A Principal Components Approach to Estimating Labor Market Pressure and Its Implications for Inflation

Public Policy Brief No. 07-2
by Michelle Barnes, Ryan Chahrour, Giovanni Olivei, and Gaoyan Tang

We build a summary measure of labor market pressure that captures the common movement among a variety of labor market series. Obtained as the labor market series’ first principal component, this measure explains a large portion of the variability of the underlying series. For this reason, it is a good summary indicator of labor market pressure. We show that the unemployment rate gap has tracked this summary measure closely over the past 35 years. At times, however, the summary measure and the unemployment rate gap have sent somewhat different signals. In terms of relying on the principal components summary measure vis-à-vis the unemployment rate gap for explaining inflation, we argue that the recent evolution of wage inflation is more consistent with the evolution of the summary measure than with the unemployment rate gap. This is because over the past two years the principal components summary measure has been suggesting less labor market pressure than the unemployment rate gap. Over the past 35 years, however, there is little systematic evidence favoring the summary measure of labor market pressure over the unemployment rate gap as a predictor of inflation.

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