Job Market Dynamics: A Continued, But Slow, Recovery

Jobs, employment, new hiring, job separations, net job creation, January 2006 to March 2012

employment, jobs, total separations, layoffs and discharges, quits, January 2006 to March 2012This post is an update of one from January of this year, with more recent data and to reflect revisions that have been made in the earlier figures.  The numbers are from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and this spring it issued new figures for the last several years, reflecting methodological improvements in the system it uses to go from its survey results to its national estimates.  What is shown above and will be discussed below are jobs in the private non-farm sector.  Government jobs have been falling, as has been noted in this blog, but follow a different dynamic than private jobs.  Hopefully government jobs will now stabilize and preferably grow, rather than continue to act to depress the economy.

The story on the private job dynamics is the same as before, and the more recent numbers (through March in the figures above, vs. through November 2011 in the January posting) confirm the trend that was noted before.  That is, the job market is recovering, but at too slow a pace given the still high level of unemployment.  At such a slow pace, it could easily go into reverse should the economy slow.  As has been noted before in this blog, US GDP growth has been slow due to the continued fiscal drag as government expenditures have been cut back.  There is also the threat of a European collapse, with negative impacts on the US, as Europe has failed to address the Eurozone problems with any policy other than increased austerity.  Growth in Europe is already at zero.

There is now the additional threat made recently by Speaker of the House John Boehner, to hold hostage the Congressional approval required for the debt ceiling later this year unless Republican demands of further government expenditure cuts are met.  Without this Congressional approval, the United States would be forced to default.  Economic chaos would result.

Among the points to note from the figures above:

1)  There were major net job losses in 2008 and 2009 (the curve in red in the top figure), but not because more people were leaving their jobs, due to layoffs or other reasons.  Rather, it was because the pace of new hiring slowed.  At the peak of the housing bubble in 2006, new hiring was being done at a pace of roughly 5 million jobs per month.  This started to fall, but slowly, in late 2006 / early 2007.  It began to fall at a rapid rate in 2008 (the last year of the Bush administration), and then stabilized and began to recover within a few months of Obama taking office, as the stimulus package and other measures began to have their positive effect.  From a trough of about 3 1/2 million new hires per month in mid-2009, new hires has slowly grown to a pace of a bit over 4 million per month currently.  That is, there has been some recovery, but the pace is still well below the 5 million new hires per month seen when the economy is at full employment.

2)  Total job separations, whether from layoffs or quitting or anything else, actually fell in the downturn.  People often believe that unemployment shot up in the downturn because of massive layoffs, but that is not really the case.  Unemployment went up not because of more people being fired or otherwise leaving their jobs, but rather because the pace of job separations did not fall as rapidly as did the pace of new hiring.  In normal times, more people separate from their jobs because they quit (usually to take a new job elsewhere) or voluntarily leave for some other reason (e.g. retirement), than leave because of being laid off.  The pace of layoffs and discharges did indeed go up in 2008, the last year of Bush, from roughly 1.7 million per month before the downturn, to a peak of 2.5 million in the last month of Bush.  But this was less than the fall in the number of people who voluntarily quit, so total separations actually fell.  And layoffs then soon started to fall in number under Obama, and is currently below 1.6 million per month, i.e. less than the pace seen when the economy was near full employment.

3)  Since late 2009, the pace of new hiring has risen under Obama, as noted above, from roughly 3 1/2 million per month to a bit over 4 million per month currently.  Quits also started to rise with the improving job market, from about 1.5 million per month to 2 million per month most recently.  This is a good sign, and an indication that people are voluntarily leaving their jobs as the pace of new hiring has improved.  And layoffs and discharges has slowly fallen over this period as well.  The result is that the pace of total separations have been below that of new hires since early 2010, with net new jobs thus being created.

But the pace of net new job creation has been slow, at only about 200,000 net new jobs per month over the last half year (other than 300,000 in February).  With unemployment still at 8.1%, it would take years to reach full employment at such a pace of net job growth.  That is, at a pace of net job growth of 200,000 per month and assuming growth in the labor force of about 0.65% per year (the rate seen in the past decade, as it depends on population growth and demographics), it would take over two more years for the unemployment rate to fall below 6%, and almost three and a half years to fall below 5%.  At 300,000 net new jobs per month, unemployment would fall below 6% in a more reasonable 15 months, and would hit 5% in about two years.

A pace of net new job growth of 300,000 per month is not at all impossible, but will require a sufficient growth in aggregate demand in the economy so that the goods and services these workers would produce could be sold.  As has been noted before in this blog, fiscal drag largely explains the slow growth in aggregate demand in the US:  Had government demand been allowed to grow during the Obama years at the pace it had during the Reagan period when the economy was recovering from the 1981 downturn, we would now be at close to full employment.