The Washington Post

The little-known FRED charts that reveal the state of the U.S. economy

FRED, the massive economic database maintained by the St. Louis Federal Reserve, has become something of mecca for economics. You can check out Todd Frankel’s profile of the folks behind FRED here. We reached out to a group of the biggest FRED fans we know to find out why they love it, their favorite data sets and some of the best charts they could create with it.

1. Slacking off: The relationship between inflation and unemployment

flatphil (1)

Jared Bernstein, former chief economist to Vice President Biden, and senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Let’s see: Within the last week, I’ve used FRED’s data to show the flattening of the Phillip’s Curve (i.e., the diminished correlation between inflation and unemployment, a critical piece of macro-information these days), to assess the extent of wage pressures, to evaluate the countercyclicality of the safety net, and to evaluate the validity of the claim that President Obama has been hostile to business (the numbers do not support the claim).

To say “I love FRED” is too weak, too glib. I depend on FRED. I count on FRED to help provide a better future for economic policy. I view FRED is the electricity powering the streetlamps enlightening the path back to Factville. Sure, FRED can be abused the same way any data series in the wrong hands could be misused. But by dint of FRED’s existence, we can handily expose such abuse. And like any powerful force, you’ve got to know what you’re doing with FRED.  You must arrive at his portal with deep knowledge of the data he possesses, or you’ll make mistakes.  You’ll confuse seasonally adjusted with non-adjusted data, you’ll make a big deal out of differences that are statistically insignificant and other such crimes against nature.

Used with the requisite knowledge, FRED can pave the way to the truth. Used without such knowledge, FRED can give you more than enough rope to hang yourself. So long live FRED, which adds another element of proof that those who maintain that public institutions don’t contribute to our knowledge, productivity, or well-being are very much mistaken.”

2. We are getting priorities back in line — and drinking more 

Felix Salmon, senior editor, Fusion

“I kinda love this chart, which shows the number of people working in California’s liquor stores. Look at that plunge, in the early ’90s, and then the long inexorable decline to that low point at the beginning of 2004. Could the sector ever recover? Would Californians be doomed to buy their wine from understaffed shops in perpetuity? It certainly looked that way during the Great Recession, which squelched whatever minor recovery in the sector there might have been.

But then! As soon as the recession ends, the series starts soaring! We’ve been going steadily upward for the past five years, and there’s no end in sight! The lesson I draw from this is that what we’re seeing is a happy reconsideration of priorities. During the ’90s and the 2000s, Californians wanted to be healthy, they wanted to make money, they wanted to speculate on property. And then the recession came, and they realized, once it was over, that they could just get their booze on instead. Good for them!”

3. America’s shadow unemployed

Matt O’Brien, economic and monetary policy writer, Wonkblog

“There’s usually a pretty predictable pattern during recoveries: As unemployment falls, more people outside the labor force start getting jobs. Some of them are students. And some of them are stay-at-home parents who want to start working outside the home, too. But in any case, a tighter labor market tends to force companies to look beyond their usual suspects.

But this time has been different. The percent of people moving from outside the labor force into jobs hasn’t increased at all since the recession officially ended in 2009. Maybe that’s because Boomers are retiring, so there are just more people not in the labor force. Or maybe it’s because overall hiring has been slower than normal.​ It matters, though, since it helps tell us how much slack is left in the economy. If companies start hiring more people outside the labor force, then unemployment keeps falling without wages rising too much — which gives the Fed more room to let the recovery grow before raising rates. But if this “shadow unemployed” don’t come back, then the unemployment rate will fall even faster, and force the Fed to act sooner.”

4. Lots of job openings, but even more unemployed workers

Michael R. Strain, resident scholar, American Enterprise Institute

“This chart tells you quite a bit of information. It plots the ratio of the level of unemployment and the level of job openings — in other words, it reports how many job seekers there are for every job opening. As you can see, things got pretty bad at the height of the Great Recession, with nearly seven job-seeking unemployed workers for every job opening. Fortunately, the ratio has been trending down, though it’s still higher than it was on the eve of the Great Recession and in the early part of the last decade.

This graph tells you about the nature of unemployment during the Great Recession: No matter how hard a person is searching, when there are five, six, seven unemployed workers for every job opening, a lot of folks simply aren’t going to be able to find jobs. You can’t take a job that doesn’t exist. Currently, we’re down to about two unemployed workers per job opening. That’s great news, even though so many people have left the labor force that the number of unemployed workers doesn’t tell you the whole story of the labor market. But we’re trending in the right direction — to a place where folks who search hard for a job and are realistic about their prospects can find meaningful employment and lead flourishing lives that include work.”

