Archive for the ‘unemployment’ Category

Working men are p***ed

29 July 2016

Unemployment at 4.9%. More than 75 straight months of continuous job growth. Per capita GDP at an all-time high. Summer’s here. But nobody’s dancing in the streets.

Here are a couple graphs that may help explain why:


First, note that even as real per capita GDP continues to reach new peaks, the typical American adult (i.e., the person at the 50th percentile) in 2014 was no better off than in the last two recessions. Median personal income was down about 5% from about a decade ago. The rising tide is clearly not lifting all boats. The more politicians crow about the improving economy and the more economists say we are at “full employment,” the greater the disconnect becomes.

Caveat: Ideally I’d have median personal income data from after 2014. The numbers have likely improved since then. Jared Bernstein notes that real weekly earnings have grown almost 4% since 2014. Whether personal income has had similar growth also depends on employment trends. Which brings me to:


The above is the US “prime-age” (25-54) employment/population ratio from 1990 to present. The employment/population ratio is about 2 points lower now than then, partly because the standard unemployment rate is about 1 point higher and also because more jobless people are “out of the labor force,” i.e., not actively seeking work. Would they take work if offered it? The Bureau of Labor Statistics report for June suggests many of them would — the alternative unemployment rate including jobless “discouraged workers” and “persons marginally attached to the labor force” is 6.0%. (Add in part-time workers who’d prefer to be full-time and the rate rises to 9.6%. It’s been improving for six years but is still no better than in mid 2008 when we were in a recession.)

What’s really striking to me, and what inspired the title, is the gender breakdown of those prime-age employment/population numbers. (Sorry, the separate BLS graphs for men and women are too messy to use here, but you can Google them.) For women, the employment/population ratio has regained its 1990 level of 71%; for men, the ratio is down about 5 points, to 85%. There’s a story here, probably several. The erosion of male privilege has been a big theme of this year’s political commentary. Without getting into the politics or ethics of that, let’s just note:

  • These graphs indicate that it by no means a new thing, at least in the labor market. The male employment/population ratio has been falling since 1969, when it was 95%. The female employment ratio has been rising steadily since at least the late 1940s, when it was less than half the current level.
  • During the boom decade of the 1990s, the male employment/population ratio fell by about half a point, while the female ratio rose sharply, from 71% to 74.5%.
  • Male employment was hit harder than female employment during the 2008-2009 recession (men’s employment fell from 89% to 81%, women’s from 74.5% to 69%).
  • Men’s employment has actually risen faster than women’s during the post-2009 recovery (ratio up by about 4 points vs. 2 points), but again, the male employment ratio is down about 5 points from 1990, whereas the female employment ratio is unchanged.


Extend those unemployment benefits already

29 December 2013

Yesterday 1.3 million jobless Americans lost their unemployment benefits, thanks to Congress’s unwillingness or inability to extend long-term unemployment insurance funding. The number could rise to 4.9 million within the next year.

Extending the unemployment benefits is a no-brainer at a time when long-term unemployment rates are still higher than in any previous postwar recession, when there are three unemployed people for every job vacancy, and the money paid out in unemployment benefits quickly gets spent, thereby boosting the still-weak economy. Support for the extension is strong among the public, liberal public policy groups, and even some prominent conservatives. But Congressional Republicans continue to block it.

I’ve heard four arguments against extending unemployment benefits beyond the current 26-week threshold.

1. It encourages idleness.

Econ 101 does indeed tell us that, other things equal, anything you do to make people’s unemployment experience more pleasant, like giving them cash, reduces their incentive to take a job. Which is which unemployment benefits normally expire after 26 weeks. But these are not normal times, not with the long-term unemployment rate at 2.6%, a higher level than in any previous recession or recovery since WW2. Yet in all of those other recessions, whenever long-term unemployment got anywhere near this high, unemployment benefits were extended. If you cut off long-term unemployment benefits, some of the long-term jobless would find jobs, but the vast majority would not, unless a million or so vacancies could somehow materialize too and employers suddenly developed a preference for long-time jobless applicants. (Currently employers have a strong preference for applicants who are not unemployed, followed by those who have only been out of work for a short spell.)

