Minneapolis Fed's Kocherlakota Admits The Fed Is Now Powerless To Solve Unemployment Deriving From Job Mismatch

The Minneapolis Fed's recent addition, governor Kocherlakota, gave a speech in Missoula, Montana in which he noted the obvious, that GDP growth and inflation are both starting a decline which, if Goldman is right, will end up very close to breakeven to zero, and most likely will be materially lower. The one part of his speech that bears highlighting is his discussion on the ever deteriorating employment picture, which he classified as "disturbing."What Kocherlakota focuses is the topic of mismatch, which he classifies as follows: "There are many possible sources of mismatch—geography, skills,  demography—and they probably interact in nontrivial ways." And on the topic of mismatch, the Fed governor admits that the Fed is hopeless to fix it: "The mismatch problems in the labor market do not strike me as readily amenable to the kinds of monetary policy tools currently available to the Fed." We wonder how long before the Fed realizes that not just the mismatch component of unemployment, but all of it, is not "amenable to monetary policy" tools, now that ZIRP is in session. And yes, fiscal policy during a time of structural unemployment can only provide temporary pull-forward boosts, such as the census and other Cash-4-Clunkers type programs. In other words, 10%+ unemployment is coming and will be here to stay.

From the relevant section in Narayana Kocherlakota speech:

The national unemployment rate remains at 9.6 percent in August. Private sector job creation remains weak—only 67,000 net private sector jobs were created in August. I do not expect the unemployment rate to decline rapidly, and so I expect it to be above 8.0 percent into 2012.

If one digs deeper into the data, the situation seems even more troubling. Since December 2000, the Bureau of Labor Statistics has been keeping data on the job openings rate, which is defined as the number of job openings divided by the sum of job openings and unemployment. Not surprisingly, when job openings rise, the unemployed can find jobs more readily, and the unemployment rate typically falls. The inverse relationship between the unemployment rate and the job openings rate was extremely stable throughout the 2000-01 recession, the subsequent recovery, and on through the early part of this recession.

Beginning in October 2008, this stable relationship began to break down, as the unemployment rate rose much faster than could be rationalized by the fall in job openings. Over the past year, the relationship has completely shattered. The job openings rate has risen by about 20 percent between July 2009 and June 2010. Under this scenario, we would expect unemployment to fall because people find it easier to get jobs. However, the unemployment rate actually went up slightly over this period.

What does this change in the relationship between job openings and unemployment connote? The disincentive effects of extended unemployment insurance benefits are one possible cause for this change. However, I suspect that these effects are not all that large. I am comfortable with the San Francisco Fed’s 2009 estimate, which finds that the extensions of benefits have boosted the unemployment rate by 0.4 percent.

The bigger issue is mismatch. Firms have jobs, but can’t find appropriate workers. The workers want to work, but can’t find appropriate jobs. There are many possible sources of mismatch—geography, skills, demography—and they probably interact in nontrivial ways. For example, there may be jobs available in eastern Montana and western North Dakota because of the oil boom. But a household in Nevada that is underwater on its mortgage may find it difficult to move to those locations.

Of course, the key question is: How much of the current unemployment rate is really due to mismatch? The answer seems to be a lot. I mentioned that the relationship between unemployment and job openings was stable from December 2000 through October 2008. Were that stable relationship still in place today, and given the current job opening rate of 2.2 percent, we would have an unemployment rate closer to 6.5 percent, not 9.6 percent. Together with the San Francisco Fed’s estimate of the impact of benefits, this analysis implies that over 2.5 percentage points of the current unemployment rate is attributable to mismatch.

This estimate is based on a rather aggregative view of the labor market. It is important to dig deeper to get a better understanding of the problem, and there is a considerable amount of research under way exploring the quantitative importance of the various forms of mismatch. For example, the International Monetary Fund has recently released a special study based on a new state-by-state measure of the gap between demand and supply for workers with different levels of educational attainment. The study examines the impact of this variable and the foreclosure rate on state-level unemployment. It estimates that 1.5 percentage points of the national unemployment rate is due to these two sources and their interaction. Thus, according to this study, these two types of mismatch alone can account for a significant fraction of my estimate of 2.5 percentage points.

Good economic policy is about using the right tool for the problem at hand. The mismatch problems in the labor market do not strike me as readily amenable to the kinds of monetary policy tools currently available to the Fed. But they may well be amenable to other types of policy tools, like job retraining programs or foreclosure mitigation strategies. As Chairman Bernanke said in his Jackson Hole speech in August, central bankers alone cannot solve the world’s economic problems.