Why 2.8 Crore Indians Applied for 90,000 Jobs in Indian Railways

indian flag
The Indian Railways recently got 2.8 crore applications for around 90,000 jobs it had advertised for.

This basically means that the ratio of number of applicants to the number of jobs stands at 311:1. Further, it means that 18.7% of India’s youth workforce (people in the age group 18-29) applied for it. Or to put it a little more simplistically, every one in five individuals who are a part of India’s youth workforce, applied for these jobs.

This is even without taking any education qualifications into account. If we do that (i.e. people who have at least passed the tenth standard or some such parameter), the proportion of India’s youth workforce which applied for these jobs in the Indian Railways would go up even further.

If this is not an indication of India’s massive jobs crisis, we don’t know what is.

The argument being offered against this is that just because someone has applied for a government job, does not mean he or she is unemployed. Of course, this is a fair argument, but an incomplete one. Allow me to explain.

Let’s us look at Table 1, a table we have used multiple times before.

Table 1: 

Table 1 clearly tells us that only 60.6% of India’s workforce which is looking for a job all through the year, is able to find one. So, yes Indians may not be unemployed, but they are terribly underemployed. Hence, nearly 40% of Indians looking for a job all through the year are unable to find one. Or two in five Indians who are looking for a job all through the year are unable to find one.

Further, this underemployment translates into low levels of income, as can be seen from Table 2.

Table 2: Self-employed/Regular wage salaried/Contract/Casual Workers
according to Average Monthly Earnings (in %) 

Table 2 shows us the income levels of India’s workforce. As far as the self-employed and the contract workers are concerned, nearly two-thirds of them make up to Rs 7,500 per month or Rs 90,000 per year. In case of contract workers, more than 84% of contract workers earn up to Rs 7,500 per month or Rs 90,000 per year.

The per capita income in 2015-2016 was at Rs 1.07 lakh. This basically means that a bulk of India’s non-salaried workforce, earns a significantly lower income than the per capita income.

The non-salaried workforce works largely in the informal sector, which forms a bulk of India’s economy (as high as 92% as per one estimate). As the Economic Survey of 2015-2016, points out: “By most measures, informal sector jobs are much worse than formal sector ones-wages are, on average, more than 20 times higher in the formal sector.”

Given these low levels of income primarily because of huge underemployment, so many people tend to apply for government jobs in general, and the recent vacancies in Indian Railways are no exception to this. People are looking for a regular and stable source of monthly income. They want to get rid of the irregularity of payment that they have to regularly deal with in the informal sector.

The Indian government is a good paymaster, especially at lower levels. As the Report of the Seventh Pay Commission points out: “To obtain a comparative picture of the salaries paid in the government with that in the private sector enterprises the Commission engaged the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad to conduct a study. According to the study the total emoluments of a General Helper, who is the lowest ranked employee in the government is Rs 22,579, more than two times the emoluments of a General Helper in the private sector organizations surveyed at Rs 8,000-9,500.”

Hence, the IIM Ahmedabad study “on comparing job families between the government and private/public sector has brought out the fact that…at lower levels salaries are much lower in the private sector as compared to government jobs.”

In this scenario, it isn’t surprising that so many people apply for government jobs in India. The employment opportunities in the informal sector are irregular and simply don’t pay enough. India’s huge underemployment gets reflected in the number of people applying for government jobs.

And at the end of the day, underemployment is also a representation of unemployment and the huge jobs crisis that India is facing. There simply aren’t enough jobs/employment opportunities which will keep individuals occupied for the full year, going around, for everyone who is a part of India’s burgeoning workforce.

Indeed, that is something to worry about. And what is even worrying is that the Modi government is not worrying about this huge issue.

Postscript: Dear Reader, you must be wondering why are we still using 2015-2016 data even in 2018-2019. The Labour Bureau carried out six household-based Annual Employment-Unemployment Surveys (EUS) between 2010 and 2016. Of these, reports of five rounds have been released till date. The last report was released in September 2016. The question is, why has the report for the sixth round of the Survey not been released till date.