A recent empirical study published by the Brookings Institution estimates that in the absence of extended unemployment benefits the unemployment rate would be about 0.1 – 0.5% lower, which we will note that is a small fraction of the current 2.6% long-term jobless rate. And the author notes that about half of that improvement would come not from the long-term unemployed rejoining the work force but from currently employed people sticking with their jobs because of the worsening of the alternative. So the estimate becomes just 0.05% – 0.25% of the long-term jobless who would rejoin the work force if benefits were cut off. Do the math, and the estimated ratio of still-unemployed people without benefits to newly re-employed is in the range of 9-to-1 to 51-to-1. Rather high pain-to-gain ratios.

2. It hurts the long-term unemployed by lengthening their term of unemployment even further, making it even harder for them to find a job.

While it’s true that employers are reluctant to hire the long-term unemployed, this argument makes the same false assumption as in (1.), namely that the jobs are out there and the long-term unemployed just aren’t looking hard enough or aren’t willing to take them. A 3-to-1 unemployed-to-vacancies ratio should give the lie to that. And the ratio of long-term unemployed to vacancies that long-term unemployed people have a realistic shot at is surely much higher.

3. It’s no longer needed, what with the economy’s recent improvement. Real GDP grew 4.1% in the last quarter, and the unemployment rate is down to 7%. 

Those numbers have dominated the recent headlines, but they’re irrelevant here. Thanks to growing productivity, real GDP is now higher than it was before the recession, but with two million fewer workers. And as I seem to write in every post, the standard unemployment rate is largely irrelevant, when millions of jobless Americans have given up looking for work, millions more have left or avoided the labor force entirely, and other millions are involuntarily working part-time because they can’t find full-time work. More relevant numbers are the 13.2% comprehensive (U-6) unemployment rate; the 58.6% employment/population ratio, which has not improved since the depth of the recession; and, of course, the 2.6% rate of long-term (27+ weeks) unemployment as a percentage of the labor force. The economy’s recent good news has largely bypassed the long-term unemployed. The best that can be said about the long-term unemployment rate is that it’s been coming down, from about 4.3% four years ago, but even then it’s still as high as at any point since the 1940s.

4. It costs money.

This is the silliest objection of all, since the amount in question ($24 billion next year) is not only less than 0.7% of the budget, but a lot of the money would be returned to the federal, state, and local government in the form of tax revenues as the unemployed spend that income. Unemployed people can be counted on to spend nearly all of their benefits, especially seeing as the benefits are small compared to their previous income; the benefits level varies by state, with most states in the range of 25-45%. While unemployment benefits cost money, so do food, clothing, shelter, utilities, and all the other necessities and commitments that people have. They’re called benefits because they provide very tangible benefits to the people who receive them, far in excess of their cost to the taxpayers. (And it should be noted that the unemployed already paid into the system when they were working and will do so again if and when they return to work.)

Whatever your opinion on this issue, there should be no doubting that long-term unemployment is one of the central problems of our time. The long-term unemployed are almost 40% of the total unemployed, which is roughly twice as high as in any previous postwar recession (see graph).


While extended unemployment benefits do more good than harm, what we need even more are jobs. Government job creation is a non-starter in Congress and apparently with the public as well, so once again we are left with the Micawber-like hope that something will turn up in the private sector.


Special no-prize to the first person who can connect that last line to this video of Keith Richards:

Six years of pain

27 December 2013

Six years ago this month, the US economy officially peaked. We didn’t know it till a year later when NBER made the call, but the labor market has never been the same. The unemployment rate crept upward through the summer of 2008, before exploding that fall and reaching double digits the next fall (up from 4.5% in the first half of 2007), several months after the recession officially ended in June 2009. People call that devastating eighteen months the Great Recession, but I prefer to call this whole six years (and counting) the Little Depression because the economy — and the labor market in particular — remains so depressed.

