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Takeaway: Here’s how to really understand what the labor force participation rate really means.

Lots of Tweets tweeted. Lots of ink spilled. Lots of pundits, well, punditing. Lots of noise. It’s the first Friday of the month after all, and the government just released its monthly unemployment report. As Keith says, all that really matters in today’s report is how the market reacts to it.

You will hear, though, a lot about the labor force participation rate today, which today’s report showed declined to 63.2% in August, its lowest level in 25 years, and down from 63.4% last month.

Rather than just making noise about this topic, we have been doing real research on it. Here’s an excerpt from a note that Macro Analyst Christian Drake wrote about the labor force participation rate.

Despite its descent to old-hat, punditry talking point over the last five years, Trend movement in labor participation remains critical to the forward growth outlook. 

After all, if population growth is slowing and the share of that population that is working is declining, productivity has some heavier lifting to do to keep real per capita output going in the right direction. 

Demographic, cultural, and institutional trends are generally glacial and collectively serve to drive the broader, directional Trend in the Labor Force Participation Rate (LFPR).  Over the last 5 years, the straightforward, central question facing economists is what temporary (and potentially permanent) impact the shock of the Great Recession had on labor participation. 

From a research perspective, the aspirational goal has been to discern what the prevailing gap is between where we are currently on the LFPR and where we would have been without the cyclical impacts. 

Academic literature over the last 5 years is replete with analyses attempting to decompose the cyclical and secular components impacting labor force participation.  On average, the research suggests around 40-60% of the decline in the LFPR since 2007 could be attributed to cyclical factors. 

The truth is that attempting to parse the Cyclical and Trend components of Labor Force Participation, with precision, is a quixotic pursuit.  It’s some amorphous combination of the two. 

From an investment perspective, understanding the principal drivers of the LFPR, the key considerations facing the forward outlook, and the highest probability TREND trajectory hold more practical significance than decomposing the Cycle/Trend impacts with exact precision.   

With that in mind, let’s take an abbreviated, Socratic tour of Labor Force Participation.   

 

What has been the larger Trend in Labor Force Participation?

Taking a long-term view, the Chart of the Day below illustrates the 3 primary labor participation trends which have prevailed over the last 65 years.  Briefly, from 1948 to the mid 1960’s, participation was largely stable. 

From the 1960’s until the turn of the century, driven by Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964) entering prime working age (24 – 54) and a secular increase in female participation, LFPR showed a persistent increase. 

From 2000 to present, the trend has been one of decline as the median age of the workforce rose, Boomers began matriculating towards retirement and dual recessions all weighed on the participation rate.

Is Labor Force Participation sensitive to the Business Cycle?

The correlations aren’t exceedingly strong, but yes.  Here, it’s sufficient to simply observe the LFPR in the post-recessionary periods in the chart below.  In each instance, the participation rate dips in the wake of the cyclical downturn. 

 

So, labor participation shows some economic/business cycle dependence and the broader Trend since the turn of the century has been one of decline.  With no peri-recession tailwinds from cyclical or secular factors, the fact that Labor Force Participation declined in the wake of the Great Recession is not a surprise. 

What has been the impact of domestic demographic Trends?

We’ll explore the multitude of factors impacting the LFPR in more detail in a subsequent note.  Here, we’ll consider the impact of age demographics on the Trend movement in the LFPR. 

Historically, different age groups have shown typical, largely fixed, participation rates.  Labor Participation peaks progressively from age 16 into the mid 40’s, gradually declines to age 64, then drops precipitously.  Thus, as population shares of the different age groups change it impacts the prevailing, aggregate participation rate. 

In addition to plotting the actual LFPR (blue line), in the Chart of the Day, we show the estimated trajectory of participation based on the average 1997-2007 participation rate by age for those aged 16 years and older (orange line).  The extrapolation suggests greater than ~40% of the decline in the LFPR post-2007 could be attributed purely to age demographic trends.

Extending the forecast, demographic trends, in isolation, would predict LFPR to decline to 64.1% in 2015 and a further decline to 62.5% in 2020.  Clearly, the Trend remains one of decline. 

What sits as a primary swing factor for LFPR over the intermediate term?

The level of long-term unemployed associated with the great recession was unprecedented.  If the long-term unemployed do come back then we can expect upward ‘cyclical’ pressure on labor force participation as economic conditions improve. 

If, however, the LT unemployed fail to return to the labor force, the recessionary shock could be viewed to have changed the structural and secular outlook for labor market participation.  In effect, shifting the LFPR Trend line lower, compressing the existent cyclical gap (i.e. the spread between the orange & blue lines below), and lowering the potential upward pressure on the LFPR (& unemployment rate) as economic conditions improve. 

 

Regardless of the cyclical impacts on Labor Participation, growth in the supply of labor will continue to slow vs the multi-decade average. 

A TREND deceleration in working age population growth alongside a decline/flattening in labor force participation rate will put secular pressure on domestic labor supply, serving as a headwind to potential GDP and a tailwind to real wage growth.   As a result, productivity gains will be an increasingly important driver of real output growth over the coming decade(s).

Innovation drives productivity.  Human Capital drives innovation.  Circumstance will necessarily drive our collective pursuit of human capital.  We’ll be increasingly responsible for our own (economic) fate – fancy that.   

Labor Pains? - Jobs

Labor Pains? - LFPR Demographics