Recently, in an answer to a question raised in Parliament, the government said, “On the recommendations of the Task Force on Employment, however, this survey has been discontinued.” Basically, a survey that brought bad news in the form of huge underemployment that India has been facing, has been discontinued, and then the government goes around talking about lack of data.

The column was originally published on Equitymaster on April 16, 2018.

Mr Adhia, GST Needs “Complete Overhauling”, “Some Rejig” Just Won’t Help

Yscissor

Yesterday evening, the social media was abuzz with a statement that Hasmukh Adhia, the revenue secretary, had given in an interview to the Press Trust of India (PTI) regarding the Goods and Services Tax (GST). As he said: “There is a complete overhauling that is required… it is possible that some items in the same chapter are divided.”

The website of The Hindu still has this report. You can also read it on Scroll.in.
This statement was later changed to: “There is need for some rejig in rates… it is possible that some items in the same chapter are divided.” The interview on the PTI website, currently has this statement and not the earlier one.

The phrase complete overhauling [of GST] has been replaced by some rejig in [GST] rates, by the PTI. Of course, a complete overhauling is majorly different from some rejig, but this is the closest that someone senior in the Modi government has publicly admitted that the implementation of the GST has been a disaster.

There are questions that need to be asked, even though the chances of getting any answers from the Modi government, remain nil.

1) Why was the government in such a hurry to launch the GST, when it was clearly not ready for it. This lack of preparation was already visible even before GST became the order of the day.

As Navin Kumar, the chairman of the GST network, in an interview published on June 27, 2017, told Business Standard: “It should be a stable system. Problems that surfaced during the first phase of the testing have been resolved. We did the testing on the basis of the rules that came in December. After that, some changes were made to the rules. Those changes we have absorbed now, so there is no time to do beta testing for that.”

Here is the Chairman of the network on which the GST is implemented saying that they haven’t had the time to test it properly. What more evidence is needed for the system not being completely ready?

Bharat Goenka, the managing director of Tally Solutions, one of the companies which has made a software for customers to help them file the GST returns, made a similar

In an interview with the Business Standard published on June 23, 2017, he was asked: “Is the problem essentially with the cramped timeline? Is July 1 too optimistic?” He answered: “It is indeed very cramped. While it is easy to add a new feature to software with respect to its functioning, developing robust software takes time. Whenever you make a change, you need to harden the software and that takes time. If you do not give it time, you end up with fragile software and get potentially surprising results. It is a high-risk environment. So, it is not sensible to try and do such mega rollouts without robust backing.

Obviously, the government was in a hurry to launch the GST without adequate preparation. In the process, it ended up creating the mess that currently prevails. And given that concerns were raised by people who were part of the process of the launch, this is clearly not benefit of hindsight.

2) Nearly four months after the launch, a lot of confusion prevails on many fronts. Even the chartered accountants lack clarity on issues. This tells us again that there wasn’t enough communication from the government on this front. In countries where GST (or value added tax as it is more popularly called) has been successfully implemented, an adequate amount of time is spent in training those who will be a part of the system implementing the GST (both inside and outside the government). This, has clearly not happened in India.

3) In fact, much before the GST was launched, analysts had pointed out that there were way too many GST rates, and that made the entire system fairly complicated, for those who need to follow the system.

The examples are now out.  A newreport in The Times of India quotes a supermarket chain owner as saying: “Tax on snacks like aloo bhujia, potato chips, samosa, kachori is 12%. Now the tax rate for cashews is 5%, but I can’t figure out if masala cashew is a snack or a standalone item.”

Similar issues have cropped up when it comes to sweets. Milk sweets come under the 5 per cent bracket, but the moment a silver foil is put on it, tax shoots up to 18 per cent. As Congress leader Veerapa Moily put it: “For example, is Kitkat a chocolate or a biscuit? Is coconut oil considered as hair oil or cooking oil?

A ministry of finance press release towards the end of September 2017 pointed out: “The total number of tax payers who were required to file monthly returns for August 2017 is 68.20 lakhs, of which, as on 25th September, 2017, 37.63 lakh GSTR 3B returns have been filed.” Around 55 per cent of those who needed to file GST returns, actually filed it.

