How Tight is Michigan’s Labor Market?

By Martin Lavelle

Michigan’s labor market continues to recover from the Great Recession that ran from December 2007 through June 2009 and its own recession that started four years prior to that. Michigan’s unemployment rate peaked at 14.9% in June 2009, coinciding with the end of the Great Recession. Since that time, Michigan’s unemployment rate has dropped steadily, reaching 4.5% in August 2016. The last time Michigan’s unemployment rate was this low was in January 2001, just before the much shorter and milder 2001 recession. (1)

While Michigan’s current labor market expansion isn’t the longest in its history, (2) the fact that the state’s unemployment rate is now lower than that of the nation makes one wonder how much longer it can last. The superior performance of Michigan’s Southeast and Western Michigan Purchasing Managers indexes relative to the U.S. measures and recent indications that auto sales may have plateaued also imply that Michigan’s labor market expansion may be near a turning point. This blog examines some of Michigan’s labor market indicators to assess whether Michigan’s labor market is at or near “full employment.”

Chart: Unemployment Rates, Annual Averages: U.S., Michigan
Source: Author’s calculations using data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The chart above shows the annual averages of the U.S. and Michigan unemployment rates, respectively. Since 1976, Michigan’s unemployment rate has generally been higher than that of the U.S., especially during the Great Recession and the severe 1981–82 recession. The two instances in which Michigan’s unemployment rate fell below that of the U.S. came during the mid to late 1990s and in recent months. The fluctuation in Michigan’s unemployment rate helps to show the cyclical nature of the state’s economy, driven by the manufacturing sector, specifically the automotive industry. The lows in Michigan’s unemployment rate came during boom times for the automotive industry and the highs came during rough times. Light vehicle sales volumes hit all-time highs last year and are just below those levels year-to-date in 2016. The majority of auto analysts feel that light vehicle sales will continue to slightly fall off of their 2015 highs in the next couple of years. With the automotive industry having peaked, does that mean Michigan’s labor market has peaked as well?

Historically, another sign of a tightening labor market are increasing wages and salaries. The chart below plots the unemployment rate versus workers’ total wage and salary income in the state.

Chart: Annual Wage & Salary Growth vs. Annual Average Unemployment Rate: Michigan
Sources: Author’s calculations using data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis and Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Over the past 40 years, changes in wage and salary income have led changes in the unemployment rate. Michigan’s unemployment rate reached its previous low in 2000, a few years after the rate of growth in wage and salary income peaked. Wage and salary income growth in Michigan bottomed out in 2008, the year before Michigan’s unemployment rate peaked. As Michigan’s unemployment rate decreased after the Great Recession, wage and salary income consistently increased, accelerating in the last two years following some slowing in 2012–13. The pace of wage and salary growth edged higher in 2015 versus 2014, signaling further tightening in Michigan’s labor market. Despite the increase in wages and salaries, however, data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis show that per capita income in Michigan remains about 12% below the national average. Since 1980, per capita income in Michigan has typically been lower than in the U.S. as a whole.

When looking at wage pressures by sector, the story becomes more muddled. The chart below examines the year-over-year percentage change in wage pressures in select employment sectors in Michigan.

Chart: Average Hourly Earnings of Michigan Production Employees by Employment Sector, Year/Year Percentage Change, Not Seasonally Adjusted
Source: Author’s calculations using data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Michigan’s manufacturing sector, especially the automotive sector, led the state into the recovery it currently enjoys. However, after increasing in 2010, wages started to fall during 2011 and into 2012 as the new labor contract with the United Auto Workers (UAW) that created a lower, 2nd tier of wage ranges took effect. (3) After rebounding in 2013–15, wages are lower thus far in 2016 than in 2015, possibly because of the 2015 UAW contract that created a lower starting point for entry-level full-time workers. (4) Plateauing production volumes as light vehicle sales level off may also be a reason for lower wages in 2016.

Some sectors do support the full employment argument with their accelerations in recent months. Since the latter half of 2015, wages have moved higher in the construction and professional and business sectors, respectively. Labor shortages in building construction and within the engineering and information technology fields of the professional and business services sector have helped to create conditions for higher, more competitive wages. Wage increases have persisted in the retail trade sector since 2013. Competitive pressures from McDonalds and Walmart, as well as legislatively mandated increases in Michigan’s minimum wage, have contributed to higher wages in the retail sector. (5)

When a labor market tightens, it also means workers are increasingly hard to find. One unique characteristic of the current labor market recovery is the elevated level of those working part-time for economic reasons or involuntary part-time workers. The chart below shows what percentage of the labor force is comprised of involuntary part-time workers.

