Why 6.5% Unemployment Is The Fed’s Magic Number

Today Ben Bernanke and the Federal Reserve announced that they would keep the fed funds interest rate near zero as long as the unemployment rate remained above 6.5%. Why pick that number? They did not say for sure in their press release, but I can take an educated guess. Over the last 40 years, the unemployment rate has averaged exactly 6.5% in the United States. So Bernanke and Co. are going to keep rates ultra-low as long as unemployment is above-average.

I would also point out that the 6.5% level as the long-term average is important to keep in mind as we envision what a “normal” U.S. economy looks like. Some people may mistakenly think that 4-5% is typical or common just because we got down to those levels during the dot-com and housing bubbles. That is definitely not the case. A normalized economy is 3% GDP growth (vs 2.7% last quarter) and UE at 6.5% (vs 7.7% last month). So while we are not quite at a normalized level of economic growth and employment right now, we are not as far away as many (especially in the political arena) would have you believe. Perhaps that explains why corporate profits are slated to reach a record high this year, surpassing the prior record attained just last year.