Speed Reads


No, the labor market isn't getting tight

No, the labor market isn't getting tight

Evan Soltas asks, "Is the labor market getting tight?"

He claims that the rising rate of workers quitting their jobs could show that the labor market is getting tighter. Workers quitting their jobs at a higher rate is taken as an expression of confidence. As Joe Weisenthal argues, "When the economy is bad, workers don't quit their jobs." The quit rate shows that the relationship between unemployment rate and quit-rates has remained steady, suggesting that it's the headline unemployment rate — which has now fallen to 6.6 percent — that best captures the state of the workforce.

Of course, what the rate of quits tells us is the rate of quits. People quit their jobs for all sorts of reasons, and even though the rate of quits is tightly correlated against unemployment, reading the rate of quits as a proxy for the tightness of the labor market is a risky extrapolation, and overlooks the bigger picture.

To assess the tightness of the labor market, we need a concept of the natural rate of unemployment. There is lots of argument over what we should mean by the "natural rate of unemployment," but the most popular definition is from Milton Friedman and Edmund Phelps, who defined it as the rate of unemployment consistent with output being at the "long-run" level. And what's very clear is that output is still in a big slump after 2008, way below its long-run trend:

[Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis]

So even if we assume that the headline unemployment rate is the best measurement of tightness in the labor market, 6.6 percent (which translates to millions of people who want a job but can't find one) is still very slack because the economy is way below potential.