Seventh District Update, April 2015


A summary of economic conditions in the Seventh District from the latest release of the Beige Book and from other indicators of regional business activity:

  • Overall conditions: Growth in economic activity in the Seventh District remained moderate in March, and contacts expected growth to continue at a similar pace over the next six to twelve months.
  • Consumer spending: Growth in consumer spending remained moderate. Non-auto retail sales increased modestly, while auto sales increased substantially.
  • Business Spending: Overall, inventory levels were comfortable, though steel service center inventories were exceptionally high. The pace of capital spending picked up some and employment grew moderately.
  • Construction and Real Estate: Demand for residential construction grew slightly. Home prices increased, residential rents held steady, and housing inventories remained near historic lows. Nonresidential construction activity ticked up and commercial real estate activity increased modestly.
  • Manufacturing: Growth was again moderate. The auto and aerospace industries remained a source of strength and most specialty metals manufacturers reported solid order books. However, capacity utilization in the steel industry decreased, and sales of heavy machinery and heavy trucks grew slowly.
  • Banking and finance: Credit conditions improved some. Financial market volatility stabilized and credit spreads declined slightly. Business and consumer loan demand both continued to grow.
  • Prices and Costs: Cost pressures were little changed overall. Energy prices were up slightly, but remained low. Metals prices declined. Retail prices were little changed. Wage pressures increased slightly, while non-wage pressures declined slightly.
  • Agriculture: High stocks of corn and soybeans and slower export growth put downward pressure on most crop prices. Higher output pushed down milk prices, hog prices fell because so many were brought to market, and cattle prices were up as herds are being rebuilt.

The Midwest Economy Index (MEI) was unchanged at +0.49 in February. The relative MEI rose to +0.45 in February from +0.36 in January. February’s value for the relative MEI indicates that Midwest economic growth was somewhat higher than would typically be suggested by the growth rate of the national economy.

Illinois Fiscal Outlook – A Workshop Takeaway

Just how bleak is the long-term fiscal forecast for Illinois? And what are the possible solutions, if any, to the state’s financial troubles? These were among the challenging questions raised at the Illinois Fiscal Outlook Breakfast, held by the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago and the Institute of Government and Public Affairs (IGPA) on February 27, 2015.

The event was attended by about 75 people from various companies, government offices, and universities across Illinois. Richard Dye, Co-Director of the Fiscal Future Project (FFP) within IGPA, was the primary speaker. He presented IGPA’s latest report, “Apocalypse Now? The Consequences of Pay-Later Budgeting in Illinois: Updated Projections from IGPA’s Fiscal Futures Model,” released in January. Dye was joined by panelists Woods Bowman, Professor Emeritus at DePaul University, Laurence Msall, President of the Civic Federation, and Senator Daniel Biss of Illinois’s 9th Legislative District.

The primary goal of the FFP study is to assess total state spending using a model that investigates the long-run fiscal troubles and consequences of potential state choices. The model allows analysis of a longer term than previous studies have examined, projecting out through 2026. The study expands on previous research that has focused on general spending by assessing the state’s All Funds Budget. Moving funds around within fiscal years or transferring assignments across years can lead to variations in General Funds measurements. These distortions are eliminated using the more-encompassing All Funds Budget evaluation.

The Fiscal Futures Model focuses on the Structural Budget Gap, calculated as the difference between Total Sustainable Revenue (which excludes new borrowing, decreased fund balances, and other one-time sources) and Total Spending. Overall, the study presents a grim outlook for Illinois’s fiscal future. Dye and his colleagues found that the state has run a cash deficit consistently since 2001, contributing to a large and growing structural deficit. They predict that this deficit will remain at about $9 billion for fiscal years 2016 to 2022, reaching $14 billion by 2024 if existing laws and spending trends continue (see figure below). Given that the state’s projected total spending is $74 billion for fiscal year 2016, drastic cuts would have to be made in order to address the deficit. Furthermore, not all spending can be cut due in part to contractual obligations and because cutting other spending would increase unfunded liabilities or decrease revenue from federal matching, which means the possible solutions are limited.


The primary culprit in this large deficit, according to the FFP, is “pay-later budgeting,” which they define as “Illinois’s persistent practice of spending more than the inflow of taxes and other sustainable revenue can recover.” This essentially means borrowing based on IOUs or other liabilities in order to pay off the current deficit, thereby crowding out other spending. The largest contributors to these accumulated IOUs are unfunded pension liabilities, making up $106.5 billion of the $159 billion total sum. While there is a schedule to pay back some of these IOUs, others, including unfunded retiree health cost liabilities and unpaid bills, have no defined pay-back schedule. This will likely result in more crowding out of spending in the future. Adding to the state’s troubles is the fact that the temporary income tax increase implemented in 2011 expired on January 1, 2015. Spending, however, was not cut to sustainable levels in order to compensate for the reduced income tax revenue. The FFP predicts that Illinois tax revenue will drop $2 billion in fiscal year 2015, and $4 billion in fiscal year 2016, clearly exacerbating the state’s fiscal woes.

The study concludes that eliminating the $9 billion deficit will require either devastating cuts in discretionary spending, a 25% increase in state-controlled revenues, twice what would come from postponing the income tax rate cuts (see figure below), or some unpleasant combination of tax increases and cuts in spending.