Chart: Part-Time Employment as a Percentage of Labor Force, 4-quarter moving average: U.S., Michigan
Sources: Author’s calculations using data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

As labor markets expand, the percentage of the labor force that is working part-time falls. In Michigan and the U.S., the percentage of the labor force that is working part-time continues to be higher than during the previous labor market expansion. Interestingly, the difference between the part-time segments of the labor force in Michigan and the U.S. has shrunk after widening in the months leading up to and the year after the conclusion of the Great Recession. Another interesting point is that the gap between Michigan’s current percentage of the labor force that is working part-time and the percentage working part-time in the 2000s is narrower relative to the U.S. This could mean one of two things. One possibility is part-time workers in Michigan are finding increasing success in gaining full-time employment. An alternative possibility is part-time employment was elevated during the 2000s and Michigan’s one-state recession. Therefore, part-time employment as a percentage of the labor force would have been expected to fall since the mid-2000s.

In a tightening labor market, those who found themselves unemployed for a long period of time should find their way back into the workforce. The chart below looks at the percentage of the labor force that was unemployed longer than 15 weeks.

Chart: Unemployed Civilians for longer than 15 weeks as a Percentage of Labor Force, 4-quarter moving average: U.S., Michigan
Sources: Author’s calculations using data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Mirroring the previous chart, Michigan had a greater percentage of its labor force unemployed for more than 15 weeks than the U.S., most likely a result of Michigan’s recession in the previous decade. After peaking in the 2nd quarter of 2010, the percentage of Michigan’s labor force unemployed for more than 15 weeks fell and now equals that of the U.S. Are more previously long-term unemployed workers finding work or are they dropping out of the labor force altogether? Looking at the next chart, which shows the labor force participation rates of the U.S. and Michigan, respectively, we see that Michigan has seen a higher net increase off its lows than the U.S.

Chart: Labor Force Participation Rates: U.S., Michigan
Source: Haver Analytics/Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Finally, what about discouraged workers? If a labor market is tightening, the number of discouraged workers should be decreasing. The chart below shows discouraged workers as a percentage of the labor force in the U.S. and Michigan, respectively.

Chart: Discouraged Workers as a Percentage of Labor Force, 4-quarter moving average: U.S., Michigan
Source: Author’s calculations using data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Again, the same dynamics are in play from 2003 through the end of the Great Recession, with Michigan’s labor market relatively worse off because of its one-state recession. As shown in the previous chart, the gap between Michigan and the U.S. converged and is now all but eliminated. The current percentage of Michigan’s labor force that consists of discouraged workers equals that seen during the mid-2000s, whereas the U.S. hasn’t reached mid-2000s levels yet.

A strong argument can be made that Michigan’s labor market is at full employment. The unemployment rate is currently below that of the U.S. and nearing historical lows. Also, wage and salary growth is at its highest in almost 20 years, labor force participation is off its post-recession lows, and data focused on the marginally attached to the labor force in different ways indicate those numbers are near or at trend. Some anecdotal reports support the argument as well. Multiple firms have instituted significant wage and salary increases in order to keep their most talented employees, while others are giving prospective employees a second look after rejecting their original job inquiry. Finally, with the auto industry operating at peak production levels and historically high sales levels and the state still significantly dependent on the auto industry, Michigan’s robust labor demand growth may be coming to an end.

(1) We are addressing labor market tightness here, not growth rates, not restoration of past levels of labor force size. Out-sized outmigration of working age population in response to the state’s prolonged downturn in the last decade is being held in the background.
(2) Based on BLS data going back to 1976.
(3) See
(4) See
(5) See

Summit on Revisiting the Promise and Problems of Inner City Economic Development, Day 1: Setting the Stage by Focusing on Detroit

by Martin Lavelle, business economist


In partnership with, the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, Economic Development Quarterly, SAGE Publications and the Initiative for a Competitive Inner City (ICIC), the Detroit Branch of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago hosted a two-day summit on September 15–16, 2015, that studied ongoing economic development efforts within inner city neighborhoods. Experts from academia joined practitioners to discuss new research and programs that have appeared and evolved in recent years. In this blog entry, I will focus on the first day of the summit, which zeroed in on Detroit and its revitalization efforts.

