At long last the economy has more or less reached full employment. The December 2016 unemployment rate was 4.7 percent while the Federal Reserve’s assessment of normal full employment (NAIRU—non-accelerating inflation rate of unemployment) is 4.8 percent. More over, wage growth has picked up, increasing 2.9 percent over a year earlier. The producer price index increased 0.3 percent in December (4.3% annualized). The economy is heating up. The Federal Reserve raised its overnight interbank interest rate target (Fed Funds rate) from 0.5 to 0.75 percent in December.
What does this mean for PEOTUS Trump’s goal to create jobs and increase the economy’s growth rate? At his press conference January 11, 2017 he claimed to be: “The greatest jobs producer God ever created.”
A new job is created when a company demands an additional worker for some reason or other and the desired worker is supplied. More jobs (by which I mean more new ones than the loss of old ones, i.e., a net increase in jobs) can come from any of three sources: a) an increase in the labor participation rate (more people looking for work from those of working age who are physically able to work); b) more young people entering the labor force than retiring old people leaving it; and c) a net immigration of working age foreigners. An increase in the demand for workers that cannot be filled will put upward pressure on wages and ultimately on prices.
In December the labor participation rate rose to 62.7 percent from its low in November of 62.6. It had been around 66 percent in the years just before the great recession of 2008. While we don’t really understand why so many people have dropped out of the labor force, there is scope to increase employment if some of them return. Some of the new jobs are filled by immigrants, especially those jobs requiring information technology skills, which creates additional jobs to feed, cloth, and entertain the new residents. http://wapo.st/2irYDYW. While 7.4 million people were looking for work in November 2016 (latest available), there were 5.5 million unfilled vacancies. If you like data: 5.1 million were hired in October while 4.9 million left their jobs for a net increase in employment of 0.225 million. Of those leaving their jobs 0.372 retired or died.
In short, the economy does not lack jobs and the number of jobs is growing at about the rate of growth of the working age population. If the government increases employment for infrastructure projects, those workers must be attracted away from their existing jobs, which will require higher wages. Increasing employment at much faster rates would be inflationary. Higher inflation would undermine the real value of excessive nominal wage increases.
The problem—issue or challenge—is that the new jobs offered often require skills that do not match those of the workers looking for work. Most layoffs and discharges result from automation and other productivity improvements (not from trade), which increases the wages offered for the new jobs needed as a result. This process—increased worker productivity—is the source of per capita income growth, i.e. of our increasing standard of living. However, the benefits of increased productivity will only be broadly shared if workers are trained (or retrained) in the new jobs needed. In addition, the increased income inequality in the U.S. since the 1970s is largely the result of increased rent seeking from government as government regulations have expanded to protect the established companies from outside competition.
Faster income growth, therefore, will depend on improving productivity and its rate of growth over time (not creating more jobs). Improved and simplified regulations will free up some of the large armies of compliance officers to work in jobs that actually produce things we want. It will also increase market competition by reducing regulatory capture and related rent seeking. The same is true for any reforms in the provision of medical services that lower their cost (e.g. from greater transparency of costs of treatment options and patient responsibility for and interest in those costs). This is a different issue than who pays for medical care (insurance) but the nature and structure of medical insurance profoundly influences the incentives patients and doctors have to choose cost effective medical services. Tax reforms that lower the cost of investing in the U.S. will also increase productivity and income growth.
Investments in plant and equipment and new technology increase labor productivity and income in the future but require workers and materials to build them in the present. In an already more or less fully employed economy the resources used for investments must come from giving up other uses, primarily from producing consumption goods and services. To finance investment people will need to consume less and save more.
If none of the resources and their financing come from the government (and Trump plans the opposite), interest rates will need to rise in order to encourage more savings and to moderate the increase in investment. The Federal Reserve will have to raise its interest rate targets just to stay neutral (i.e. to keep inflation rates near their 2% per year target) as the tightening labor market puts upward pressure on wages and equilibrium interest rates. Thus interest rates will need to increase even more to encourage the additional savings needed to finance additional investment.
The new government has yet to propose its budget for the coming year, but Trump cannot simultaneously increase military spending and infrastructure spending and leave entitlement commitments unchanged (which imply significant increases in actual social security and medical outlays because of an ageing population and increased retirements relative to new entrants into the labor force) even if his tax reforms are revenue neutral (which current proposals are not). We don’t know yet which of his plans will have to give and to what extent. None of this takes into account the large impact not so far down the road of unfunded fiscal liabilities (unfunded social security, Medicare, and Medicaid obligations).
Thus it is difficult to forecast how much interest rates will need to rise in order to keep inflation in check while crowding out private investment to finance the growing public debt.
Higher interest rates will also tend to strengthen (appreciate) the dollars’ exchange rate, which will increase our trade deficit unless Trump totally destroys our trade flows in a misguided effort to balance our trade account (balance imports and exports). A larger trade deficit would result in some of the increased investment being financed by foreign saving (capital inflow) and to that extent would reduce the upward pressure on interest rates. So far I have not taken account of possible changes in the economic conditions of the rest of the world. However, an appreciated dollar would improve the exports and thus economic activity of other trading partners but would increase their local currency cost of any borrowing their firms and citizens have done in dollars.
The bottom line is that any increase in economic growth in our fully employed economy will come from increases in productivity not increases in employment. Tax and regulatory reform should improve the allocation of our labor and capital resources to more productive uses. They should also lead to increased investment, which will enhance future productivity. Jawboning or pressuring the allocation of these resources into less productive uses (e.g. domestic production of goods that could be more cheaply imported) will reduce economic growth. Increased investment will require higher interest rates in order to generate the savings needed (reduction in consumption) to finance the additional investment. However, continued fiscal deficits will divert that amount of savings away from investment. Without significant cuts in future entitlement commitments (and/or defense spending) these deficits will grow larger at the expense of economic growth. New trade tariffs threatened by Trump or other new impediments to trade will also reduce our productivity and growth. While the Trump administration could increase our economic growth rate in the coming years, this outcome depends on it resolving existing internal contradictions in its proposed policies.