Bowman followed up by highlighting three financial problems that cast a long shadow over Illinois’s fiscal troubles. The first, as previously emphasized by Dye, is the need for sustainable long-term pension funding. The second is legacy costs, which are the obligations to pay for services the state purchased in previous years. Finally, a new Governor and the potential for conflict between a Republican Governor and Democratic state legislature raise new uncertainty regarding feasible political options. Bowman suggested the state might consider a value-added tax, essentially a broad-based consumption tax, that could be relatively elastic with respect to income and act as a sustainable partial solution over time. He concluded with a proposal of placing a surcharge on certain fees, such as fees for license plates, as another temporary revenue enhancement.

Msall highlighted the bad trend by Illinois of failing to tie temporary revenues to temporary spending limits and the long-term harm this can have on the state’s deficit. The Civic Federation designed a Roadmap to lay out parameters of the state’s problems and potential solutions. However, given Governor Rauner’s budget and the drop in income tax revenue that set in on January 1, the goals laid out in the Roadmap, including fixing the fiscal cliff for fiscal year 2015 and controlling state spending, will not be reachable.

Msall suggested several possible strategies to reduce the state’s deficit, including retroactively postponing the completion of the income tax rollback. Specifically, the Civic Federation proposes retroactively increasing the income tax rate to 4.25% and 6.0% for individuals and corporations, respectively, as of January 1, 2015. The Roadmap then advises that Illinois roll back the rates to 4.0% and 5.6% for individuals and corporations, respectively, on January 1, 2018. Msall noted that of the 41 states that collect an income tax, only three, including Illinois, do not tax pension income. The Civic Federation sees this as a lost opportunity for additional state revenue and proposes implementing a tax on non-Social Security retirement income for individuals with over $50,000 in total income. The Civic Federation’s plan also supports eliminating the sales tax exemption for food and non-prescription drugs through fiscal year 2019 in order chip away at the deficit. To reduce the impact on low-income individuals, the Roadmap proposes expanding the earned income tax credit, from 10% of the federal credit to 15% by fiscal year 2018.

The widespread problems the state is facing spill over to affect local governments, including Chicago, Msall explained. Based on the current trend, the city may soon be forced to choose between not funding contributions, thereby violating pension laws, or increasing taxes, which would adversely affect the city’s appeal as a place to live. Given the city’s recent credit rating downgrade by Moody’s from Baa1 to Baa2, the choices ahead will be difficult.

State Senator Biss outlined the historical series of irresponsible fiscal decisions and policy actions that have dragged Illinois into its current fiscal deficit. He also highlighted an absence of meaningful spending cuts in Governor Rauner’s budget that would be necessary to compensate for the reduced revenue. Biss described a common problematic habit in electoral politics of searching for large overall fixes to problems the state faces in order to give the outward appearance of progress. This often results in attempts to reform the internal structure of the government in an effort to weed out waste and fraud, which often don’t actually contribute to the financial troubles as much as politicians proclaim. What Illinois needs instead, he said, is to find ways of creating more revenue or cutting actual expenditures.

The undetermined status of Senate Bill 0001, sponsored by Biss, among others, contributes to the current uncertainty about Illinois’s fiscal future. This Bill’s purpose is to implement pension reform that will create substantial budgetary savings and help Illinois make actuarially required payments that are in line with national actuarial standards. However, because the bill is currently under review by the Illinois Supreme Court, the actions available to the state government are unclear. Biss concluded that the only way to dig Illinois out of its deficit is to implement many small to medium changes across society, not necessarily evenly distributed, but carefully prioritized to have the most widespread and effective impact.  For example, Biss said a comprehensive pension reform package is imperative to maintaining the state’s ability to fund key areas of state government. He cautioned that portions of Governor Rauner’s budget unfairly target poor, working-class families by reducing funding to programs that benefit them, including Medicaid, foster care, and community colleges. Regardless of the actions the state does decide to take, the path forward will not be pleasant, he warned. But by committing to a “shared sacrifice” strategy of distributing cuts across the board, Illinois will hopefully be able to make steady progress out of the current fiscal trap.

Seventh District Update, March 2015


A summary of economic conditions in the Seventh District from the latest release of the Beige Book and from other indicators of regional business activity:

  • Overall conditions: Growth in economic activity in the Seventh District remained moderate in January and early February, and contacts expected growth to continue at a similar pace over the next six to twelve months.
  • Consumer spending: Growth in consumer spending remained moderate. Lower energy prices benefitted retail sales, though not as much as some were hoping. The pace of new light vehicle sales held steady, while sales of used vehicles increased.
  • Business Spending: Overall, inventory levels were comfortable, but delays at west coast ports led some manufacturers to increase inventories as a precaution. Both the pace of capital spending and the pace of hiring slowed somewhat, though spending and hiring plans grew steadily.
  • Construction and Real Estate: Demand for residential construction was little changed. Home prices and residential rents both increased, while home sales held steady. Nonresidential construction and commercial real estate activity increased moderately.
  • Manufacturing: Growth was again moderate. The auto industry remained a source of strength. Steel demand grew steadily, and demand for heavy machinery and heavy trucks both picked up.
  • Banking and finance: Credit conditions improved on balance. Equity markets moved higher and volatility declined. Business and consumer loan demand both increased.
  • Prices and Costs: Cost pressures were little changed overall. Delays at west coast ports led some contacts to use higher cost supply routes. Wage and non-wage costs changed little on balance.
  • Agriculture: Corn, soybean, wheat, hog, cattle, and milk prices were all lower. Input costs for spring planting remained elevated, leading some to purchase lower quality seeds to reduce costs. Some marginal ground will be used as pasture or for hay production instead.