Given the way, in which the system has been designed, this isn’t surprising at all. What this has also brought out is the fact that Indian traders are digitally challenged, and it will take time for them to catch up to GST. Meanwhile, the economy will have to suffer because of this.

4) The multiplicity of tax rates has led to a situation where the tax rates on different products make very little sense.  While the GST on condoms is 0 per cent, that on sanitary napkins is 12 per cent. One explanation provided for this is that only branded sanitary napkins invite a GST. But why even make this distinction? Does the GST apply only on branded condoms? Or more importantly, is there anything like an unbranded condom? These issues will simply not arise if there were fewer rates of tax.

Another explanation provided is that the mandate of the GST Council which decided on the GST rates, was fitment of taxes i.e. the GST rate on a product must be close to the existing taxes on it.

This is a rather silly observation given the status of the GST Council. If the idea was mere fitment any junior level bureaucrat could have done it. The fact that GST Council comprised of the finance ministers of all states and the finance minister of the central government, means that such anomalies could have been easily corrected.

There are several such inconsistencies, for the lack of a better word. The GST on environmentally friendly hybrid cars as well as fossil fuel guzzling SUVs is the same at 43 per cent (28 per cent GST and 15 per cent surcharge). Before GST became the order of the day, the total taxes on SUVs added to around 50 per cent.[i] In case of hybrids the tax before GST was around 29 per cent.[ii] This has led to the companies increasing the prices of the hybrid models of their cars.

And there is more. The GST rates on diamonds and gold are at 0.25 per cent and 3 per cent respectively. But the GST on something as useful as matchboxes (handmade ones) is 5 per cent. Why is this the case? Is it because those who run diamond and gold firms have deeper pockets funding political parties, than those running firms making matchboxes?

5) The rate of tax for most services has gone up from 12.36 per cent in 2014 and 15 per cent till June 30, 2017, to 18 per cent under GST. Of course, a part of this jump was supposed to be neutralised because of the input tax credit available under GST. But anecdotal evidence clearly suggests that the price of services has gone up because of GST. The government needs to study this and if this is true, it needs to cut the rate of tax on services to 15 per cent.

6) Also, the Modi government has tried to implement a convoluted and a complicated GST, which has “privatised compliance”. This has hit the small and medium enterprises(SMEs) the hardest. This also shows that we haven’t really learnt the lessons from our past.

One reason for India’s big black economy has been the high income tax rates over the years. In the early 1970s, the highest marginal rate of tax was as high as 97 per cent. Of course, at such a high rate most people who should have been paying income tax, did not. Not surprising, why would anyone give away Rs 97 out of every Rs 100 that he earned over a certain level, to the government.

The point being that tax compliance is always better at lower rates. At 28 per cent and higher, the peak Indian GST rate is among the highest in the world. Hopefully, as the number of tax rates under GST gets slashed in the years to come, the higher rates will go.

To conclude, GST has hit the small and medium enterprises (SMEs), which were already reeling under the negative impacts of demonetisation very hard. This is something that needs to be corrected very quickly, simply because it is the SMEs which create jobs in any growing economy. As finance minister Arun Jaitley recently told ET Now“Bulk of the jobs in India are created by SMEs, by the micro industries, by self employment. Gone are the days where only the government sector created jobs in the government or the organised sector created jobs.”

And given that one million Indian youth are entering the workforce every month, the country needs SMEs to create jobs more than it ever did before. Given this, the GST needs complete overhauling, in order make it simple and uncomplicated. A simple rejig won’t do. Hope Mr Adhia and his boss in the finance ministry are listening.

[i] A.Modi, Planning to buy a luxury car or an SUV? GST may save you up to Rs 85,000, http://www.business-standard.com, May 21, 2017.

[ii] A. Khan, Hybrid Cars May Become A Thing Of The Past Because Of GST, www.businessworld.in, July 4, 2017.

The column originally appeared in the Huffington Post on October 23, 2017.

