Just How Low Can U.S. Unemployment Go?

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) -- The unemployment rate has fallen dramatically over the last six months, but just how low can it go?

The answer is being debated among two camps of prominent economic thinkers. One school of thought says that unemployment will return to around 5% as the economy eventually recovers. But an opposing view states that permanent changes in the labor market mean higher unemployment is here to stay.

Among those who believe the first, more optimistic scenario is Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke. He thinks that unemployment will fall as part of the regular business cycle, and stimulative policies that boost demand could bring us back to a more normal unemployment rate of between 5% and 6% some time after 2014.

There's plenty of research to back that up. A recent report by economists at Harvard, the San Francisco Federal Reserve and the International Monetary Fund suggests that three-quarters of the sharp rise in unemployment during the financial crisis was in fact due to cyclical, not permanent, factors.

And unemployment has indeed fallen sharply as the economy has slowly recovered from the recession. As of February, the unemployment rate stood at 8.3%, a substantial drop from 10% at the height of the financial crisis.

Under the second, far less rosy scenario, 5% unemployment is out of reach. Devotees of "structural" unemployment, believe permanent shifts mean the job market may never fully recover, even as the broader economy does.

Nobel Prize winning economist Edmund Phelps, for example, calls a return to a 5% unemployment rate a "pipe-dream."

Phelps likens the economy to a skater who's taken a bad fall. Just getting a boost might not be enough, because the skater may have a few broken bones.

What are those broken bones?

Less innovation, increased competition from low-wage countries, more efficient technology and a shortage of high-tech skills among American workers may all be to blame.

Another problem: Baby Boomers are working longer than their predecessors, creating a demographic shift in the labor market.

Plus, many Americans are finding themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time.

"Many workers do not have the skills required by employers in the location where employers are seeking jobs," Wells Fargo Chief Economist John Silvia said in a recent research note.

All of these factors are a recipe for a longer lasting shift in the labor market, and mean stimulative policies won't have much of an impact, according to the structuralists.

So just how much further will unemployment fall?

The Labor Department will release March's unemployment rate on Friday. Economists surveyed by CNNMoney are expecting the report to show the unemployment rate remained at 8.3% for the month.

Longer term forecasts are all over the map.

The Congressional Budget Office predicts that the unemployment rate will eventually fall as low as 5.3%, but not until 2021. Economists at Goldman Sachs, however, estimate that due to structural reasons the new normal unemployment rate may now be 6% at best.

The biggest wild card that could shift that balance is the long-term unemployed. Of the 12.8 million Americans who are unemployed, 42.6% have been out of work for six months or more.

"If progress in reducing unemployment is too slow, the long-term unemployed will see their skills and labor force attachment atrophy further possibly converting a cyclical problem into a structural one," Bernanke said last week. 

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