Led by continued strength in the manufacturing sector, the Midwest Economy Index (MEI) increased to +0.67 in December from +0.43 in November. However, the relative MEI fell to +0.21 in December from +0.70 in November. December’s value for the relative MEI indicates that Midwest economic growth was somewhat higher than would typically be suggested by the growth rate of the national economy.

2014 in Review: Strength in Manufacturing Led to Solid Growth in the Seventh District

With much of the regional economic data for 2014 now available, it is a good time to look at how the Seventh District[1] economy performed last year. While the District had a slow start to the year because of the harsh winter weather, it recovered well in the spring, and finished the year on strong footing. By many measures, 2014 was the best year for the District since the Great Recession ended. The unemployment rate reached new lows, job growth was at its highest, and the average Midwest Economy Index (MEI) reading was the second highest since 2009. A deeper look into the MEI and employment data reveals that manufacturing activity led the way, with particular strength coming from the auto industry. The strong finish to 2014 gives us hope that 2015 will be another solid year on the path to full recovery from the Great Recession.

I begin the review by looking at the overall performance of the District’s economy. GDP is the conventional measure we use to track overall performance, but state-level GDP data are published with a six-month lag. For a more up-to-date measure, I use the MEI, which tracks District GDP closely, but is published with only a one-month lag. A positive MEI reading indicates above-average growth, and a negative reading indicates below-average growth. Figure 1 shows the evolution of the MEI since 2008, where the blue line is the overall MEI and the red line is the contribution of manufacturing activity to the MEI.[2] For 2014, the trends for both lines dipped to about average growth at the beginning of the year, but activity picked up starting in April and remained well above average for the rest of the year. Manufacturing activity has played a very important role in driving overall economic activity since the recovery from the Great Recession began, and this continued in 2014, when manufacturing activity contributed an average of 70% to the MEI’s positive readings.


I now turn to economic indicators from the labor market. Figure 2 shows the unemployment rates for the United States as a whole and the Seventh District since 2008. The unemployment rate in the Seventh District improved considerably in 2014, falling from 7.3% in January to 5.8% in December and nearly closing the gap between the Seventh District and the rest of the country.


Looking beyond the unemployment rate, we can see in Figure 3 that other measures of labor underutilization also improved in 2014. The four-quarter moving average of the long-term unemployment rate fell from 4% in the first quarter of 2014 to 3.1% in the fourth quarter, while the share of workers who reported working part time for economic reasons fell from 4.9% to 4.3%. Unfortunately, both of these rates are still elevated. The long-term unemployment rate was 2% and the part time for economic reasons rate was 3.2% before the recession hit in 2008.


Finally, I look at payroll employment growth.[3] Figure 4 shows overall employment growth by quarter for the United States and the Seventh District states since 2008. The first quarter of 2014 was positive but weaker than the following three quarters, reflecting the pattern in the MEI. Overall, the Seventh District added about 345,000 jobs in 2014, the most in any year since the Great Recession.


Payroll employment data are disaggregated by industry, providing one way to understand the sources of growth in 2014. Table 1 shows growth rates for 11 top-level industries sorted by the percentage of overall employment they represent in the Seventh District. I also report each industry’s contribution to the overall growth rate, which is the industry growth rate multiplied by its proportion of total employment. The two largest contributors for the Seventh District are professional and business services and manufacturing, followed by construction and education and health services. Together these four industries contributed about two thirds of the employment growth in the Seventh District in 2014.


Next I take a closer look at the two biggest contributors, professional and business services and manufacturing. I start with manufacturing. There are four sub-industries that are large enough in all five District states for the payroll survey to be able to report them. These industries represent 54 percent of all manufacturing employment in the District. Transportation equipment (auto, aerospace, railroad, and ship) was easily the strongest performer, registering a 6% growth rate and contributing about 40% of all the employment growth in manufacturing.


The Professional and Business Services industry has three sub-industries that are large enough to be covered in the payroll survey. Table 3 shows solid growth for professional, scientific, and technical services as well as administrative and support services. It is important to note here that the administrative and support services industry includes labor services firms that contract out temporary workers. Many temporary workers end up at manufacturing firms, suggesting that manufacturing growth was actually stronger than the payroll data indicate.


The Seventh District economy did well in 2014. While we are still not at the point where we would consider the economy to be fully recovered from the Great Recession, the District made a lot of progress, and the strong finish to 2014 bodes well for 2015.

[1] The Seventh District is comprised of northern Illinois, northern Indiana, all of Iowa, the Lower Peninsula of Michigan, and southern Wisconsin. The analysis in this post uses data that cover the entirety of the five District states.

[2] The other sectors in the index are construction and mining, services, and consumer spending. A positive difference between the MEI and MEI manufacturing lines means that overall activity in the other sectors was above trend, while a negative difference means they were below trend.

[3] The payroll data come from a monthly survey of one third of businesses and are significantly revised once a year using the Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages, which covers the universe of businesses contributing to unemployment insurance. The data for 2014 have not been revised yet. To get as clear of an idea as possible of what the benchmarked data will be for 2014, I use a slightly modified version of the early benchmarking method described here.