Consider the change from December 2007 to now (or rather to November 2013, the most recent month we have data for):

The adult (age 16+ population) grew by 13,411,000.

Employment shrunk by 1,887,000.

Unemployment rose by 3,262,000.

“Not in labor force” (neither employed nor actively looking for a job) rose by 12,035,000.*

(*And no, most of that does not come from old people retiring. The drop in the employment/population ratio is 4.1 percentage points if you include all of the adult population, and 3.8 percentage points if you include only those in the 25-54 age range.)

Sometimes the numbers really do speak for themselves.

Companies love misery

22 October 2013

“Dow up on optimism tepid jobs report keeps Fed stimulus going”
headline, CNBC, today

In other words, a lousy labor market is good QE-bait.

Like I said before.

No taper, no problem

18 September 2013

The Federal Open Market Committee concluded one of its most anticipated meetings in a long time with the expected decision to keep its federal funds rate target near zero (0 – 0.25%) and, less expectedly, not to “taper,” i.e., announce that it would gradually reduce its monthly purchases of mortgage-backed securities and longer-term Treasury bonds. Those purchases are otherwise known as “quantitative easing” (QE).

From various market surveys and betting sites, it appeared that about half the market was expecting a taper. Just why is hard to figure. Excessive asset purchases by the Fed can be inflationary, but excessive is in the eye of the beholder, and inflation has been under, not over, the Fed’s target of 2%. There is the argument that these new and unusual QE policies are damaging to investor confidence, but they’re not that new anymore, and the investors in the stock market seem remarkably undamaged — the S&P 500 has more than doubled since early 2009, i.e., since shortly after the first round of QE was implemented. Then there is the opposite argument that QE has created a “sugar high” in the stock market and maybe the housing market, too. This last argument has to be taken seriously, in view of how the 2000s housing bubble was stoked in part by the Fed’s easy-money policies circa 2004, when economic recovery was well underway.

But not too seriously. The S&P 500 is only about 15% higher now than it was mid-2007; adjusting for inflation, it’s hardly any higher at all (and the jury’s still out over whether stocks, as opposed to housing, were a bubble in 2007). Moreover, corporate profits are at record highs, so the fundamentals look rather good. Home prices are rising fast, but they’re still at 2004 levels, and monthly mortgage payments are cheaper than rents. A true speculative bubble is when people are obviously overpaying for assets, especially when they do so knowingly, with the plan of selling to a greater sucker later on. Is there evidence of that here?

The evidence about the general state of the economy is much stronger, and the evidence is that it’s still pretty weak. In particular, employment — the indicator that the Fed is supposed to focus on, along with inflation — is dismal. The employment-to-population ratio is still under 76%, or 4 points below where it was before the crisis. (The graph below, by the way, is of the “prime-age” population, 25-54 year-olds; if it included 16-24 year-olds, it would look even worse.)


For more on unemployment and tape:


Impossible Germany

18 August 2013

The Eurozone has had famously high unemployment rates since the euro’s inception in 1999, and for most of that time Germany has been a key sufferer, with unemployment over 8%. Since the financial crisis broke in 2008, German economic policy has been mostly associated with austerity policies, which have predictably tended to worsen Europe’s employment situation. Yet Germany’s labor market appears to have been thriving over the past five years, with an enviable unemployment rate last month of 5.4%, second-lowest in the entire 27-country Eurozone. (Relatively tiny Austria has the lowest, 4.6%.)


What accounts for the German labor market miracle? I’ve been pondering this for a while now.

First, is this miracle for real? In the US, for example, the official unemployment rate has lately been falling, yet the employment-to-population ratio has barely budged, largely because fewer people are entering the labor force (i.e., getting jobs or looking for jobs). Yet Germany’s labor force participation rate and employment-to-population ratio have been increasing. Has Germany suddenly changed its definitions of who is unemployed or not in the labor force? Apparently not, and it wouldn’t matter anyway, as these numbers are the International Labor Organization definitions of unemployment, the same as the US uses. Also, this is a fairly long-term pattern, back to 2005 (coincident with, though not necessarily caused by, Angela Merkel’s term as Chancellor following the 2005 elections).