Putting Detroit into Context

William Sander, professor of economics, DePaul University, and consultant, Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, and William Testa, vice president and director of regional research, Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, began the conference by providing insight into Detroit’s population and economy, respectively. Sander noted that in the middle of the twentieth century, many large cities in the United States started to lose population to surrounding suburban communities. Detroit was no exception to this trend: It had lost around two-thirds of its population since the 1950s. However, many cities have begun to grow in recent years, becoming increasingly attractive to college-educated households; this improvement in the business environment helps attract individual firms, supporting the assertion of Harvard economist Michael Porter that cities are ideal locations for industry clusters and other economic activities.(1)

According to Sander, despite the recent movement of some college graduates into Detroit’s trendy Downtown and Midtown neighborhoods, college graduates only make up 12% of Detroit’s population, compared with 34% in Chicago. Then, Sander pointed out that only 10% of 20-something college graduates in the Detroit metropolitan area live in the city of Detroit and that 22% of 20-something college graduates who live in Detroit also work in Detroit. Sander shared his statistical comparison of Chicago and Detroit, which found that households in the Chicago metropolitan area are more likely to live within the city limits than households in the Detroit region. Also, college graduates in Chicagoland are more likely to live in the city than in the suburbs, whereas the opposite is true for college graduates in Metro Detroit.

Testa showed the significant stress Detroit’s economy was exposed to during the 2000s. Similar to other manufacturing-centric cities, such as Pittsburgh, Buffalo, and Cleveland, Detroit experienced slower overall employment growth relative to other Midwest cities that possess more of a service-based economy. However, despite its losing millions of units of production in recent years to other vehicle-producing areas, Detroit (and Michigan in general) remains a destination for automakers and suppliers because of its concentration of facilities and talent. Although the Detroit region will most likely continue to contain a significant automotive cluster, employment levels will most likely fail to reach 2000 levels because of firms’ ability to produce more with fewer workers.

Testa argued that the Detroit economy needs to continue building on its automotive cluster while also diversifying into other sectors in which it may own competitive advantages. Those other sectors include logistics, engineering, and business services. Testa noted that multiple regional economic development corporations are trying to take advantage of Detroit’s growing tech sector in ways that other regions and states have for themselves (e.g., Silicon Valley). Such efforts have resulted in improved per capita income and quality of life for residents.

Current State of the City

Summit attendees also heard from Susan Mosey, executive director, Midtown Detroit, Inc., Martin Lavelle, business economist, Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago–Detroit Branch, and John Gallagher from the Detroit Free Press on where Detroit currently stands in its revitalization attempts. All of them expressed great enthusiasm for the efforts that have taken place so far, as well as optimism for what’s to come. Since Detroit filed for bankruptcy in July 2013, a regional lighting authority was formed and began to replace old streetlights with new LEED(2) streetlights, a regional water & sewer department authority was formed to improve the efficiency of water/sewer operations, emergency response times have improved,(3) new transit buses were purchased,(4) and programs to address Detroit’s aging housing stock(5) and blight(6) were introduced.

Significant investment was already occurring in Detroit’s Midtown neighborhood before Detroit filed for bankruptcy, and it has only accelerated since. Mosey showed the different kinds of development projects that have been completed and those now in the planning stage. Until recent months, Midtown Detroit, Inc., has focused on renovating existing space into mixed-use properties with retail space on the ground floor and residential space above it. With residential occupancy rates at almost 100% and consumer demand still high, new building projects such as businessman Dan Gilbert’s planned Brush Park project(7) are set to take off, Mosey noted.

icic_lavelle image 2Image 1: Chicago Fed Business Economist Martin Lavelle presenting at the Summit. Photo taken by Bill Testa.

Still, as I noted at the conference, Detroit’s revitalization efforts must overcome many challenges. The investment taking place in Detroit is occurring in only select neighborhoods. The majority of Detroit’s neighborhoods are plagued by low home values, which dissuade potential new residents from moving into them. Also, concerns over the quality of public services and schools remain deterrents to population increases. Another hindrance is the absence of a more extensive, intermodal public transportation system that would better serve and connect Detroit residents with potential places of employment and the surrounding area in general.