The Contrasting Fortunes of Crop and Livestock Producers—A conference takeaway

On November 17, 2014, the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago held a conference which examined the role of farm income in the Midwest economy. (Check to see the agenda and download presentations.) The conference explored both the decline in agriculture’s role over the longer term and the marked increase in the level of agricultural income over the past decade. Within this context, an interesting aspect of the composition of farm income has been the battle between crop and livestock producers for the larger share of the value of agricultural production.

Over the past decade, there has been a shift in the relative balance between the crop and livestock sectors of agriculture. In only two years from 2002-13 did the production value of the livestock sector exceed that of the crop sector (see chart below). Yet, during the previous era, the sectors regularly traded places—every several years, if not annually— as the biggest source of production value for U.S. agriculture. Even earlier, until 1974, livestock producers held sway for decades as the top contributors to farm output.


What disrupted the long term hegemony of the livestock sector? In the periods of crop ascendency from 1974-77 and from 2007-13, there were sharp drops in the per capita consumption of meat and poultry in the U.S., as shown in a chart from Chris Hurt’s presentation (available from the conference website). The starts of these periods coincided with relatively deep recessions in the overall economy, which resulted in shifting food consumption patterns as household budgets shrank. In particular, the restaurant industry tends to suffer during recessions, pulling down meat consumption as well. Moreover, changing perceptions about the health of animal products has impacted meat consumption, particularly in recent decades.

Hurt, from Purdue University, went on to illustrate the see-saw effects of high feed costs on the livestock sector. Since feed is the largest cost of animal agriculture, sharply higher feed costs contributed to a decrease in the meat supply, as producers exit or trim their herds to minimize costs. With lower availability of animal products, the prices for these products move up over time to bring markets back toward equilibrium. This process was triggered around 2007 by the rising demand of corn for ethanol production and higher exports, particularly of soybeans to China. Of course, higher prices for corn and soybeans also pushed up the production value of crops, even as the production value of the livestock sector was dipping.

The most recent period of crop supremacy was also extended by drought. Persistent drought in certain regions of the country battered the livestock sector, especially cattle operations. With longer gestation times, cattle take longer to rebuild herds than for other animal breeds. The livestock sector was forced to cut output, not only from the lack of water but also from the subsequent spikes in feed costs (made worse by the drought of 2012 that impacted key corn and soybean production states in the Midwest). Soaring crop prices boosted their production value, even as crop output was cut due to drought. The crop sector was riding high from 2007 to 2013, but the bumper crops of 2013 and 2014 ended the ride.

In order to estimate farm incomes, the revenues from crop and livestock operations get combined to provide the value of agricultural production. Net farm income is a standard way to measure the size of returns from agricultural operations. Basically, net farm income equals the value of agricultural production and net government transactions minus purchased inputs, capital consumption, and payments to stakeholders. 1 The latest U.S. Department of Agriculture forecast of net farm income for 2013 was $126.5 billion for the nation, but net farm income was projected to fall to $96.9 billion for 2014. 2 This decline stemmed primarily from a drop in crop revenue of $33 billion, as crop price decreases more than offset increased yields from the fall harvest. However, revenue from animal production was expected to rise by $24 billion from 2013 to set a new record in 2014, as prices for many animal products moved higher. This would result in yet the latest reversal in the continuing saga of the fortunes of the livestock and crop sectors of U.S. agriculture.

Given the opposite movements of production value for the crop and livestock sectors, this decline in net farm income will have disparate effects across the Seventh District. The importance of livestock production varies a lot across the geography of the District. From Hurt’s calculations, the 2012 portion of farm production value from animals was 16% for Illinois, 31% for Indiana, 37% for Michigan, 44% for Iowa, and 65% for Wisconsin. With these very different intensities of animal agriculture, the downturn in income from crop farming will be offset to a greater extent in areas that see a boost from an increase in livestock income.

For additional highlights from the Chicago Fed conference on farm income and its impact on the Midwest economy, see the conference summary.

Detroit Association of Business Economists 2015 Annual Automotive Outlook

On January 22, 2015, the Detroit Association of Business Economists (DABE) held its annual Automotive Outlook Symposium at the Detroit Branch of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago. The event was attended by approximately 50 guests, including DABE members together with other local business leaders, academics, and media representatives. I was among the speakers, as was Peter Sweatman, director of the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI).

Sweatman was appointed UMTRI director in September 2004. UMTRI was created in 1965 with the main goal of improving vehicle safety and sustainable transportation in the U.S. and around the world. It currently has a staff of 102 full-time researchers, faculty, graduate students, and administrative staff affiliated with the University of Michigan, who have conducted over 1,000 research projects over the years. In its latest endeavor, UMTRI has created a public/private research and development partnership called the Michigan Mobility Transformation Center (MTC). The goal of the MTC is to be in the forefront of research and development of vehicle connectivity. This includes vehicle to vehicle (V2V) and vehicle to infrastructure (V2I) technology. As Sweatman pointed out, it’s not just about transportation but about safe and sustainable personal mobility that transcends just getting from one place to another. The vehicles of the future will free the occupants from many of the hands-on tasks and decision processes that are part of operating a vehicle today. By doing this, it is believed that the driving experience can be transformed into a much safer and more productive and enjoyable experience for the vehicle occupants. The major goal of the initiative is to make vehicles of the future much safer by adding technology that will aid in accidence avoidance. Vehicles will not only be able to communicate with one another, they will also be linked with their surrounding environment. For example, Sweatman explained that the connected vehicle (CV) technology could warn drivers before they reach areas of dangerous weather, poor visibility, or other hazardous road conditions. The vehicle could be programed to respond to these conditions on its own either by adjusting its speed or offering alternative routes or a truly autonomous vehicle could choose to take an alternative route on its own. If the driver were to decide to continue to travel on the perilous road, the CV would inform the driver of any accidents in path ahead immediately giving the driver or the vehicle time to adjust accordingly.