On the other hand, perhaps Germany’s official count of the employed, like the US’s, includes a lot of part-time workers who want full-time work but cannot find it because of bad economic conditions. Indeed, The Telegraph reports:

nearly one-in-five German workers is in a tax-exempt mini-job, earning €450 a month or less. A government survey a few years ago found that nearly a third of mini-jobs workers were looking for a job with longer hours but were unable to find one.

Let’s do the math. <20% * <(1/3) = employment rate of 94.6%. Subtract 6% of 94.6%, and you’ve got 88.92%, or an unemployment rate of about 11%. This is roughly similar to the US situation, where counting involuntary part-time workers as unemployed would add 6.2 points to the unemployment rate. On the other hand, Germany’s “mini-jobs” are more a matter of government policy than their US counterparts. For more, see this Wall Street Journal article on mini-jobs, in which German experts call them dead-end jobs that provide no incentive for employers to move these workers to full-time or for the workers to give up their tax and welfare benefits for full-time work. Balance it out with this other Telegraph article that argues that mini-jobs are a helpful means of providing work.

All of this is quite different from the post I expected to write. I was going to mention how the euro’s recent weakness (for the past two years, it’s been down about 10-15% from its 2009 peak) helps Germany’s net exports. It does so both in the usual way and because Germany’s currency is surely cheaper under the euro than it would be if Germany were still on the Deutschmark. Crisis countries like Greece and Italy drag down the value of the euro, while whatever the high demand for German assets as financial safe havens does to raise the price of the euro is offset by reduced demand for other euro-country assets.

I was also going to mention Germany’s sluggish population growth and difficulty in attracting immigrants, which have caused the labor force to grow slowly. It’s easier to find jobs for a trickle of new labor force entrants than for a flood of them.

Finally, I was going to mention this 2011 National Bureau of Economic Research paper by Michael C. Burda and Jennifer Hunt, which finds the “German labor market miracle” to be real and attributes it to a hiring catch-up on the part of employers who were reluctant to hire early on in the 2000s expansion, “wage moderation” (unions accepting smaller pay increases, apparently), and “working time accounts,” seemingly similar to the “flex-time accounts” proposed by Chamber of Commerce Republicans, that allow employers to avoid paying overtime if the employee work week averages out to the standard amount. Note that the paper (or at least its abstract) does not mention “mini-jobs,” which may mean that mini-jobs are nothing new in Germany and that their use has not expanded much of late (I could not find anything much on the history of mini-jobs in my Googling).

All things considered, Germany’s labor market still looks a lot better than that of the rest of the Eurozone (except German-speaking Austria). I’d like to see a German equivalent of the comprehensive “U-6” unemployment rate that the US reports every month. My guess is that it would be very high, much like that of the US, but still showing dramatic improvement since 2005. They’re doing something right over there, but it’s hard to tell just what.

7.4%: Good news you can’t use

4 August 2013

Another first Friday, another BLS employment report, and the headline news is pretty good: In July the official unemployment rate fell to its lowest level, 7.4%, since 2008. If you were a White House publicist that morning, you could have noted that fact and also that the comprehensive U-6 unemployment rate (which includes discouraged job-seekers and involuntary part-timers) also fell, from 14.3% to 14.0%. And then you could have taken the rest of the day off.

The improvement in the U-6 unemployment rate was not enough to cancel out the previous month’s 0.5% point jump. The U-6 rate was below 14% in March, April, and May. The improvement in the official (U-3) rate was exactly counterbalanced by an 0.1% point drop in the labor force participation rate (to 63.4%). The employment/population ratio was unchanged (at 58.7% for all adults, and 75.9% for prime-age (25-54) year-old adults). The decline in participation defies easy explanation, as it involves three distinct subgroups — adult white males, white teenagers, and adult black females — but not others. (A notable recent trend, by the way, is for fewer people, especially young women, to not enter the work force.)

