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Thursday, April 05, 2012

Fed Watch: Behind the "Trend is the Cycle"

Tim Duy:

Behind the "Trend is the Cycle", by Tim Duy: Via Mark Thoma, David Andolfatto finds evidence of a permanent component to recent job losses. Reviewing a recent paper (which I enjoyed) by Nir Jaimovich (Duke University) and Henry Siu (University of British Columbia), Andolfatto notes:

The conclusion is that jobless recoveries are due entirely to jobless recoveries in routine occupations. In this group, employment never recovers beyond its trough level, nor does it come anywhere near its pre-recession peak. This is in stark contrast to earlier recessions.

He further sees a smoking gun in this chart:


And again notes:

This last figure is quite dramatic. It shows how, prior to 1990, routine employment rebounded strongly following a recession. But since 1990, it appears not to rebound at all. Indeed, the pattern appears to be one of a precipitous decline in recession, followed by a period of relative stability in the subsequent expansion.

I have to admit that I was perplexed by Andolfatto's surprise with this result - the basic patterns of this chart should be easily recognizable as simply the path of manufacturing employment in the US:


That employment in this sector has not rebounded after the past two recessions is not exactly a secret (there is likely some construction element in the first chart as well, but I am putting that aside for the moment). That said, I think there is an interesting question here - should we define these job losses as primarily structural (supply) or cyclical (demand)? To be honest, I admit that I have gone back and forth on this topic.

If I am in a mercantilist frame of mind (see here), I would say this becomes an issue in the mid-1990's when China devalues and fixes the renminbi. This act of currency manipulation to gain a competitive advantage is ignored by the Clinton Administration, and the offshoring craze goes into hyperdrive. Non-durable goods manufacturing begins to slide immediately, and durable goods employment contracts during the 2001 recession and never rebounds as firms choose to restart production in China rather than the US. I anticipated the same after the 2007-2009 recession, a prediction that has not been entirely true.

Somewhere in here is also a construction story, in which the flow of capital into the US finds its way into the housing market, which in turn boosts construction jobs which are subsequently lost. The construction jobs would fall into the routine manual worker category that appears to have suffered from permanent dislocation.

Is this a structural story, or rather just an outcome of a global savings glut/demand shortfall? If domestic demand in China had been higher, wouldn't the Chinese current account surplus have been smaller? And shouldn't the same be true of Japan and Germany? And if this was the case, would the US current account deficit also been smaller, suggesting external factors were less of a drag on demand? And if that were the case, would job losses in manufacturing have been so severe? Would the housing bubble have erupted as it did? And would other sectors have grown more quickly to compensate for job losses in manufacturing?

What I am thinking is that in a world with a global demand shortfall combined with currency manipulation, international trade can become a zero-sum game that leads to dislocations that appear to be structural but are in fact largely cyclical or more broadly demand related.

Alternatively, rather than rely on the global imbalances story, you can argue that the drop in manufacturing is entirely the result of productivity increases. I really don't think this helps, as it doesn't explain why the displaced workers have not been entirely reabsorbed elsewhere in the economy. Remember, we used to argue that all those displaced workers would simply find jobs in the rapidly growing sectors of the economy. Apparently, this has yet to happen. It is kind of hard to argue that the problem is retraining or skills. Perhaps this is true in the short-run, but we are talking about trends that are nearly two-decades or more old. Surely a greater degree of adjustment should have happened by now. It is just as easy to believe that the demand is lacking to absorb the released resources (a euphemism, by the way, for fired workers), which fits with a global savings glut/demand shortfall story as well.

Moreover, a structural story doesn't answer the problem of sticky wages. If in fact the jobless recovery was simply an artifact of job losses for employees with routine skills, why is wage growth for remaining workers so muted? Why such a high proportion of zero wage gains?

Finally, I would add that if you believed that fundamentally a global demand shortfall and related imbalance story was at play, some rebalancing, due, for example, to a mixture of higher foreign wages and a weaker dollar, would have predictable impacts in stimulating export and import competing industries. Some evidence for this can be found in the upswing in durable goods manufacturing:


This is where I was wrong; it is more of increase than I would have expected given my mood in 2010. See also recent stories about the re-shoring phenomenon. For example, from the FT:

Jeff Immelt, General Electric’s chief executive, says the decision to put $1bn into the group’s domestic appliances business is “as risky an investment as we have ever made”.

He may well be right. The decision to bring back to Louisville, Kentucky, hundreds of jobs that had been outsourced to Mexico and China is emblematic of his strategy for GE. If it fails, it will be hung around his neck forever.

“Reshoring” production is a strategy being tried by many American manufacturers, as rapid wage growth in emerging economies and sluggish pay in the US erodes the labour cost advantage of offshore plants.

The US has added 429,000 factory jobs in the past two years, replacing almost a fifth of the losses during the recession.

Trend or fad? Too early to tell.

Bottom Line: I don't think the results Andolfatto cites should come as much of a surprise. If you were looking for a jobless recovery two years ago, the "routine" task sectors of construction and manufacturing were cause for concern. But I think the dynamics in those sectors can be explained in the context of a global demand shortfall rather than entirely structural phenomena.

    Posted by on Thursday, April 5, 2012 at 12:24 AM in Economics, Unemployment | Permalink  Comments (19)


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