CV technology is in its infancy today, and there is still a lot of research and development to do before it can be implemented. To aid in this work, MTC has adopted a plan in collaboration with the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT). The plan has three pillars:

  1. Ann Arbor Connected Vehicle Test Environment (2014+)
  2. Southeast Michigan Connected Vehicle Deployment (2015+)
  3. Ann Arbor Automated Vehicle Field Operational Test (2016+).

Pillar 1 of the connected vehicles (CV) pilot deployment program commenced on August 21, 2012, and included a pilot deployment of 2,836 vehicles— cars, trucks, buses and motorcycles—equipped with wireless communication devices in the Ann Arbor area. This phase ran for six months and was extended for an additional three years by the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Pillar 2 will test the rationality of connected vehicles by implementing a jump from research to regional deployment. It will include 20,000 vehicles together with 500 infrastructure nodes located based on safety and congestion needs and the installation of 5,000 vehicle and pedestrian safety devices. The U.S. has invested approximately $1.0 billion dollars over a ten-year span for this research.

Pillar 3 will include an automated Ann Arbor, where a select group of industry and government partners will work together. This phase will include testing in a simulated city (M City) a $6.5 million 32-acre site located in Ann Arbor near the University of Michigan campus and is scheduled to open in July 2015.

The investment that has taken place so far is likely just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what will be needed to complete a national intelligent transportation system. Sweatman argued that if the needed investment is made to complete a national system, it will not only provide an opportunity for the U.S. to lead the world in developing a CV technical knowledge base, it will also lead to the creation of numerous high-tech jobs in Michigan and throughout the country.  For more information on this topic, follow some of the links provided in this article or on the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute website.

Following Dr. Sweatman’s presentation there was a short presentation summarizing the 2014 light vehicle industry. Here are some of the highlights from that presentation. There were 16.434 million light vehicles sold in the U.S. in 2014 making it the best year the industry had seen since 2006, when 16.504 million light vehicles were sold. Although job growth has been good in the auto industry, the pace of growth has slowed in conjunction with the slowing pace of growth in sales. As a result, the automotive and parts sector added 41,600 jobs in 2014, down slightly from the peak job growth year of 2012 when the industry added 59,600 jobs. Average hourly earnings of automotive manufacturing workers, which were flat for most of the period following the 2008 recession, grew only slightly in 2014, up just 0.5% when adjusting for inflation. According to data from J.D. Power and Associates, vehicle incentives as a percentage of total vehicle prices rose to 9.1% in 2014, while the average transaction price for a new vehicle grew to an estimated 56.7% of median household income. One of the more controversial developments of 2014 was the number of vehicles recalled. According to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, vehicle manufacturers recalled almost 64.0 million vehicles in 2014, the most ever reported. And, of course, the biggest story was the reduction in gasoline prices through the year, with the national average for a gallon of regular gasoline falling more than $1.10 from December 2013 to December 2014. This resulted in about $600 per year in fuel cost savings for the average driver. Looking ahead, there will be 16.9 million and 17.0 million light vehicles sold in the U.S. in 2015 and 2016, respectively, according to the Blue Chip Indicators consensus forecast. If you’d like to see more information or to view the entire presentation you may click here.

Seventh District Update, January 2015


A summary of economic conditions in the Seventh District from the latest release of the Beige Book and from other indicators of regional business activity:

  • Overall conditions: Growth in economic activity in the Seventh District remained moderate in December, and contacts expected growth to continue at a similar pace in 2015.
  • Consumer spending: Growth in consumer spending remained moderate. Holiday sales slightly exceeded expectations and light vehicle sales increased steadily.
  • Business Spending: Inventories were generally at comfortable levels and capital expenditures and spending plans continued to rise. Hiring increased and contacts expected job growth to continue in the coming year.
  • Construction and Real Estate: Demand for residential construction was little changed. Home prices and residential rents both increased, while the pace of home sales slowed. Nonresidential construction and commercial real estate activity increased moderately.
  • Manufacturing: The auto, aerospace, and energy industries remained a source of strength, though demand for energy production inputs was expected to slow. Steel production grew steadily, while demand for heavy machinery grew slowly.
  • Banking and finance: Credit conditions were little changed on balance. Market volatility stabilized and equity markets moved higher. Business loan demand was steady and consumer loan demand increased in line with expectations.
  • Prices and Costs: With the exception of falling energy prices, cost pressures were little changed. Wage pressures continued for skilled workers, but were less pronounced for unskilled workers. Non-wage labor costs changed little on balance.
  • Agriculture: Corn and wheat prices rose during the reporting period, while soybean prices were flat. Low crop prices led farmers to focus on minimizing costs instead of maximizing output in 2015, and ethanol margins compressed with the drop in oil prices.

The Midwest Economy Index (MEI) increased to +0.52 in November from +0.36 in October, remaining above average for the eighth straight month. The relative MEI rose to +0.72 in November from +0.35 in October, reaching its highest value in three years. November’s value for the relative MEI indicates that Midwest economic growth was moderately higher than would typically be suggested by the growth rate of the national economy.