Dear PM Modi, India is Already Land of Self-Employed, and It Ain’t Working

narendra modi

The prime minister Narendra Modi in his Independence Day speech made last week said: “The Government has launched several new initiatives in the employment related schemes and also in the manner in which the training is imparted for the development of human resource according to the needs of the 21st century. We have launched a massive program to provide collateral free loans to the youth. Our youth should become independent, he should get the employment, he should become the provider of employment. Over the past three years, ‘Pradhanmantri Mudra Yojana’ has led to millions and millions of youth becoming self-dependent. It’s not just that, one youth is providing employment to one, two or three more people.”

Adding to this, the Bhartiya Janata Party president Amit Shah recently said: “the youth have turned into job-creators from job-seekers“. Dear Reader, I would request you to keep these points in your head, while I set the overall context of this piece. As I have written on several previous occasions in the past, one million Indians enter the workforce every month. That makes it 1.2 crore Indians a year. There is not enough work going around for all these young individuals entering the workforce every year.

While, it is not possible for the government to create jobs for such a huge number of people, it is possible that the government makes it easier for the private sector to create jobs. (I will not go into this, simply because this is a separate topic in itself and I guess I will deal with this on some other occasion).

Take a look at Table 1. This is a table that I have used on previous occasions as well. But I need to repeat it, in order to set the context for this piece.

Table 1: Percentage distribution of persons available for 12 months 

What does Table 1 tell us? It tells us that only 60.6 per cent of the individuals who were looking for work all through the year, were able to find it. This basically means that nearly 40 out of every 100 Indians who are a part of the workforce and were looking for work all through the year, could not find regular work. In rural India, around half of the workforce wasn’t able to find regular work through the year.

This table is at the heart of India’s unemployment problem. Actually, we do not have an unemployment problem, what we have is an underemployment problem. There isn’t enough work going from everyone who joins the workforce. The solution that prime minister Narendra Modi has to this is that India’s youth should become self-dependent and seek self-employment. In the era of post-truth, this sounds like a terrific idea. But this is nothing more than marketing spin.

Let’s look at some data on this front. As the Report on the Fifth Annual Employment-Unemployment Survey, 2016, points out: “At the All India level, 46.6 per cent of the workers were found to be self-employed… followed by 32.8 per cent as casual labour. Only 17 per cent of the employed persons were wage/salary earners and the rest 3.7 per cent were contract workers.”

The point being that nearly half of India’s workforce is already self-employed. And they aren’t doing well in comparison to those who have regular jobs. Take a look at Table 2.

Table 2: Self-employed/Regular wage salaried/Contract/Casual Workers
according to Average Monthly Earnings (in %) 

What does Table 2 tell us? It tells us very clearly that self-employment is not as well-paying as a regular salaried job is. As is clear from the table nearly two-thirds of the self-employed make up to Rs 7,500 per month. In case of the regular salaried lot this is at a little over 38 per cent. Clearly, those with regular jobs make much more money on an average.

Further, only 4 per cent of the self-employed make Rs 20,000 or more during the course of a month. In comparison, more than 19 per cent of individuals with jobs make Rs 20,000 or more during the course of a month.

What Table 1 and Table 2 tell us is that India’s youth have already taken to being self-employed. Hence, there is nothing new in Narendra Modi’s idea. Further, it is clearly not working.

As Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo write in Poor Economics: “The sheer number of business owners among the poor is impressive. After all, everything seems to militate against the poor being entrepreneurs. They have less capital of their own (almost by definition) and… little access to formal insurance, banks and other sources of inexpensive finance…. Another characteristic of the businesses of the poor and the near-poor is that, on average, they are not making much money.”

The point here is that a large part of the workforce is not self-employed by choice but are self-employed because they have no other option. Banerjee and Duflo call them ‘reluctant entrepreneurs’. The phrase summarises the situation very well.

Other than the reluctant entrepreneurs, more than 30 per cent of the workforce comprises casual labourers, who seek employment on an almost daily basis. The reluctant entrepreneurs and casual labourers looking for daily work essentially tell us that no one can really afford to stay unemployed.