5. Americans in the prime of their lives, but not working

Nick Bunker, policy research associate, Washington Center for Equitable Growth

“The single most important indicator for evaluating the state of the U.S. labor market is the share of working age population (ages 25 to 54) with a job. Here we can clearly see not only that have we not fully recovered from the ravages of the Great Recession but also that we haven’t even recovered from the first recession of the early 2000s. As of last month, the share of the U.S. working age population with a job was just under 77 percent, a full 3 percentage points below its pre-recession level in December 2007. This means that there are 3.7 million working-age people who’d have a job if we were at employment-rate levels prior to the Great Recession. Being below the 2007 level is enough of an issue, but we are also below the level in 2000. We’re about 5 percentage points below the share of working age people with a job more than 14 years ago. The U.S. labor market needs to recover from the Great Recession as well as the first decade of the 21st century.”

6. Just how uncertain is our economic policy? 

Tadas Viskanta, founder and editor, Abnormal Returns

“The Economic Policy Uncertainty Index for the United States may not be my favorite data series on FRED. Something interest rate related, like a measure of the slope of the Treasury yield curve, likely would be. However it represents what is so great about FRED, besides the name. Here we have a data series, and related ones for a handful of other countries, that came into existence just last year due to a paper by Baker, Bloom and Davis. What it demonstrates is the entrepreneurial way the FRED team approaches economic data. That isn’t to say the policy uncertainty data series aren’t interesting in and of themselves. These measures allow us to see the waves of policy uncertainty set off by the financial crisis and its aftermath. No one knows with certainty what the next innovation will be in economic statistics, but you can be sure that FRED will soon make it available to the world.”

7. Manufacturing and construction employment since the Great Recession

Cardiff Garcia, FT Alphaville

“The trendlines for manufacturing and construction employment had been steadily converging in the three decades to 2007. This is easily explained: Construction employment historically has been powerfully cyclical, while the combination of globalization and technological advancement had aggressively boosted productivity growth in the manufacturing sector, leading it to shed jobs even as output climbed. The construction sector still employs nearly 1.5 million fewer workers now than at the start of the recession, and the manufacturing sector more than 1.6 million fewer.

No other sector is close to these levels of remaining net job losses. The decline in manufacturing employment seem likely to continue on its pre-crisis secular trajectory, despite the occasional upward blip. But the construction sector is a more complicated story. A researcher at the St. Louis Fed concluded, based on aggregate payroll hours worked in the sector both before and after the crisis, that employment in the sector accounts for most of the remaining labor market slack. (The indexes of aggregate hours worked in the second Fred graph are set to 100 in 2007.) And given the sector’s endlessly abysmal productivity growth, construction employment is likely to start rising more impressively when — if! — the economy finally produces the long-awaited acceleration in household formation growth.

But whether or not construction employment exceeds its prior employment peak — as it has in every business cycle expansion but one since 1960 — depends on a few factors that remain uncertain: mortgage credit tightness and other supply-side bottlenecks, the split between multifamily and single-family residences, resiliency of the decline in the homeownership rate, the impact of demographic trends, and most obviously the continued vigor of the cyclical recovery itself.”

8. The bright spot in the post-recession consumer economy: Nail salons.

Lydia DePillis, reporter for Storyline

There are lots of very serious ways — comprehensive aggregate measures! — to assess the health of the economy. And FRED is a phenomenal tool for mashing them all together: Want to plot corporate profits against real household income over the last 50 years? Do it (and get ready to be depressed).

But FRED is more than that. FRED also has lots of micro indicators that can tell us things too — like, for example, that spending on nail salons has started accelerating over the past decade, even as spending on barbers has stayed flat. We might be bowling alone, but we’re spending more on bowling alleys now than we did at the end of the ’90’s. Local delivery services have survived the advent of the Internet, recovering nicely after the recession. And spending on auto lube and oil change shops, after a steady rise during the 2000s, has definitely leveled off. And here’s the best thing: A whole slew of metrics have just started feeding into the system, so we should have longer time series for spending on things like pet care and taxis in just another decade.

Plus there are Civil War bond prices on FRED…

Matt O’Brien, economic and monetary policy writer, Wonkblog “FRED doesn’t just tell us everything about the economy today. It tells us as much as we know about the world as it was. You can find out how many bricks England and Wales produced between 1785 and 1815​. Or, as you can see above, how much the Civil War shocked people who’d invested in state bonds. Virginia’s bonds, for example, fell 20 percent after the first Southern states seceded — because traitors won’t pay you back — and then stayed there when it wasn’t clear if it would, too. But then its bonds really collapsed, another 50 percent, once Virginia did join the Confederacy. It’s a useful reminder just how hard predictions about the future are, even for the people who are paid to get them right.”

Ryan McCarthy is the assistant business editor for The Washington Post. He oversees Storyline, Wonkblog and other digital projects.

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