Seventh District Update, December 2014


A summary of economic conditions in the Seventh District from the latest release of the Beige Book and from other indicators of regional business activity:

  • Overall conditions: Growth in economic activity in the Seventh District remained moderate in October and November. Contacts expressed optimism for the coming year, but were concerned about weakening foreign growth and the possibility of another severe winter.
  • Consumer spending: Growth in consumer spending was moderate. Non-auto retailers had a positive outlook for the holiday season and auto sales and leasing activity remained strong.
  • Business Spending: Inventories were at comfortable levels, capital expenditures and spending plans continued to rise, and actual hiring and hiring plans continued to increase at a moderate pace.
  • Construction and Real Estate: Residential construction rose, and home sales picked up more than expected. Nonresidential construction and commercial real estate activity increased moderately.
  • Manufacturing: The auto, aerospace, and energy industries remained a source of strength. Steel production grew steadily, while demand for heavy machinery grew slowly. Manufacturers of construction building materials reported an increase in shipments.
  • Banking and finance: Credit conditions were little changed on balance. Equity market volatility increased in mid-October and then declined. Business loan demand was mixed, and consumer loan demand increased.
  • Prices and Costs: Energy and steel prices declined, but transportation costs increased for many contacts. Retail prices were little changed. Wage pressures continued for skilled workers, but were less pronounced for unskilled workers. Non-wage labor costs changed little.
  • Agriculture: The District harvest was behind, but yields should still set records. Corn, soybean, wheat, and cattle prices moved up, while milk and hog prices declined.

The Midwest Economy Index (MEI) decreased to +0.36 in October from +0.46 in September, but remained above average for the seventh straight month. The relative MEI moved down to +0.33 in October from +0.43 in September. October’s value for the relative MEI indicates that Midwest economic growth was somewhat higher than would typically be suggested by the growth rate of the national economy.

Chicago City Trends

By Bill Sander and Bill Testa

The fortunes of the city of Chicago have become clouded in recent years as concerns over its weakening finances and heavy debt obligations have grown. The tally for the unfunded public employee debt obligations of Chicago’s overlapping units of local governments (including those for public schools, parks, and county services) is now approaching $30 billion. Moreover, the city government has been criticized for its practices of funding current public services with proceeds from the issuance of long-term debt and the long-term leases of public assets (such as its parking meter system). However, faith in Chicago’s ability to address its debts has not fallen so far as that in Detroit’s, chiefly because the Windy City’s economic trends display more vibrancy.

Population change is a prominent indicator of the health of an urban economy because it reflects a city’s ability to hold on to its residents (as opposed to losing them to the suburbs or other locales). Over the past few decades, similar to other central cities, Chicago has experienced an erosion in its population share of the broader metropolitan statistical area (MSA);[1] in contrast, the surrounding suburbs have seen their share climb. According to the U.S. Census, Chicago held 38% of the MSA’s population in 1980, with this share falling to 35% by 1990; in the subsequent 20 years, Chicago’s population share of the MSA decreased another 3 percentage points per decade, reaching 29% by 2010 (see table below). During the 1980–2010 period, Chicago lost a total of over 300,000 residents. At the same time, suburban Chicago gained close to 2 million in population. Since 2010, the city of Chicago’s population and population share of the MSA have strengthened somewhat, though the (off-Census year) estimates are probably not as reliable.

While population trends can be telling for a city’s prospects, they can also belie changes in its residents’ wealth and income. Despite the city of Chicago’s population loss over the past few decades, its economic trends have been generally more encouraging.[2] Household income is an important indicator of Chicago’s fortunes relative to those of its suburbs. In 1990, median household income in the city was just 67% of the median household income in suburban Chicago. By 2010, this income ratio had climbed to 73% (see table below). Decomposing household income statistics by (self-reported) racial/ethnic group reveals that this trend was pervasive for the three largest groups: non-Hispanic white, black, and Hispanic. The ratio of city median income to suburban median income among white households experienced the greatest change; it rose from 77% in 1990 to 98% (near parity) in 2010.

These robust trends are echoed by Chicago’s rising share of adults aged 25 and older who have attained at least a bachelor’s degree. In 1990, among adults aged 25 and older, 19% of those residing in the city had attained a four-year college degree versus 28% of those residing in the suburbs (see table below). By 2010, Chicagoans in this age demographic had almost reached the same share in this regard as their suburban counterparts (33% for city residents versus 35% for suburban residents). The non-Hispanic whites again experienced the greatest change among the three largest racial/ethnic groups. In 1990, 29% of the white city population aged 25 and older had a four-year college degree—the same percentage as the white suburban population in this age demographic; however, by 2010, 55% of such white city dwellers had a bachelor’s degree, while 39% of their white suburbanite counterparts did. Between 1990 and 2010, the city’s black population also made substantial gains in education, as evidenced by the share of black adults aged 25 and older with a bachelor’s degree having risen from 11% to 17%.

By “drilling down” through the data to examine specific neighborhoods, we can see how geographically concentrated the city’s gains in college-educated adults aged 25 and older have been. These gains have been highly concentrated in Chicago’s central business district (“the Loop”) and the surrounding areas, as well as the neighborhoods west of Chicago’s northern lakeshore. As shown in the table below, dramatic gains in the college-educated population were seen in the Loop and the neighborhoods just south, west, and north of it. For example, the Near South Side saw an increase in the share of adults with a four-year college degree climb from 9% in 1980 to 68% in 2010. No less dramatic were such gains in Chicago’s neighborhoods west of its northern lakeshore: The shares of the college-educated population there typically doubled or tripled between 1980 and 2010 (in the case of the North Center neighborhood, this share increased sixfold—from 11% in 1980 to 66% in 2010).

