The Labor Market Conditions Index: Use With Care

I was curious to see how the press would report on the Federal Reserve Board’s new Labor Market Conditions Index.  My prior was that the reporting should be confusing at best.  My favorite so far is from Reuters, via the WSJ:

Fed Chairwoman Janet Yellen has cited the new index as a broader gauge of employment conditions than the unemployment rate, which has fallen faster than expected in recent months. The index’s slowdown over the summer could bolster the argument that the Fed should be patient in watching the economy improve before raising rates.

But its pickup last month could strengthen the case that the labor market is tightening fast and officials should consider raising rates sooner than widely expected. Many investors anticipate the Fed will make its first move in the middle of next year, a perception some top officials have encouraged.

Translation:  We don’t know what it means.

Now, this is not exactly the fault of the press. The Fed appears to want you to believe the LCMI is important, but they really don’t give you reason to believe it should be important. They don’t even release the LCMI – the charts on Business Week and US News and World Report are titled erroneously.  The Fed releases the monthly change of the LCMI, as noted by Business Insider. But wait, no that’s not right either. They actually release the six-month moving average of the LCMI, which means we really don’t know the monthly change.1 What the Fed releases might actually be more impacted by what left the average six months ago than the reading from the most recent month. And you should recognize the danger of the six-month moving average – the longer the smoothing process, the more likely to miss turning points in the data.  Unless of course the Fed released the raw data to follow as well.  Which they don’t.

The LCMI becomes even more confusing because it has been impressed upon the financial markets that it must have a dovish interpretation. From Business Insider:

The index was first “made famous” by Fed Chair Janet Yellen in her speech at Jackson Hole, when she said, “This broadly based metric supports the conclusion that the labor market has improved significantly over the past year, but it also suggests that the decline in the unemployment rate over this period somewhat overstates the improvement in overall labor market conditions.”

Recall that at Jackson Hole, Yellen spoke about the labor market puzzle of a steadily declining unemployment rate and strong payroll gains against the backdrop of declining labor force participation and flat wages.

Consider this in light of this from the Fed:

LMCI2

The first part of the associated commentary:

Table 2 reports the cumulative and average monthly change in the LMCI during each of the NBER-defined contractions and expansions since 1980. Over that time period, the LMCI has fallen about an average of 20 points per month during a recession and risen about 4 points per month during an expansion. In terms of the average monthly changes, then, the labor market improvement seen in the current expansion has been roughly in line with its typical pace…

If you look closely, the average monthly change during this expansion is faster than every recovery since the 1980-81 expansion. How does this fit with the conventional wisdom that we are experiencing a slow labor market recovery?  Indeed, look at the chart:

LMCI1

According to this measure, the pace of improvement in this recovery exceeds than much of the 1990’s.  Think about that.

Moreover, consider the next sentence of the commentary:

…That said, the cumulative increase in the index since July 2009 (290 index points) is still smaller in magnitude than the extraordinarily large decline during the Great Recession (over 350 points from January 2008 to June 2009).

OK – so the Fed thinks the cumulative change is important. They think it is relevant that the LCMI has not retraced all of its losses. Let’s take this idea further. Rather than using the recession dating, consider the even larger move from peak to trough. Between May 2007 to June 2009, the cumulative decrease in the LCMI was 398.4. Since then, the cumulative increase is 300.7, so the LCMI has retraced 75% of its losses.

Now consider the unemployment rate. The unemployment rate increased 5.6 percentage points from a low of 4.4% to a high of 10%. SInce then it has retraced 4.1 percentage points of that gain to last month’s 5.9% rate.  4.1 is 73% of 5.6.  In other words, the unemployment rate has retraced 73% of it losses.

The LCMI has retraced 75% of its losses. The unemployment rate has retraced 73% of it losses. So the LCMI shows the exact same amount of improvement in labor market conditions peak to trough as implied by the retracement of the unemployment rate.

You see the problem. The LCMI (or the data made available to the public) suggests the same amount of improvement in labor market conditions as implied by the unemployment rate. The LCMI suggests a faster pace of improvement than that seen in the previous three recoveries. So how exactly does Yellen reach the conclusion that “the decline in the unemployment rate over this period somewhat overstates the improvement in overall labor market conditions”? I am not seeing it on the basis of the data provided. Indeed, where exactly is the research showing the LCMI has some policy relevance?

Then again, this could be exactly why Yellen uses the modifier “somewhat” in the above quote. Perhaps she has no conviction that the LCMI provides information not already in the unemployment rate.  If that’s the case, then expect the LCMI to die on the vine, eventually relegated to be computed by whoever still has the p-star model on their list of assignments.

Bottom Line:  Use the Fed’s new labor market index with caution.  Extreme caution.  They are not releasing the raw data. They don’t appear to have research explaining its policy relevance. Yellen’s halfhearted claim that it provides information above and beyond the unemployment rate is questionable with a simple look at the cumulative change of the index compared to that of unemployment. And her halfhearted claims are even more telling given that she was the impetus for the research. If it was policy relevant, you would think she would be a little more enthusiastic (think optimal control). Moreover, the faster pace of recovery of the index compared to previous recessions – as clearly indicated by the Fed – seems completely at odds with the story it is supposed to support. Simply put, the press and financial market participants should be pushing the Fed much harder to explain exactly why this measure is important.

1. The LCMI data provided by the Fed is described as the “average monthly change.” I am not sure why they don’t explicitly provide the span of the averaging, but the website describes it as “Chart 1 plots the average monthly change in the LMCI since 1977. Except for the final bar, which covers the first quarter of 2014, each of the bars represents the average over a six-month period.”

This piece is cross-posted from Tim Duy’s Fed Watch with permission.