Thursday, May 8, 2014

Why Did the Unemployment Rate Drop So Much?

by Phil Izzo, Wall Street Journal

The U.S. unemployment rate tumbled to 6.3% in April as the overall labor force posted its biggest decline since October. The question for the health of the labor market: Why did all those people drop out?

The jobless rate is calculated by taking the total number of unemployed people and dividing it by everyone in the U.S. who is working or looking for work — what the Labor Department calls the labor force. When both of those numbers decline, even if fewer people got jobs in the month, the unemployment rate falls. Both of those numbers can fall for many reasons, and they’re worrisome to different degrees.

The one that raises the biggest concern is when unemployed people get discouraged with the job market and give up looking for work. Once someone leaves the labor force, it’s much harder for them to eventually find work. Many never return. That was at least part of the reason for the decline in April. The number of workers who said they weren’t looking for work because they were discouraged over job prospects ticked higher. But the number remained below the average for all of last year, and doesn’t come close to accounting for the big drop in the labor force. Meanwhile, the total number of people who moved from unemployed out of the labor force also ticked up last month, but it was very close to the average for 2013, indicating no acceleration.

Another way to look to see if people are giving up is by looking at a broader measure of unemployment, known as the “U-6″ for its data classification by the Labor Department. That rate includes everyone in the official rate plus “marginally attached workers” — those who are neither working nor looking for work, but say they want a job and have looked for work recently; and people who are employed part-time for economic reasons, meaning they want full-time work but took a part-time schedule instead because that’s all they could find. The rate was 12.3% in April, falling the same 0.4 percentage point that the headline rate declined. When the U-6 is steady and the main rate is falling, it can suggest an underlying weak labor market. But when both are dropping together, it suggests that there might be other broader trends.

So if the labor force didn’t drop this month because of people giving up, what’s going on? One trend weighing on the labor force is people with jobs retiring, and last month there was an increase in the number of employed people who were no longer working or looking for work. That flow was at its highest level since October and the third highest since before the recession.

But that doesn’t explain why there are fewer unemployed people. The number of unemployed can fall because people got jobs, because they dropped out of the labor force, or it can fall just because fewer people decided to start looking for work. In April, one of the reasons the number of unemployed fell is because fewer people came off the sidelines to look for work. The number of people flowing from out of the labor force to unemployed was at its lowest level since 2008. Lots more people than usual decided to stay on the sidelines.

That isn’t a hopeful sign for the economy, as people who otherwise might want work aren’t encouraged enough to come off the sidelines. But it’s also less worrying than people giving up looking for work. Many new entrants to the labor force are younger people who will eventually come in, and are on the sidelines because they can be.

No one should read too much into one month’s moves in the labor force. Much of this month’s changes could be recalibrating after a couple of months of increases in the labor force participation rate, and some of it could be reversed next month. Meanwhile, while the details suggest the trend is worth watching, it’s not likely that this month represents a return to discouraged workers giving up and dropping out of the labor market.