As one might expect, many college-educated Chicago residents work in proximity to their residence. Of those living in the Central Area and Mid-North Lakefront, an estimated 57% work in the Central Area of Chicago and 79% work somewhere in the city.[3] Of those who do work in the Central Area, an estimated 19% travel to work by driving alone (as opposed to walking, public transit, bike, and carpooling); this percentage is much smaller than the nearly 70% of metropolitan Chicago workers who travel to work by driving alone.[4] The trends highlighted thus far point to the fact that the city of Chicago draws and retains many jobs. By one count, the city of Chicago’s Central Area is the domicile of over half a million jobs. As seen below, job counts in the Central Area have remained fairly constant over the past 13 years, even while job levels in the remainder of the city and in the remainder of Cook County have been falling.

Meanwhile, compensation levels per job have continued to climb in Chicago’s Central Area, reflecting a work force with greater skills and education. Annual compensation per worker on the payroll in Chicago’s Central Area exceeds that of the overall MSA by 50%.

Many of the trends shown here bode well for the city of Chicago, despite the fiscal challenges it currently faces. To be sure, many large central cities in the Midwest, including Detroit, are experiencing strong growth of both jobs and households centered around their central areas and downtowns. In this, the central Chicago area enjoys a strong start. ________________________________________

[1] Current and historical delineations of MSAs are available at (Return to text)

[2] This is not to say that all parts of the city have been on the economic upswing. Several Chicago neighborhoods have seen severe deterioration in wealth and income, as well as in living conditions, as evidenced by increasing incidences of homelessness and crime in certain areas in the past few decades; see, e.g., (Return to text)

[3] This statement covers 113,000 workers living in these areas as of the year 2000. Estimates were pulled from and are based on the Census Transportation Planning Package (CTPP), “which is a special tabulation of the decennial U.S. Census for transportation planners” and “contains detailed tabulations on the characteristics of workers at their place of residence (‘part 1’), at their place of work (‘part 2’), and on work trip flows between home and work (‘part 3’)” (see Workers who work at home are excluded. See also; this report ranks Chicago second among major U.S. cities in terms of the percentage of residents living within one mile of downtown who work downtown (figure 3 in the report), and ranks Chicago first in terms of population growth in the downtown area over the period 2000–10 (figure 4 in the report). (Return to text)

[4]Estimates are from and are based on the Census Transportation Planning Package (CTPP). (Return to text)

A Seventh District Labor Market Dashboard

In March 2013, Federal Reserve Board Chair Janet Yellen (then Vice Chair) gave a speech where she discussed the centrality of labor market conditions in the Fed’s decision-making process. The most often discussed indicator of labor market conditions is the unemployment rate, but in this speech and others since,1 Chair Yellen has said that she tracks a number of other labor market indicators as well. This broader set of indicators is now widely referred to as Chair Yellen’s Labor Market Dashboard. The dashboard serves to show that while the unemployment rate has been improving steadily since the depths of the Great Recession, many other labor market indicators have made less progress, and few have returned to where they were prior to the Great Recession.

In this blog post, I look at indicators on Chair Yellen’s dashboard, with a focus on how they measure the Midwest economy. The set of indicators I’ve compiled tell a story quite similar for the Midwest to that for the United States as a whole. While conditions in the Midwest have steadily improved since the depths of the Great Recession, things are not back to normal yet.

Household Survey Measures. Figure 1, panel A shows the unemployment rates for the United States and the Seventh Federal Reserve District2 since 2000. The two rates track each other closely, though there are some notable differences. First, the unemployment rate was somewhat higher in the District before the recession that hit in 2008. Figure 1, panel B shows that the unemployment rate in Michigan was particularly high during this period, largely because of struggles in the auto industry. Second, in terms of unemployment, the District did worse than the nation during the depths of the recession, though it caught up by 2011 as manufacturing recovered. Finally, the District’s unemployment rate again diverged from the nation’s in 2012, but by now it has nearly closed the gap.

1 - Unemployment

A key feature of the unemployment rate is that to be counted as unemployed, an individual without a job must be actively looking for work. Those who report that they are not working and not actively looking for work in the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ (BLS) Current Population Survey, or the household survey as it’s commonly called, are not considered unemployed. Thus, the unemployment rate can decrease because people give up looking for work, not because they find a job. For this reason (and to provide greater detail), the BLS publishes what it calls alternative measures of labor market underutilization. I take these alternative measures and break them down into five comparable rates.3 Each rate is a percentage of the labor force plus marginally attached workers. The rates are as follows:

  1. Short-term unemployed: people unemployed for fewer than 15 weeks.
  2. Long-term unemployed: people unemployed for 15 weeks or more.
  3. Marginally attached: people who want to work and have looked for work in the last 12 months, but not in the last four weeks.
  4. Discouraged: marginally attached workers who are not looking for work because they believe there are no jobs available or none for which they would qualify.
  5. Part time for economic reasons: workers who are employed part time but would like to be employed full time.

