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Are there any economic indicators pointing toward the need for a Fed rate hike? Some of my econ pals weigh in.

Source: BLS, my analysis

If you follow this sort of thing, by now you know that the jobs report for last month was surprisingly weak. Economists were expecting about 200,000 jobs and we got about 140,000. What’s more, the last few months’ jobs numbers were revised down such that the trend over the past three months amounts to 167,000 per month. Compare that to the 12-month average of 230,000 per month and you get a sense of what could be a slowing pace of job growth (see above figure).

[Job growth falls short of expectations in September; jobless rate unchanged]

If so, that’s a serious problem because the job market needs to get to and stay at full employment. Despite the low unemployment rate, we’re not there yet, if we’re ever to generate the pressure needed for middle- and low-wage workers to capture their fair share of the growth, we’re going to need to get to a stay at full employment.

Of course, even a few months of weaker data do not a new trend make. The monthly jobs report should be thought of like a dot in a Seurat painting. You need a bunch them to paint a recognizable picture.

But surely one thing that would help in the quest for full employment would be for the Federal Reserve not to raise interest rates. While they made that call correctly at their meeting last month, many, including Chair Janet Yellen herself, have strongly leaned into the need to raise rates by the end of this year, though she and some others have said they’d hold off if the data weakened in a meaningful way.

Well, here’s my question, and I’m really asking—this isn’t snark:

Other than the unemployment rate (which is arguably biased down due to low rate of labor force participation and the still elevated number of involuntary part-timers), can you think of an indicator pointing toward the need for a Fed rate hike?

I put the above question to a bunch of my economist friends and here are the responses of those who got back to me so far.

“I actually don’t know of anything other than U3 [the official unemployment rate] that would make you want to tighten. All the price indicators (including wages) scream weakness, as do all the other labor market indicators. If we didn’t have the unemployment number, nobody would see a reason to hike.”-Paul Krugman, Econ professor, Graduate Center of the City University of New York, op-ed columnist for The New York Times, Nobelist.

“To my mind, the best such ‘indicator’ is the passage of time. The FOMC wants to get the funds rate back to “normal” sometime. Since it wants to move from here to there slowly–so as to watch what happens and adjust accordingly–there is a case for getting started sooner rather than later. (‘Later’ might imply faster.) That notion, of course, does not give you an exact start date.” –Alan Blinder, Econ prof, Princeton, former Fed vice-chair.

“Involuntary part-time work fell by 450,000. That’s good news, but given how erratic these numbers are, I sure wouldn’t make too much of it. Weak jobs, weak hours, and weak wages don’t look like a labor market that needs to be slowed.”-Dean Baker, Co-Director, Center for Economic and Policy Research

“The strongest case for the need for a non-zero funds rate are the facts that underlying job growth – abstracting from the vagaries of the data – is near 200,000 per month, and that there is slack in the labor market of just over half a percentage point. At the current pace of underlying job growth, the economy will absorb that slack and be at full employment by next summer.”-Mark Zandi, Chief Economist, Moody’s Analytics

“I didn’t think anything would point toward the need for a rate hike yesterday when I wrote this and nothing in today’s report changed my mind.”-Chad Stone, chief economist, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

“I guess if we believed that none of the productivity deceleration in recent years was cyclical, the Fed would prefer a much lower floor for a nominal wage target and we’d be getting closer to ‘liftoff’. But, I don’t believe this, and, even if I’m wrong it’s irresponsible to not at least *try* to boost productivity by running the economy hotter.” -Josh Bivens, Research and Policy Director, Economic Policy Institute

“I don’t think the Fed should hike. But to the extent that there’s a case for it, it is not based on the current unemployment rate, but rather its trajectory…[M]onetary policy operates with a lag, so the key question isn’t whether the labor market is overheating today — it isn’t — but whether it’s likely to overheat in a year or so. I’m confident that the U.S. labor market can sustain four-point-something unemployment, but if it keeps falling beyond that, past experience suggests there’s good reason to fear inflation may rise, [though] it’s by no means a certainty.” –Justin Wolfers, Econ/Public Policy prof, University of Michigan.

“I keep looking for some hawk to point out an actual measure of “speculation” suggesting that low interest rates are causing excessive leverage. But nobody does.”-Brad DeLong, Econ prof, University of California, Berkeley

“No, all other indicators point to an economy operating below capacity, and inflation below the Fed’s target, with no reason to think the situation will change soon. In these circumstances, the only reason policymakers might raise rates is, they are embarrassed that rates have been near zero for so long and tired of being criticized for it, and they want to declare a return to normalcy.”-Larry Ball, Econ prof, Johns Hopkins University.

“Concern about asset prices is one. Concern that global weakness will require the need for monetary stimulus in the medium term, so being at zero is deeply unwise is another. The opinion…that there really isn’t much slack left in the labor market is a third. The lag in monetary policy is a strong fourth. Having said all that, if I were on the FOMC I would vote to keep rates at zero during the October meeting.”-Mike Strain, American Enterprise Institute and PostEverything contributor.

So, yeah…I know some smart economists. Blinder, Zandi, and Strain are more open to liftoff than the others and they make fair points. Mark — unsurprisingly given that the guy is a walking econ database — gives a data-driven rationale which relates back to my Seurat point [sic!]: let’s see if a job-growth downshift persists; Strain is in a similar camp but in no rush to raise.

Alan makes the important point that given that they’ve presumably got to get the Fed funds rate back to “normal” at some point, if they start later than sooner, they might have to go faster. And that might not be good. I agree, though as he carefully notes, that doesn’t give you a “start date.”

Paul K, Dean, Chad, Larry and Josh, however, basically agree with what’s implied in the question: there is, at this point, no rationale for raising anytime soon. Krugman gets heavy weight in this debate as he’s been consistently outspoken and correct on macroeconomies both here and abroad since the downturn began. Justin W basically agrees with the doves but adds the Fed operates with a lag and has to look around corners.

At any rate, not much here in the way of ringing endorsements for the Fed to tap the brakes in near-term forthcoming meetings. Meanwhile, those of us trying to make sense out of all of this will continue to track the data and keep you posted as to what it’s whispering to us.