Two measures commonly used to gauge the country’s economic activity have started to move in opposite directions, according to an Economic Synopses essay.
Economist Ana Maria Santacreu examined these two measures:
Santacreu noted that companies typically use around 80 percent of their available productive capacity (measured by the capacity utilization rate). This number is higher during economic expansions and lower during recessions. She noted: “Indeed, during the most recent recession, U.S. capacity utilization dropped below 67 percent, the lowest point since the late 1960s.”
The figure below plots the two measures at quarterly intervals from 1967 through the first quarter of 2016.
As the figure shows, employment as a fraction of the labor force tends to move in a similar fashion to the capacity utilization rate. Santacreu noted that the correlation between the two measures was 0.90 for the period 1967:Q1 through 1990:Q1.
However, the correlation became less pronounced during the early 1990s economic crisis and the early 2000s dot-com bubble. Santacreu wrote: “During both episodes, capacity utilization dropped before employment did and began recovering earlier. That is, industrial activity was booming while employment was still low. This phenomenon is known as a jobless recovery.”
Following the Great Recession, these two measures didn’t follow the same pattern as in the previous two recessions. Both measures dropped initially, but employment has been recovering quickly since 2009, while capacity utilization recovered initially but began falling again in 2015.
Santacreu noted that there are several potential reasons why unemployment took longer to recover following the recessions of the early 1990s and early 2000s:
Santacreu wrote: “This is important in comparing capacity utilization and employment as measures of economic activity. Capacity seems to be mainly affected by cyclical factors. Employment, however, is also affected by a structural factor that makes it adjust more slowly than industrial capacity adjusts to recessions and recoveries.”
Regarding the recent divergence, Santacreu noted that two factors may be at play:
Santacreu concluded: “Capacity utilization and employment tend to comove along the business cycle. However, they may drift apart when labor markets are less flexible or there are structural changes in the economy.”
On the Economy
Get notified when new content is available on our On the Economy blog.
About the Blog
The St. Louis Fed On the Economy blog features relevant commentary, analysis, research and data from our economists and other St. Louis Fed experts.
Views expressed are not necessarily those of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis or of the Federal Reserve System.