Hence, the problem is not a lack of employment but a lack of employment which is productive enough.

Prime minister Modi talked about his government launching, “several new initiatives in the employment related schemes and also in the manner in which the training is imparted for the development of human resource according to the needs of the 21st century.

How good does the data look on this front? As the Volume 2 of the Economic Survey of 2016-2017 points out: “For urban poor, Deendayal Antyodaya Yojana National Urban Livelihoods Mission (DAYNULM) imparts skill training for self and wage-employment through setting up self-employment ventures by providing credit at subsidized rates of interest. The government has now expanded the scope of DAY-NULM from 790 cities to 4,041 statutory towns in the country. So far, 8,37,764 beneficiaries have been skill-trained [and] 4,27,470 persons have been given employment.

The annual report of 2016-2017 of the Ministry of Skill Development and Entrepreneurship of the government of India makes an estimate about the number of people trained by different ministries during the course of the financial year. For the period April to December 2016, the number is at around 19.59 lakh. The annual target was set at 99.35 lakh. Given this, the gap between the target set and the target achieved is huge.

Another way of looking at this is that 1.2 crore Indians are entering the workforce every year. They have had an average education of around five years (i.e. they have passed primary school). Given this, they really don’t have any work-related skillset. At best, they can add and subtract, and perhaps read a little.

Hence, they need to be trained or there need to be enough low skill jobs going around. Real estate and construction, the two sectors that can create these kind of jobs, are in a huge mess. This is something that can be sorted, but in order to do that some serious decisions on black money need to made. This includes cleaning up of political funding and the change in land usage regulations at state government level.

Take a look at the following graphic (Figure 1) reproduced from the annual report of the Ministry of Skill Development and Entrepreneurship.

Figure 1: 

What Figure 1 tells us very clearly is that the scale that is needed to train people is simply not there. And this will lead to a substantial chunk of individuals entering the workforce looking for low end self-employment opportunities anyway, as has been the case in the past. Or people will continue to stick to agriculture.

Prime Minister Modi in his speech further said: “Over the past three years, ‘Pradhanmantri Mudra Yojana’ has led to millions and millions of youth becoming self-dependent. It’s not just that, one youth is providing employment to one, two or three more people.”

Let’s look at this statement in some detail. Between April 2015 and August 11, 2017, the government gave out Mudra (Micro Units Development and Refinance Agency Bank) loans worth Rs 3.63 lakh crore to 8.7 crore individuals. This works out to an average loan of around Rs 41,724. There is no evidence until now whether this is working or not. Can a loan of a little under Rs 42,000 provide employment to one, two or three more people, is a question which hasn’t been answered up until now.

The CEO of Mudra was asked by NDTV recently, as to how many jobs had the Mudra loans created. He said: “We are yet to make an assessment on that… We don’t have a number right now, but I understand that NITI Aayog is making an effort to do that.”Given this, Mudra loans making millions of youth self-dependent is presently nothing more than something that prime minister Modi likes to believe in.

While he is entitled to his beliefs, I would like to look at some data before concluding that Mudra loans are the answer to India’s job crisis.

The column was originally published on Equitymaster on August 21, 2017.

Some New Lessons on Jobs from an Old Economist

hyman minsky
Many economists do not write in a language which is easily understandable. While John Maynard Keynes was a terrific writer (he is possibly the only economist who actually came up with one-liners), his magnum opus The General Theory of Money, Interest and Employment, which was published in 1936, isn’t such an easy read.

Believe you me! I have tried reading it several times over the years.

Just because the book isn’t an uneasy read, doesn’t mean that the points it is trying to make are not important. As Paul Samuelson, the first American economist to win a Nobel Prize, wrote about Keynes’ book, in a research paper titled Lord Keynes and the General Theory. As he wrote: “It is a badly written book, poorly organized; any layman who, beguiled by the author’s previous reputation, bought the book was cheated of his five shillings…It is arrogant, bad tempered, polemical and not overly generous in its acknowledgements. It abounds in mares’ nests and confusions…In short, it is a work of genius.”