Detroit: Up Close and Personal

One of the attractions of the summit was the chance for attendees to take a tour of some of Detroit’s areas. Along with representatives of Midtown Detroit, Inc., the Chicago Fed‘s Detroit Branch staff (including Desiree Hatcher, community development and Michigan director, Community Development and Policy Studies Division; Paul Traub, senior business economist; and Martin Lavelle, business economist) guided the tour around Detroit and provided greater insights into Detroit’s turnaround.

The bus tour highlighted Detroit’s cluster activity, including the food cluster present in Detroit’s Eastern Market where the tour stopped first. Dan Carmody, president, Eastern Market Corporation, expounded on how Eastern Market’s role in the city’s rebound continues to grow. Tour goers learned about Eastern Market’s initiative to provide healthy foods (especially for students) and food education, as well as its continued promotion of local food entrepreneurs. Tour goers also learned about Eastern Market’s involvement in projects such as the extension of the Dequindre Cut bikeway and other infrastructure improvements that will better connect the market with other parts of Detroit.

icic_carmody image 1Image 2: Eastern Market Corporation President Dan Carmody presenting during the Summit’s Tour of Detroit. Photo taken by Bill Testa.

After leaving Eastern Market, the tour got a closer look at areas where investment is occurring. Attendees were able to see some of the finished and proposed projects in Midtown that Mosey highlighted in her earlier presentation. One highlight of the Midtown tour was the TechTown campus that now supports Detroit’s automotive and logistics clusters as well as the efforts to bring back Detroit’s main retail corridors. Upon leaving Midtown, the tour made its way to the historic Boston-Edison neighborhood—an area that has rebounded significantly since it was marked as a “demonstration zone” for concentrated revitalization efforts in 2011 by then-Detroit Mayor Dave Bing. (8)

icic_traub image 3Image 3: Senior Business Economist Paul Traub describing the current state of Detroit during the tour. Photo taken by Bill Testa.

The final part of the tour reminded attendees of the challenges that Detroit’s revitalization efforts face. Tour attendees were exposed to neighborhoods where little to no investment has occurred, resulting in blight, low population density, and poor infrastructure. Attendees also saw marks of Metro Detroit’s sometimes scarred past when division and discrimination overshadowed attempts at regional collaboration. The tour ended with a drive down Jefferson Avenue along the Detroit River, which provided tour goers the opportunity to see the Jefferson-Chalmers neighborhood (which has benefited from burgeoning investment) as well as the beautiful Detroit Riverwalk. Overall, the tour showed the progress of Detroit’s turnaround, as well as the challenges that must be met if the city’s stakeholders want to continue its revitalization.


Based on Michael Porter’s criteria for inner cities, Detroit could be regarded as a developing economy because of its low local skill levels, limited access to capital, shortcomings in technology, poorly developed public service departments, and engagement in monopolistic behavior, which retarded cluster development.(9) In addition, using Porter’s work, one could argue Detroit’s economy possesses many competitive disadvantages, which include the aforementioned attributes as well as the city’s poor quality of infrastructure and attitudes concerning the city.(10)

However, Detroit is beginning to reverse its competitive disadvantages, as the presentations at the summit and the tour of the city showed. Detroit’s Downtown and Midtown neighborhoods have become strategic locations in which to conduct business. Moreover, Detroit’s industry clusters increasingly interact with other regional clusters, overcoming past regional rivalries. Also, city government has become less of an impediment to cluster development, encouraging and convening forums to engage in dialogue that centers on improving Detroit—as Porter has recommended for other developing economies.(11)

The overarching goal of the first day of the summit was to show the Detroit as it actually is today. As evident from the summit discussions and the tour, many parts of Detroit are trending upward, generating much enthusiasm for the city’s prospects following its emergence from bankruptcy. However, city stakeholders must confront numerous persistent challenges in order for the entire city to enjoy what’s transpiring in those particular neighborhoods.

(1) See
(2) LEED stands for Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design, and is a green building certification program.
(3) See
(4) See
(5) See
(6) See
(7) See
(8) See
(9) See Michael E. Porter, 1998, “Clusters and competition: New agendas for companies, governments, and institutions,” Harvard Business School, working paper, No. 98-080, March, p. 24.
(10) See p. 61–65 of
(11) See Porter (1998, p. 34).