2 - Under_usdi

Figure 2 presents the five measures for the United States and the Seventh District. The measures are 12-month moving averages, so trend movements show up later than in figure 1. The bottom, darkest blue area represents the short-term unemployed. Many people in this group are between jobs or will find work without ever being long-term unemployed. Aside from a blip in 2009, this measure has been steady at around 3.5 percent for the United States and 3.7 percent for the District. The story is much different for the long-term unemployed. There was a substantial increase when the Great Recession hit, and the rate remains elevated today, for both the United States and the District. The same is true for marginal workers (discouraged and not discouraged) and part-time workers who would like to have full-time work.

Figure 3 breaks the District’s unemployment and underutilization rates down by state. Each state has a different baseline. Before the recession, Iowa and Wisconsin had the lowest rates in the District, while Michigan had the highest. Despite the differences in labor market structure highlighted by the different baselines, no state has returned to its pre-recession unemployment and underutilization levels.

3 - Under_dist

The BLS’s household survey provides two additional measures that account for the possibility that the unemployment rate can go down even if labor market conditions don’t improve. The two measures are benchmarked by the overall (working-age) population (specifically, noninstitutional civilians age 16 and over) so that people who leave the labor force are still counted. The disadvantage of benchmarking by the population is that people may not be in the labor force for reasons unrelated to difficulty finding work, such as to attend school, to have a family, or to retire.

The first measure of these two additional BLS measures is the labor force participation rate, which is the number of people in the labor force as a percentage of the population. The second measure is the employment-to-population ratio, which (as you may guess) is the number of employed people as a percentage of the population. Figures 4 and 5 show the measures since 2000 for the United States, the District, and the District states. There is a downward trend in both measures, which largely reflects an aging population. Given the trends, it is possible to spot cyclical movements as well. There is clear upward movement over the housing bubble years and clear downward movement over the recession. It is difficult to discern visually where the measures are relative to trend, but recent research by Chicago Fed economists suggests that they are currently below the trend.4

4&5 - LFP&EtoP

Business Survey Measures. The BLS surveys households to obtain the unemployment rate (and related indicators) and it surveys businesses to obtain their employment levels, openings, turnover, and costs. The most widely discussed indicator from BLS surveys of businesses is payroll employment growth. Figure 6, panel A shows quarterly payroll growth for the United States and the District since the onset of the Great Recession. I’ve scaled the District growth numbers to be as if the District and the nation had the same baseline employment levels.5 Like the unemployment rate, employment growth numbers for the United States and the District are generally in sync, with some notable exceptions. The growth numbers show that the District did worse than the nation during the recession, over 2012, and in the first quarter of 2014, when the District experienced especially harsh winter weather. Figure 6, panel B breaks down employment growth by state. As usual, Michigan is noteworthy. While Michigan was hit hard during the recession, the subsequent strong recovery of the auto industry made important contributions to District employment growth, especially during 2012, when the other states were struggling.

6 - Employment

The BLS also asks businesses about their employment turnover, and figure 7 shows three such measures.6 Panel A is the ratio of the number of unemployed workers to the number of job openings that businesses report; panel B is the number of new hires as a percentage of overall employment; and panel C is the number of quits as a percentage of overall employment. Once again, movements in the United States and Midwest are closely related, though the Midwest was doing somewhat worse before the recent recession. Each measure has a clear cyclical component. Taking the pre-recession period as a baseline, the rate of unemployed per job opening is now close to normal (the Midwest’s rate is slightly closer to normal than the nation’s). The hires and quits rates have not yet fully recovered, but have been growing at a strong pace since the middle of 2013. The quits rate, in particular, tends to be a leading indicator of improvement in labor market conditions, as people are more likely to leave their current positions when their job prospects elsewhere are improving.7

7 - Jolts

The BLS also asks businesses about their employment costs, which are driven in large part by wages. Figure 8 shows two indexes of wage growth for the Midwest states (see note 5) and the United States. Panel A is nominal wage growth, panel B is wage growth adjusted for inflation. Taken together, the panels show that while wage growth has consistently been positive, it has not consistently been above inflation (periods of real wage growth are often followed by periods of real wage decline). This reflects a long trend of slow real wage growth for all but the highest wage earners.

8 - Wages

Figure 9 shows that the quits rate and nominal wage growth move together quite closely in both the United States and the Midwest. Figure 9 also shows that nominal wage growth during the recovery has underperformed a bit relative to the quits rate. This may be a sign that wage growth will pick up in the future.

9 - QtsWge

Taken as a whole, this labor market dashboard indicates that while the U.S. and District labor markets continue to recover from the Great Recession, they are still not back to normal. The employment turnover numbers are the most promising, and they may well lead the other indicators I’ve highlighted. The labor market is clearly headed toward full recovery, but the amount of time it will take to get there remains unclear.

  1. See for example, Chair Yellen’s first press conference and her August 2014 speech at Jackson Hole.
  2. The Seventh District comprises all of Iowa and most of Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin.
  3. For details on how I calculated the rates, please contact me at
  4. See the Explaining the Decline in the U.S. Labor Force Participation Rate by Aaronson, Davis, and Hu and Estimating the Trend in Employment Growth by Aaronson and Brave.
  5. Specifically, for each quarter, I calculated the ratio of U.S. employment to District employment and multiplied District employment growth by that factor. U.S. employment is roughly eight times District employment.
  6. Note that these measures are not available at the state level; the smallest geographic area for which these measures are available is the Census Region. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the Midwest region comprises the following states: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, and Wisconsin.
  7. See Labor Market Flows in the Cross Section and Over Time by Davis, Faberman, and Haltiwanger.

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