The unemployment rates come from the BLS’s survey of households. The BLS’s other survey, of employers (the “payroll survey”), is disappointing relative to the previous month’s. June’s report showed the economy with net job growth of 195,000, plus upward revisions of 70,000 jobs to the previous two months. July’s report has net job growth of 162,000, and downward revisions of 26,000 to the previous two months. At this month’s pace, it would take us a year longer to get back to 6% unemployment than at last month’s pace (using the handy Jobs Calculator of the Atlanta Fed).

The stock and bond markets seem to have gotten this report about right. The stock market barely budged, and the 10-year Treasury bond rate actually fell somewhat, from 2.72% to 2.60%, despite the improvement in the official unemployment rate. Both markets watch the employment reports with an eye toward the Fed’s next move on interest rates and “quantitative easing” (“QE”; special purchases of long-term bonds and mortgage-backed securities), all the more so after the Fed recently announced that it would start “tapering” off QE when unemployment falls to about 7.0% and start raising its key interest rate when unemployment falls to about 6.5%. While we’re a notch closer to those rates now, the trend does not look good. Treading water is about all this labor market is doing, and the markets seem to get that.

Employment report: Black and white is always gray

13 July 2013

Has the dust settled yet on last Friday’s BLS employment report? The big news was that the economy generated 195,000 new jobs in June, better than expected, and revised data show 70,000 more new jobs in April and May than previously reported. The basic unemployment rate was unchanged at 7.6%, but the new 265,000 jobs were enough to set the media and markets aflutter. Most articles I saw hailed the jobs news as fabulous. The S&P 500 had a good day, up 1.6%. Ten-year Treasury bond rates shot up 21 basis points (from 2.501% to 2.715%), in anticipation of higher interest rates to come, either from the natural forces of higher demand for credit in a stronger economy or from the Fed’s “tapering” its expansionary Little Depression-era policies.

The higher jobs numbers are welcome news, to be sure. Using the Atlanta Federal Reserve’s wonderful jobs calculator, at a rate of 195,000 new jobs per month, the US economy would be back to 6% unemployment by September 2015 and 5% unemployment by February 2017. Not great, but at least a visible end of the tunnel. For a long time the math was much more dismal — e.g., not until 2020. With the new revisions, the average job growth for 2012 is actually a bit better than June’s, 202,000. (Which, by the way, is better than in 2010 or 2011.) Plug that into the jobs calculator and we hit those targets three months sooner.

But that’s only half the story. The BLS employment report gives the results of two surveys: the “payrolls survey” of companies, above, and the “household survey” of individuals. Because these are two different survey populations, often the results are very different. The total number of jobs in the household survey rose by 189,000, but the number of new part-time jobs was more than twice that amount, 432,000. The difference is a whopping 243,000 drop in the number of full-time jobs. Ouch. The number of people working part-time because of “slack work or business conditions” rose by 352,000; the only good news here is that the number of people working part-time because they could not find full-time worked dropped a bit, by 69,000. (Hat tip: Paul Solman. The payrolls survey, by the way, does not distinguish between full- and part-time work, though it shows no change in average weekly hours, which implies no big change.)

This shift from full-time to part-time work may reflect a trend of employers’ increased preferences for part-time over full-time workers; for example, in the wholesale and retail trade sector, since 2006 full-time employment is down 500,000 while part-time jobs are up 1,000,000. Avoiding the “Obamacare” employer mandate for firms with 50+ workers would be another logical reason, and I wonder if this trend is a reason for the administration’s recently announced one-year delay of the mandate. But neither of these trends is new, so I don’t know why June would have seen such a particularly huge shift to part-time.

We see the same pattern in my favorite alternative unemployment rate, the U-6 unemployment rate, which includes part-time workers who would prefer full-time work and “discouraged workers” who want a job but have given up looking. Unlike the standard unemployment rate, which stayed at 7.6%, this comprehensive jobless shot up from 13.8% to 14.3%. Part of the rise was due to more discouraged workers, but most of it was from an increase in involuntary part-timers.