Recap of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago’s 29th Annual Economic Outlook Symposium

By Martin Lavelle

On December 4, 2015, the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago hosted its 29th annual Economic Outlook Symposium (EOS). The EOS allows economists, business leaders, financial analysts, and other experts to gather and share their respective views on the U.S. economy and individual sectors especially important to the Midwest economy. Also, EOS participants are given the chance to submit their respective projections for the year ahead. These projections are subsequently used to come up with a consensus (median) forecast for real gross domestic product (GDP) and related items.
This blog entry is a summary of what was presented at the latest EOS. For a more in-depth look into what was presented, please click here to read the Chicago Fed Letter for the event. Most of the presentations that were delivered during the EOS can be found here.

• 2015 forecast review: Real GDP growth in 2015 was slightly weaker than expected in the consensus outlook from the previous EOS held in December 2014. Growth in real personal consumption expenditures was slightly higher than anticipated, partly because of stronger than expected growth in light vehicle sales. However, real business fixed investment grew at a significantly slower rate than predicted. New home construction just missed forecasted activity levels. The unemployment rate was lower than originally projected, while inflation (as measured by the Consumer Price Index) came in well below the predicted rate.

• Outlook for consumer spending: According to Scott Brown (Raymond James & Associates), consumer spending is forecasted to slightly decelerate in 2016 in part because of headwinds from rising energy prices (he expected oil prices to average around $50 per barrel by year-end). The pace of job growth has been strong, but is expected to moderate this year.

• Outlook for financial services: Brown also noted that credit conditions are fairly tight, but they should ease. The (then-anticipated) interest rate hike in December by the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC)—the Federal Reserve’s monetary policymaking arm—shouldn’t dampen lending for a while, Brown said.

• Auto industry outlook: According to Yen Chen (Center for Automotive Research), U.S. light vehicle sales and production are expected to peak in 2018 (at around 18.6 million units and 12.2 million units, respectively) before falling slightly. Auto loan debt is expected to surpass student loan debt as the highest form of household debt, excluding mortgage and home equity debt, over the coming years. Meanwhile, Mexican light vehicle production capacity is expected to increase by over 2 million units in the next seven years largely because of lower labor costs (thereby reducing the U.S. share of North American production).

• Steel industry outlook: Robert DiCianni (ArcelorMittal USA) indicated that U.S. steel consumption is projected to modestly increase in 2016, based on his analysis of several steel-intensive sectors of the economy. For instance, the pace of growth in residential construction is expected to accelerate, while year-over-year growth in nonresidential construction is anticipated to level off. Moreover, both U.S. auto sales and North American auto production in 2016 should be similar to their respective levels in 2015. Global steel consumption is expected to increase slightly in 2016 after decreasing last year. The slowdown in Chinese steel consumption has been a major factor in the decelerating rate of global steel consumption in the past few years.

• Heavy machinery outlook: Glenn Zetek (Komatsu America Corp.) stated that U.S. demand for earth-moving equipment is at healthy levels, though demand has slowed significantly in states where energy production had been intense over the past few years. Equipment demand for single-family residential and transportation projects is expected to increase in 2016. But heavy machinery demand for nonresidential projects should moderate this year; the prospects for equipment demand to complete such projects look more promising over the next couple of years, as nonresidential fixed investment is expected to move up moderately and equipment usage is near its mid-2000s peak. Equipment usage for mining, energy, and rental needs are predicted to decrease.

• State and local government debt outlook: According to John Mousseau (Cumberland Advisors), municipal bond yields for the highest-rated securities with maturities greater than ten years are higher than comparable U.S. Treasury bonds—the opposite of what’s normal. Even with Detroit’s bankruptcy and other cities’ and states’ latest financial struggles, municipal bond quality generally remains higher than corporate bond quality. Interest rate increases won’t be terrible for issuers of municipal bonds because historically, municipal bond yield increases failed to match the size of federal funds rate increases.

Conclusion: 2016 economic outlook

According to the latest EOS consensus outlook, U.S. real GDP growth in 2016 is expected to increase slightly above its historical trend. Inventory levels are expected to rise at a slower pace. Residential investment is projected to rise at a strong pace, with slow and steady improvement predicted in new home construction. Growth in business fixed investment should continue at a decent pace, with moderate growth anticipated in industrial output. The dollar is estimated to slightly appreciate versus major currencies, which should increase the U.S. trade deficit to levels not seen in the past decade. Forecasters expect interest rates to rise, but remain at relatively historical lows. The unemployment rate is predicted to edge slightly below current levels. Inflation is expected to move up (closer to the FOMC’s inflation target) as oil prices strengthen slightly.