Another economist whose work is not easy to read is the American economist Hyman Minsky, who died in 1996. The world discovered Minsky and his work in the aftermath of the financial crisis that started in September 2008 and so did I.

I tried reading Minsky’s magnum opus Stabilizing an Unstable Economy but could only read it half way through. I have been lucky to have since discovered other authors and economists who have tried to explain Minsky’s work in a language that I have been able to understand.

Over the last few days I have been reading L Randall Wray’s Why Minsky Matters—An Introduction to the Work of a Maverick Economist. Other than discussing Minsky’s views on banking and the financial system in great detail, Wray also discusses what Minsky thought of unemployment. Minsky’s interest in unemployment primarily came from the fact that he was brought up during The Great Depression, when the United States saw never before seen levels of unemployment and a huge contraction of the economy.

And what did Minsky think of the unemployment problem? As Wray writes: “His argument [i.e. Minsky’s] was that simply increasing the “employability” of the poor by providing training without increasing the supply of jobs would just redistribute unemployment and poverty. For every better trained worker who got a job, a worker with less training would become unemployed. Minsky was not arguing against better education and training—he was arguing that to reduce unemployment and poverty we need more jobs, too.”

Minsky also argued against the idea that “if the economy grows at a sufficiently robust pace, the jobs will automatically appear.” As Wray writes: “The notion that economic growth together with supply-side policies to upgrade workers and provide proper work incentives would be enough to eliminate poverty was recognized by Minsky at the time to be fallacious. Indeed, evidence suggests that economic growth mildly favours the “haves” over the “have-nots”—increasing inequality—and that jobs do not simply trickle down.”
How do things stack up in the Indian context? First and foremost, let’s look at the youth literacy number and how it has changed over the years. As per the Human Development Report, in 1990, the youth literacy rate (i.e. individuals in the age 15 and 24) was at 64.3% in 1990. This improved to 76.4% in 2003. In 2013, the youth literacy rate for men was at 88.4% and for women at 74.4%.

What these data points tell us clearly is that the education level of India’s youth has improved over the years. But has this led to more jobs? Answering this question is a little tricky given how bad Indian data on jobs is.

Nevertheless, as the Economic Survey released in February 2015 points out: “Regardless of which data source is used, it seems clear that employment growth is lagging behind growth in the labour force. For example, according to the Census, between 2001 and 2011, labour force growth was 2.23 percent (male and female combined). This is lower than most estimates of employment growth in this decade of closer to 1.4 percent.”

Hence, even though the youth education has improved over the years, this hasn’t led to an adequate number of jobs. This is clearly visible in all the engineers and MBAs that we produce without having the right jobs for them.

As Akhilesh Tilotia writes in The Making of India: “An analysis of the demand-supply scenario in the higher education industry shows significant capacity addition over the last few years: 2.4 million higher education seats in 2012 from 1.1 million in 2008.” In 2016, India will produce 1.5 million engineers. This is more than the United States (0.1 million) and China (1.1 million) put together.
The number of MBAs between 2012 and 2008 has also jumped to 4 lakh from the earlier 1 lakh. As Tilotia writes: “India faces a unique situation where some institutes (IITs,IIMs, etc.) are intensely contested while a large number of the recently-opened institutes struggle to fill seats…With most of the 3 million people wanting to pursue higher education now having an opportunity to do so, the big question that should…be asked…are all these trained personnel required? Our analysis seems to suggest that India may be over-educating its people relative to the current and at least the medium-term forecast requirement of the economy.”

This explains why many engineers and MBAs cannot find the right kind of jobs and have to settle for other jobs.

A major reason for the lack of enough jobs is the fact that Indian firms start small and continue to remain small. As Economist Pranab Bardhan writes in Globalisation, Democracy and Corruption: “Take the highly labour-intensive garments industry, for example. A combined dataset [of both the formal and informal sectors] shows that about 92 per cent of garment firms in India have fewer than eight employees.”