Overall, not a great employment report. It’s possible the household survey, which economists tend to regard as less reliable than the payrolls survey (even though it’s the one we use to derive the all-important unemployment rate), was just weird this month. For the past 12 months as a whole, we do not observe a shift from full-time to part-time work. The net increase in jobs was 2.4 million, and slightly under 10% of that was part-time jobs, about the same as for the labor force as a whole (i.e., including old and new jobs).

The bond market may have taken a while to digest the ambiguous nature of this report, as long-term Treasury yields, after rising sharply on the Friday of the report, lost half of that increase in the next week. The stock market continued to boom, perhaps because they see the rise in part-time employment as promising greater flexibility and profitability on the part of corporations. But of course these prices change for a lot of reasons.


The wage is too damn high?

19 February 2013

I don’t think so. But first, some background.

President Obama proposed raising the minimum wage in his State of the Union address. Specifically he called for it to go up to $9 an hour by the end of 2015, up from $7.25 now, and then to index it to the rate of inflation in subsequent years. Is this a good idea?

Economists are famous for being against the minimum wage, with introductory microeconomics textbooks typically using it as an example of a price floor that creates a surplus of the good in question – in this case, a surplus of labor, or unemployment. And that is valid if the market for labor is perfectly competitive and if the rest of the economy is held constant. (Two rather big ifs, yes.) Economists call this “partial equilibrium analysis,” as opposed to “general equilibrium analysis,” which looks at the repercussions in all markets. In the economy as a whole, firms can’t always sell all they want to at the going price, and too-high wages are not the only source of unemployment – recessions cause unemployment, and so does falling demand in specific sectors of the economy. It’s also possible that higher minimum wages could increase the total income of the lowest-paid workers, resulting in more demand for goods and services in general and a higher level of employment. The White House clearly believes that last part (more about that here).

Who’s right? It all depends on which effect is stronger – the micro effect (higher wages mean less output and employment) or the macro effect (higher wages mean higher incomes and higher aggregate demand). And that is an empirical question. For decades, most economic studies found that minimum wages reduced employment among the least educated, least skilled workers, i.e., the people most likely to be working at low wages. But an influential study by economists David Card & Alan Krueger in the 1990s found either no effect or, surprisingly, a positive effect of higher minimum wages on low-skill or teenage employment. In their 1995 book, Card & Krueger further found that the earlier studies omitted important variables, like teenage high school attendance rates, and that controlling for those variables caused the minimum wage’s estimated effect to be insignificant. Their work has had its own critics and would-be debunkers, but it remains influential.


Glad tidings?

8 December 2012

The US unemployment rate fell to a four-year low of 7.7% in November, it was reported yesterday. The BLS (Bureau of Labor Statistics) report also noted that the economy added 146,000* jobs in November, a better figure than expected, considering Hurricane Sandy. Yet the report did not get a particularly warm reception. Analysts and cynics instantly threw cold water on these seemingly good numbers by stating that the unemployment rate fell only (or largely) because masses of unemployed people stopped looking for work in November and therefore were no longer counted as unemployed. Were they right? Off to the report’s detailed tables!

First, the non-detailed tables. Table A suggests that more than 100% of the drop in the unemployment rate came from people leaving the labor force, which could mean unemployed people giving up looking and no longer being counted as unemployed or in the labor force. The unemployment rate and labor force participation rates both fell by two-tenths of a percentage point, unemployment from 7.9 to 7.7% and labor force participation from 63.8 to 63.6%. The number of employed fell by 122,000*; the number of unemployed fell almost twice as much (229,000); and “not in labor force” rose by 542,000. So it would seem that a lot of people stopped looking.

(*That’s right — the same report that says the net change in jobs in November was +146,000 also says it was -122,000. The reason is that the BLS conducts two different surveys, one of employers (the “establishment survey” of payrolls), which had the positive figure, and one of households, which had the negative one. Barry Ritholtz had a nice cranky comparison of the two a few years back that’s still worth a look. Unfortunately, even though many economists regard the employer survey as more reliable, it tells us only about things like employment, hours, and wages, not about the people in or out of the labor force. For that we still need the household survey. Back to it.)