The D.A.B.E. Hears from Macroeconomic Advisors

By: Paul Traub
On Thursday, October 15, 2015, the Detroit Association of Business Economists met at the Detroit Branch of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago and heard an in-depth presentation on the U.S. economy from Chris Varvares, Senior Managing Director and Co-Founder of Macroeconomic Advisors (MA). Varvares is an accomplished macroeconomic forecaster with over 30 years of experience and service as an economist.

According to Macroeconomic Advisors, the U.S. economy will continue to grow at or near its potential through 2018. MA’s estimate for growth in 2015 is 2.2% on a year-over-basis, with growth of 2.5%, 2.5%, and 2.1%, respectively, in the following three years. Varvares pointed to the following assumptions that help form MA’s view:

• China’s devaluation and global financial market turmoil raises new downside risks but does little to change the forecast
o Growth effects of higher dollar and lower equities about offset lower oil prices
o The dollar and oil reinforce a forecast of continued low inflation
o Uncertainty regarding global growth and risky asset prices create added downside risk
• Domestic final demand growth is solid and even better than originally reported
o Past fiscal headwinds could turn into a slight tail breeze as state and local government revenues increase
o Growth of private domestic sales should remain above 3.0% through 2016
o Declining net exports and inventory building are drags to growth, especially in 2015
• Unemployment rate undershoots MA’s “full employment” estimates
o MA estimates the current non-accelerating inflation rate of unemployment (NAIRU) to be 5.0%
o The unemployment rate should reach 5.0% soon and continue to fall to 4.7% by the end of 2016
• PCE inflation will move slowly to 2.0% by the end of 2018
o Core PCE 4Q/4Q should be 1.4% in 2015, increasing to 1.7% in 2016, 1.9% in 2017, and 2.0% in 2018
• Improving labor markets and continued low inflation pose new risks key to the Fed
o MA expects the first federal funds rate hike to come in December 2015 but it’s a close call
o Long rates will rise on expected policy rate increases and rising term premiums
• Equity markets will continued to be challenged by global market turmoil and rising rates

For a look at Varvares entire presentation please click here.

Preview of the upcoming Summit on Inner City Economic Development in Detroit

By Martin Lavelle

In a recent blog, I shared my observations about Pittsburgh’s efforts to revitalize its urban core. Then, I analyzed the extent to which Pittsburgh’s turnaround can serve as a model for Detroit as its city leaders and stakeholders look to revitalize the city’s urban core. While Detroit has begun to replicate the efforts of other cities, such as showcasing the city’s riverfront with the Detroit RiverWalk and collaborating with regional leaders and stakeholders, overall its efforts lag those of other Rust Belt cities. The relatively sluggish pace of Detroit’s efforts to revitalize its urban core are also reflected in the slow development of the city’s business clusters, including new business formation. Meanwhile, other parts of the Rust Belt have advanced the development of their respective business clusters, such as West Michigan’s office and institutional furniture cluster and Pittsburgh’s advanced materials and energy clusters.(1)

Policy professionals, researchers, and other experts will gather in Detroit for a two-day summit–“Revisiting the Promise and Problems of Inner City Economic Development,”—at the Renaissance Center on September 15th and the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago—Detroit Branch on September 16th. The summit will look at new research and best practices in the field of urban revitalization. It is sponsored by the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, the Initiative for a Competitive Inner City (ICIC), the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, Economic Development Quarterly, and Sage Publications. For those interested in attending, there is no registration fee but advance registration is required here.

Day 1 will focus on what’s currently happening in Detroit, with an introduction by the Chicago Fed’s Regional Research staff and a bus tour of Detroit provided by the Chicago Fed’s Community Development & Policy Studies group. The tour will highlight some of Detroit’s successes and challenges in its effort to revitalize its urban core and how the three levers of growth—business environment, clusters, and individual firms—are promoting and complementing the efforts of Eastern Market and Midtown Detroit. Eastern Market’s food cluster is expanding in part because of greater economic growth within the city of Detroit. Part of that growth is originating from the development of an innovation district along Detroit’s major boulevard, Woodward Avenue, which is helping to draw young entrepreneurs to work and live in Midtown Detroit. In addition, the tour will illuminate some of what Detroit must still overcome on the path to renewal. The first day ends with a presentation by Detroit Free Press writer John Gallagher, who will share his thoughts about the city.