It’s only when small firms start to become bigger, will jobs be created. As the Economic Survey points out: “A major impediment to the pace of quality employment generation in India is the small share of manufacturing in total employment…This is significant given that the National Manufacturing Policy 2011 has set a target of creating 100 million jobs by 2022. Promoting growth of micro, small, and medium enterprises (MSME) is critical from the perspective of job creation which has been recognized as a prime mover of the development agenda in India.”

And this, as I keep saying, is easier said than done.

The column originally appeared on the Vivek Kaul Diary on January 20, 2016

 

Yellen led Federal Reserve will raise interest rates, but very gradually

yellen_janet_040512_8x10
Up until now every time the Federal Open Market Committee has had a meeting, I have maintained that Janet Yellen, the Chairperson of the Federal Reserve of the United States, will not raise interest rates. The latest meeting of the FOMC is currently on (December 15-16, 2015) and I feel that in all probability Janet Yellen and the FOMC will raise the federal funds rate at the end of this meeting.

The federal funds rate is the interest rate at which one bank lends funds maintained at the Federal Reserve to another bank on an overnight basis. It acts as a sort of a benchmark for the interest rates that banks charge on their short and medium term loans.

So why do I think that the Yellen led FOMC will raise the interest rate now? Two major economic indicators that the FOMC looks at are unemployment and inflation. Price stability and maximum employment is the dual mandate of the Federal Reserve.

There are various ways in which the bureau of labour standards in the United States measures unemployment. This ranges from U1 to U6. The official rate of unemployment is U3, which is the proportion of the civilian labour force that is unemployed but actively seeking employment.
U6 is the broadest definition of unemployment and includes work­ers who want to work full-time but are working part-time because there are no full-time jobs available. It also includes “discouraged workers,” or people who have stopped looking for work because the economic conditions the way they are make them believe that no work is available for them.

U6 touched a high of 17.2 percent in October 2009, when U3, which is the official unemployment rate, was at 10 percent. Nevertheless, things have improved since then. In October and November 2015, the U3 rate of unemployment stood at 5% of the civilian labour force. The U6 rate of unemployment stood at 9.8% and 9.9% respectively. This is a good improvement since October 2009, six years earlier.

In fact, the gap between U3 and the U6 rate of unemployment has narrowed down considerably. As John Mauldin writes in a research note titled Crime in the Job Report with respect to the unemployment figures of October 2015: “The gap between the two measures [i.e. U3 and U6] is now the smallest in more than seven years, a sign that slack in the labour market is diminishing. And as the Fed weighs a potential rate hike, what may be more important is the number of people working part-time who would prefer to work full-time – that number posted its biggest two-month decline since 1994. Janet Yellen has referred to this number as often as she has to any other specific number. It is on her radar screen.”

In fact, Janet Yellen seems to be feeling reasonably comfortable about the employment numbers. As she said in a speech dated December 2, 2015: “The unemployment rate, which peaked at 10 percent in October 2009, declined to 5 percent in October of this year…The economy has created about 13 million jobs since the low point for employment in early 2010.

Another indicator that has improved is the number of people who want to work full time but can’t because there are no jobs going around. As Yellen said: “Another margin of labour market slack not reflected in the unemployment rate consists of individuals who report that they are working part time but would prefer a full-time job and cannot find one–those classified as “part time for economic reasons.” The share of such workers jumped from 3 percent of total employment prior to the Great Recession to around 6-1/2 percent by 2010. Since then, however, the share of these part time workers has fallen considerably and now is less than 4 percent of those employed.”

On the flip side what most economists and analysts don’t like to talk about is the fact that the labour force participation rate in the United States has fallen. In November 2015 it stood at 62.5%, against 62.9% a year earlier. It had stood at 66% in September 2008, when the financial crisis started.
Labour force participation rate is essentially the proportion of population which is economically active. A drop in the rate essentially means that over the years Americans have simply dropped out of the workforce having not been able to find a job. Hence, they are not measured in total number of unemployed people and the unemployment numbers improve to that extent.

This negative data point notwithstanding things are looking up a bit. With the U3 unemployment rate down to 5% and U6 down to less than 10%, companies, “in order to entice additional workers, businesses may have to think about paying more money,” writes Mauldin.

