What is Full Employment?

CAMBRIDGE – In an important sense, the US economy is now at full employment. The relatively tight labor market is causing wages to rise at an accelerating rate, because employers must pay more to attract and retain employees. This has important implications for policymakers – and not just at the Federal Reserve.

Consider this: Average hourly earnings in May were 2.3% higher than in May 2014; but, since the beginning of this year, hourly earnings are up 3.3%, and in May alone rose at a 3.8% rate – a clear sign of full employment. The acceleration began in 2013 as labor markets started to tighten. Average compensation per hour rose just 1.1% from 2012 to 2013, but then increased at a 2.6% rate from 2013 to 2014, and at 3.3% in the first quarter of 2015.

These wage increases will soon show up in higher price inflation. The link between wages and prices is currently being offset by the sharp decline in the price of oil and gasoline relative to a year ago, and by the strengthening of the dollar relative to other currencies. But, as these factors’ impact on the overall price level diminishes, the inflation rate will rise more rapidly.

Accelerating wage growth implies that the economy is now at a point at which increases in demand created by easier monetary policy or expansionary fiscal policy would not achieve a sustained rise in output and employment. Instead, this demand would be channeled into higher wages and prices.