The second day of the summit will feature two keynote addresses. ICIC Founder and Chairman Michael Porter will look back on his research of clusters and their competitive advantages in inner cities. Later on, Matthew Cullen, President and CEO, Rock Ventures LLC, will provide insight into how his firm has helped contribute to Detroit’s recent surge in economic development. Other featured speakers include Carol O’Cleireacain, Deputy Mayor for Economic Policy, Planning, and Strategy, City of Detroit. Sessions on the second day will examine new thinking on the competitiveness of inner cities and opportunities for business in the inner city.

(1)See p.5 of

Freight movement slows in January, while freight rates remain high—Is it the weather or something else?

By Paul Traub and William Testa

The severity of this winter season has had a noticeably negative impact on everything from retail sales to industrial production. Roadway freight operations are no exception.

The effects of the extreme cold and heavy snow, which started last December and has continued into March of this year, seem to be showing up in some recent economic data on freight services. Chart 1 below contains the Transportation Services Index (TSI)1/ for freight in the United States. The TSI contains freight data for most modes of freight transportation, including truck, rail, inland water, air, and pipeline. This index shows that on a seasonally adjusted basis, freight movement dropped in January by 2.8%. Since the data are adjusted for seasonality, the drop in January looks to be even more significant.


Though all modes of transportation have been affected by this winter’s weather, trucking arguably experienced the worst of it. Many firsthand reports (including my own) have indicated that ice and snow shut down routes in states that do not normally face such harsh wintry conditions. Extremely cold weather also made the loading and unloading of trucks more difficult, causing delays and disrupting normal schedules.

This winter’s disruptions to trucking operations were also accompanied by price spikes. According to DAT Solutions, spot rates (excluding long-term contractual prices) for dry vans, which account for the majority of long-haul freight, are up 17.6% from October 2014. These price spikes could be partially due to the severe winter weather and may only be temporary; however, some evidence points to shifting fundamentals that may be contributing to rising cost trends in the industry. Since the U.S. economy reached the bottom of the Great Recession (in mid-2009), the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis’s producer price index for long haul truck-borne freight has climbed at an average annual pace of 3.9%.

Many industry experts argue that tightening capacity together with rising costs in the trucking industry are driving up freight prices. As chart 2 shows, according to ACT Research, the so-called active population of heavy-duty (class 8) trucks has been declining steadily since 2007, even while the economic recovery has been ongoing.


ACT Research defines the active population of trucks as those trucks still in service that are 15 years of age or younger. The reason for this distinction is that once a vehicle reaches 15 years of age, it becomes much less likely to be used for hauling meaningful amounts of freight over long distances. So, at the same time the number of freight loads has been increasing on account of the recovering economy, the number of trucks available to carry those loads has been declining.

Another factor affecting freight rates has been the significant increase in truck prices. Truck prices started increasing in 2002 because of federally mandated diesel emission standards that required the costly development of new engine technologies. ACT Research analysts contend that since 2002 the cost of meeting these standards has added an estimated $30,000 to the cost of a new truck—a price increase of about 31%. Rising prices for new trucks have, in turn, made used trucks more attractive, causing their prices to go up as well. The average price for a used class 8 truck was higher in January of 2013 than ever before.2/

There is yet another factor that is likely to drive up costs for the trucking industry: the projection for a severe shortage of qualified truck drivers. The effects of the shortage, which has been in the making for some time, were somewhat mitigated during the most recent economic downturn. Since then, as freight activity has recovered, the driver shortage has become a more serious problem. A shortage of drivers, coupled with fewer trucks on the road, has tightened freight utilization rates, which are said to be approaching uncharted territory: Some estimates now have capacity utilization rates in the trucking industry in excess of 95%.

If, as I would argue, the recent slowdown in freight activity is due primarily to the severe winter weather, then missed deliveries will need to be managed. But this will not be easy. In the trucking industry, backlogs can be difficult to make up because there is only so much the trucking industry as a whole can ship—and only so much any one truck can haul (due to legal weight limit restrictions on most highways). Making up for the backlogs will result in added demands on a truck fleet that is already running at near-full capacity.