And this means wage inflation or the rate at which wages rise, is likely to go up in the days to come. The wage inflation will push up general inflation as well as buoyed by an increase in salaries people are likely buy more goods and services, push up demand and thus push up prices. At least that is how it should play out theoretically.

As Yellen said in a speech earlier this month: “Less progress has been made on the second leg of our dual mandate–price stability–as inflation continues to run below the FOMC’s longer-run objective of 2 percent. Overall consumer price inflation–as measured by the change in the price index for personal consumption expenditures–was only 1/4 percent over the 12 months ending in October.”

But a major reason for low inflation has been a rapid fall in the price of oil over the last one year. How does the inflation number look minus food and energy prices? As Yellen said: “Because food and energy prices are volatile, it is often helpful to look at inflation excluding those two categories–known as core inflation…But core inflation–which ran at 1-1/4 percent over the 12 months ending in October–is also well below our 2 percent objective, partly reflecting the appreciation of the U.S. dollar. The stronger dollar has pushed down the prices of imported goods, placing temporary downward pressure on core inflation.”

In fact, the fall in the price of oil has also brought down the fuel and energy costs of businesses. This has led to a fall in the prices of non-energy items as well. “Taking account of these effects, which may be holding down core inflation by around 1/4 to 1/2 percentage point, it appears that the underlying rate of inflation in the United States has been running in the vicinity of 1-1/2 to 1-3/4 percent,” said Yellen.

In fact, a careful reading of the speech that Yellen made on December 2, clearly tells us that she was setting the ground for raising the federal funds rate when the FOMC met later in the month.

On December 3, 2015, Yellen made a testimony to the Joint Economic Committee of the US Congress. In this testimony she exactly repeated something that she had said a day earlier in the speech. As she said: “That initial rate increase would reflect the Committee’s judgment, based on a range of indicators, that the economy would continue to grow at a pace sufficient to generate further labour market improvement and a return of inflation to 2 percent, even after the reduction in policy accommodation. As I have already noted, I currently judge that U.S. economic growth is likely to be sufficient over the next year or two to result in further improvement in the labour market. Ongoing gains in the labour market, coupled with my judgment that longer-term inflation expectations remain reasonably well anchored, serve to bolster my confidence in a return of inflation to 2 percent as the disinflationary effects of declines in energy and import prices wane.”

This is the closest that a Federal Reserve Chairperson or for that matter any central governor, can come to saying that he or she is ready to raise interest rates. My bet is that the Yellen led FOMC will raise rates at the end of the meeting which is currently on.

Nevertheless, this increase in the federal funds rate will be sugar coated and Yellen is likely to make it very clear that the rate will be raised at a very slow pace. This is primarily because the American economy is still not out of the woods.

The economic recovery remains fragile and heavily dependent on low interest rates. Net exports (exports minus imports) remain weak due to a stronger dollar. Yellen feels that this has subtracted nearly half a percentage point from growth this year.

In this environment economic growth in the United States will be heavily dependent on consumer spending, which in turn will depend on how low interest rates continue to remain. As Yellen said in her recent speech: “Household spending growth has been particularly solid in 2015, with purchases of new motor vehicles especially strong….Increases in home values and stock market prices in recent years, along with reductions in debt, have pushed up the net worth of households, which also supports consumer spending. Finally, interest rates for borrowers remain low, due in part to the FOMC’s accommodative monetary policy, and these low rates appear to have been especially relevant for consumers considering the purchase of durable good.”

This again is a clear indication of the fact that the federal funds rate in particular and interest rates in general will continue to remain low in the years to come.

As Yellen had said in a speech she made in March earlier this year: “However, if conditions do evolve in the manner that most of my FOMC colleagues and I anticipate, I would expect the level of the federal funds rate to be normalized only gradually, reflecting the gradual diminution of headwinds from the financial crisis.”

I expect her to make a statement along similar lines either as a part of the FOMC statement or in the press conference that follows or both.

(The column originally appeared on The Daily Reckoning on December 16, 2015)