It's not every day a new economic indicator is born. On Monday, for the first time, the U.S. Federal Reserve published its labour market conditions index, composed of 19 indicators that reflect broader employment conditions, beyond just the jobless rate.
The purpose is to provide greater insight into the jobs market by looking at measures like labour-force participation rates, average weekly hours and wages, along with rates of hiring and layoffs. The weighted index, which will now be published on a monthly basis, includes temp work, job vacancies and the portion of people who are working part-time for economic reasons.
A similar measure would be helpful for Canada, which has seen a little-changed jobless rate over the past year, but see-sawing monthly employment levels.
"It would be useful to assess trends in the Canadian labour market, which is especially important given the market's intense focus on the wildly swinging monthly job numbers," said Sal Guatieri, senior economist at BMO Nesbitt Burns.
In fact, the central bank has developed a new measure of its own – called the labour market indicator, or LMI, composed of eight variables that together reflect the overall health of the labour market. The first public mention of this indicator was in May, when it released a paper titled Beyond the Unemployment Rate that highlighted the need to consider a broad range of labour market measures in addition to the jobless rate.
Its own gauge – which tracks long-term joblessness, wage growth, the participation rate and hours worked, among other metrics – suggested that Canada's unemployment rate may have "modestly overstated the extent of recent improvement" in the jobs market. Long-term unemployment remains elevated, it noted, while wage growth is "subdued."
The LMI was mentioned again last month. In a speech, Timothy Lane, a deputy governor at the central bank, said the jobless rate by itself "does not fully capture the labour market slack." In both Canada and the U.S., he said, "there are still elevated levels of long-term unemployment and involuntary part-time employment, while wage gains continue to be moderate relative to historical norms."
So why isn't the Bank of Canada publishing its LMI on a regular basis?
In the U.S., the new index, unveiled in May and developed by Fed economists, is not expected to replace the jobless rate as the key economic indicator to watch. Nor is everyone convinced of its usefulness. "Separately the variables have value, but pushed together as a Group of 19, there is nothing here to sink your teeth into," Bloomberg cited Chris Rupkey, chief financial economist at Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ Ltd., as saying.
Still, the index – which showed improvement in September – was developed under Fed chair Janet Yellen to help assess changes in conditions and add clarity to what has been a complicated picture. For now, "there are still too many people who want jobs but cannot find them, too many who are working part time but would prefer full-time work," she said last month, representing a "significant under utilization of labour resources."
The Fed has a dual mandate to focus on both inflation and employment, while the Bank of Canada has a single focus: inflation. But this country's central bank keeps a close eye on labour market trends to help it analyze where inflation is headed.
The BoC's labour market indicator described in its May review "is similar to the one set up by the Fed earlier this year," the central bank said in an e-mail, adding that it first began using a version of the LMI last year. It noted that this measure is only one of many it looks at to evaluate the degree of slack in the economy.
So – a new measure for Canada too. Just don't count on its publication any time soon. The central bank said that at this point, it has given enough information on the new indicator that outsiders should be able to replicate it, and that it "does not plan to publish this indicator externally."