estimates of 2% and core inflation of 2.4%).

    The challenge for policymakers is how to navigate the modification or discontinuation of the forward guidance policy tool. Forecasts from forward guidance are updated only four times a year, with the next update scheduled for the June meeting. While the Fed chair can provide an informal update at any time, official policy announcements are made at regularly scheduled meetings. A sudden deviation from the last forecast could disrupt the financial markets and undermine the Fed's credibility, if it still has any.

    Yet, the problem with "forward guidance" goes well beyond the announcement dates. Policymakers offer forecasts on growth, inflation, unemployment, and policy rates for two years and a longer-run equilibrium level for each. And, regardless of whether current economic conditions are too hot or soft or inflation is too low or high, the Fed's forward guidance forecasts say, through the magic of monetary policy, growth, unemployment, and inflation will gravitate to trend.

    Like everyone else, the Fed has had difficulty forecasting what the economy will be like in the next year, let alone in two or three years. Yet, unlike other forecasters, policymakers link an official rate path to its forecasts. That linkage makes official policy more predictable. However, it also creates the potential for a significant easings in financial market conditions, similar to what occurred since late 2023, long before policymakers achieved their intended outcomes.

    Policymakers spent time "normalizing" official rates, and now they need to "normalize" their policy statement, making it shorter and with fewer promises. Eliminating forward guidance would also be a positive step because even though it implies "it all depends," it still drives market expectations of official rates.

  • USA
    | Apr 01 2024

    April Odds and Ends

    I enjoy examining data. It used to be a hobby that I got paid to do. Now, it is just a hobby. Below are some random sets of data of that I found interesting. Perhaps some others will, too.

    As shown in Chart 1, starting in 2022, household interest payments as a percent of their after-tax income (Disposable Personal Income) started rising after declining in 2020 and 2021. By Q4:2023, household interest payments as a proportion of after-tax income had moved up to 5.4%. This compares with 5.0% in Q4:2019, just before the Covid pandemic hit the US. Notice that the main driver in of this proportional increase in household interest payments has been non-mortgage debt. With many 30-year home-mortgage rates locked in at around 3% in 2020 and 2021, households have been able to increase their spending relative to their after-tax income by increasing consumer loans, such as credit card and auto debt. Although household debt-service ratios are rising, they are a far cry from those that obtained just before the onset of the Global Financial Crisis, but …

  • State real GDP growth rates in 2023:4 ranged from Nevada’s 6.7% to Nebraska’s 0.2%. Growth tended to be weaker in the center of the nation, with agriculture being a major drag.

    The distribution of personal income growth was comparable to real GDP with Nevada again on top with a 6.7% growth rate, while Iowa and North Dakota tied for last with each having a growth rate of 0.8%. Over the last few years, the extension and withdrawal of federal transfers connected to the pandemic often grossly distorted movements in state personal income, and the ranking of states. This has become less evident in recent quarters, though the range of annual growth rates for transfers in 2023:4 did run from 8,1% in Mississippi to -5.0% in Arizona. The large drop in Arizona certainly had a visible effect on its overall income growth; Mississippi’s large gain was less meaningful, since other income components there also grew substantially.