Based on this analysis, it doesn’t look like freight rates will be coming back down any time soon, especially if the economy keeps improving. As businesses moved to optimize their supply chains with techniques such as just-in-time inventory,3/ freight has taken on an increasingly important role in their production processes. As a percent of total logistics expense for private business, trucking-related costs comprise 77.4% of transport costs and 48.6% of total logistics spend.4/ Accordingly, when real gross domestic product (GDP) increases by 1%, some analysts estimate that the truck transportation needed to bring this about increases by 2 to 3%.5/ Should the demand for hauling freight by truck grow dramatically, the trucking industry’s capacity would be strained under the current circumstances. When trucking capacity is strained, prices for those freight hauls that are not under long-term contract can jump. Given the changing fundamentals to the trucking industry discussed previously, some analysts argue that the recent price spikes for shipping freight via trucks will ultimately work their way into long-term contractual prices for hauling freight (which are predicted to reset throughout the year). Some estimates have the increase for contractual freight in the coming months to be in the range of 4% to 6%.

Rising capacity utilization for the trucking industry, increases in the costs of new trucking equipment, higher demand for qualified truck drivers, and a declining number of heavy-duty trucks in operation are some of the reasons that freight prices are on the rise. North American heavy-duty truck production is increasing to meet demand, but recently announced fuel economy standards will continue to add costs to the production of new vehicles—and, in turn, increase their sale prices. So while rising freight rates have historically been a good predictor of improved economic activity, there are other factors at work driving up rates at this time. It remains to be seen how all of this will affect consumer prices, but if these expected freight rate increases cannot be readily absorbed, they will have some impact on the consumer. For these reasons we will be keeping an eye on freight and freight rates in the months ahead—long after the snow has melted.

1/ Truck transportation makes up a significant portion of the Transportation Services Index (TSI), accounting for 40% of the data used.
2/ Newscom Business Media Inc., 2014 “Used Trucks Cost More than Ever Before”, Today’s Trucking, February 27.
3/ Just-in-time inventory is an inventory strategy employed by firms to increase their efficiency and decrease waste by receiving goods only as they are needed in the production process; this strategy reduces costs associated with carrying large inventories (of raw materials or finished goods, such as cars).
4/ Dan Gilmore, 2013 “State of the Logistics Union 2013”, Supply Chain Digest, June, 20, 2013.
5/ Jeff Berman, 2014 “Truckload capacity trends in 2014 are worth watching, say industry stakeholders”, Logistics Management, Jan. 10, 2014.

What is Canada’s Role in the U.S. and Michigan Economies?

In the wake of the worst recession the world has seen in many decades, Canada continues to play an important role in the economic recoveries of both the United States and Michigan. Canada has long been one of this country’s biggest trading partners. The chart below shows how U.S. trade with Canada has grown over the years. Although Canada’s total share of U.S. goods trade has fallen slightly over the past 20 years, the dollar value of that trade has grown by more than 250%.

US Goods Trade with Canada

Even though trade between the U.S. and Canada declined sharply following the 2008 recession, Canada was able to hold on to the bulk of its share of total U.S. goods trade. The charts below display the shares of imports and exports for the United States’ top five trading partners since 2007. They show that Canada’s share of total U.S. trade of goods has remained relatively constant since 2007, accounting for approximately 14.2% of U.S. imports and 19.1% of U.S. exports in 2012. Moreover, as seen in the charts, Canada has maintained its position as our largest export partner and second largest import partner throughout the recession and through this point in the recovery.

Imports and Exports with Canada

Additionally, when it comes to Michigan’s economy, the importance of Canadian trade is just as large if not greater. According to my calculations using data from the U.S. Census Bureau, Canada ranks number one for Michigan in terms of both imports and exports. In fact, 44.7% of Michigan’s imports in 2011 came from Canada. At $46.7 billion, the value of Canadian imports to Michigan in 2011 was up 14.6% relative to 2010. As for exports from Michigan to Canada, the story is very much the same. In 2011 Michigan exported $23.6 billion in goods to Canada—up 6.7% relative to 2010. Since most of the import and export goods pertain to the auto industry, it only stands to reason that these numbers should continue to increase as light vehicle sales continue to improve.

In an effort to provide more insights into this topic, the Canada – United States Business Association (CUSBA) will be holding an event here at the Detroit Branch of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago. The event titled Cross-Border Economic Forecast for 2013 will be held here on Friday, February 1, 2013, from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. I was pleased to be asked to participate in this event. Joining me on the panel to discuss the 2013 economic outlooks for the United States and Canada will be Martin Schwerdtfeger, senior economist for Toronto-Dominion Bank, and Daniel Howes, associate business editor for the Detroit News (who will serve as the moderator). To read more information about this event, visit or go to the “Upcoming Events” tab on the Michigan Economy blog to access and print a flyer with all the information.