The Pattern of Unemployment: Fewer on Temporary Layoff, but More of the Rest

A.  Introduction

The economic downturn this year has been unprecedented in many ways.  Millions were laid off in March and April as the country desperately went into lockdowns to limit the spread of the virus that causes Covid-19, following the failure of the Trump administration to recognize the extent of the crisis.  But it was always known that those lockdowns would be temporary (albeit with differing views on how long they would be needed), and hence those laid off in March and April were generally put on temporary layoff.

The number on temporary layoff then started to decline in May, with this continuing (although at a diminishing rate) through November.  This has brought down the headline figure on total unemployment – the figure most people focus on – from 14.7% in April to 6.7% as of November.  But while that focus on the overall rate of unemployment is normally appropriate (as the number on temporary layoff has usually been steady and low, while the labor force has fluctuated little), the unusual conditions of the downturn this year have masked important aspects of the story.  Unemployment is a good deal worse than the traditional measures appear to suggest.

One key issue is what happened to those who were unemployed but not on temporary layoff.  The Bureau of Labor Statistics (the source of the data used here) defines those on temporary layoff to be those who are unemployed but who either have been given a date for when they will be able to return to their job, or expect to return to it within six months.  All other unemployed (defined by the BLS as being in the labor force but not employed, not on temporary layoff, and have taken concrete actions within the previous four weeks to look for a job), include those who were permanently laid off, who completed some temporary job, who left a job by choice (quit), or have newly entered (or re-entered) the labor force actively seeking a job but do not yet have a job.

That distinction – treating separately the unemployed on temporary layoff and the rest – will be examined in this post.  Also important to the story is how many are counted in the official statistics to be in the labor force at all, as that has also changed in this unprecedented downturn.  That will be examined as well.

B.  The Unemployed on Temporary Layoff Spiked Up and Then Came Back Down, but Other Unemployed Rose Steadily

The chart at the top of this post shows the unemployment rates (as a percent of the labor force) for all who were unemployed (in black), for those on temporary layoff (in blue), and for all others who were unemployed (in red).  Unemployment surged, at an unprecedented rate, in March and April of this year.  The increase in those on temporary layoff accounted for this – indeed for all of this in those months in the estimated figures.  The total increase in unemployment in March and April compared to February was 17.25 million; the increase in those on temporary layoff was almost exactly the same at 17.26 million.  (But keep in mind that these figures are estimates based on household surveys, and thus that there will be statistical noise.  That the numbers were almost exactly the same was certainly in part a coincidence.  Still, they were definitely close.)

The total unemployment rate then came down sharply from its April peak of 14.7% to 6.7% as of November.  It was led, once again. by changes in those on temporary layoff, but this time the number unemployed for reasons other than temporary layoff rose.  Their rate was 3.0% in February, which then rose to 5.0% by September.  It has kept at roughly this rate since (although so far with data for only two more months).

That increase – of 2.0% points – is significant but modest.  With all the disruption this year, one might have expected to see more.  Certainly important and effective in partially alleviating the crisis was the $3.1 trillion in several packages approved by Congress in March and April (of new government spending, tax cuts, and new loan facilities).  While adding to the public debt, such spending is needed when confronted with a crisis such as this.  The time to reduce the fiscal deficit would have been when the economy was at full employment.  But Trump added to the fiscal deficit in those years (with both higher spending and massive tax cuts) instead of using that opportunity to prepare for when a crisis would necessitate higher spending.

C.  But the Number in the Labor Force Also Fell, Which Had a Significant Impact on the Reported Unemployment Rates

There is, however, another factor important to the understanding of why the unemployment rate (for those other than on temporary layoff) rose only by this modest amount.  And that is that the number in the labor force abruptly changed.  This was another unusual development in this unprecedented crisis.

The labor force (formally the civilian labor force, as those on active military duty are excluded) changes only slowly.  It is driven primarily by demographic factors, coupled with long-term decisions such as when to retire, whether to attend college rather than seek a job, whether both spouses in a married couple will seek to work or whether one (usually in this society the wife) will choose to remain at home with the children, and so on.

But it was different in this crisis:

The number in the labor force fell abruptly in March and April – by 8.1 million compared to February, or 4.9% of the labor force.  There has never before been such an abrupt fall, at least since 1948 when such data first began to be collected.  The largest previous two-month fall was just 1.0 million, in 1953 when this was 1.6% of the labor force.  (And the month to month “squiggles” seen in the chart above should not be taken too seriously.  They likely reflect statistical noise in the household surveys.)

Those who drop out of the labor force are not counted as unemployed, as formally defined by the BLS, as they are not actively seeking a job.  And the sharp collapse in available jobs in March and April probably contributed to some dropping out of the labor force, as that scarcity of jobs would, by itself, induce some not even to try to find a job if they lost one.  But probably more important in this unprecedented crisis is a parent (and usually the wife) dropping out of the labor force in order to take care of their children when the schools and/or daycare centers closed.  This has never happened before.

Since April, the number in the labor force has recovered some but only partially.  Compared to what the labor force likely would have been by November 2020, based on a simple extrapolation of the January 2015 to January 2020 trend (growth at an annual rate of 0.95%), the labor force in November was 5.4 million less than what it otherwise would have been.

This will have a significant impact on the unemployment figures.  Since the number unemployed are, by definition, equal to the difference between the number in the labor force less the number employed, the number unemployed will be substantially higher if one counts those who abruptly dropped out of the labor force to take care of their children.  These, including others who dropped out of the labor force but would prefer to be employed if labor market conditions were more hospitable, should be counted when assessing how much slack there may be in the economy.  And they can be considered as part of those who are unemployed for reasons other than temporary layoff (as they are similar in nature to those who had, or in this case would have, re-entered the labor force but do not have a job).

Counting such individuals as among those who are in fact unemployed, the labor market does not look to be nearly as strong as the headline figures would suggest.  Assuming that the labor force in 2020 would have continued to grow at the trend rate of the previous several years, that the number employed would have been the same as was recorded, and that the number on temporary layoff would have also been as recorded, the chart on unemployment rates then becomes:

Superficially, this chart may appear similar to that at the top of this post.  But there are two important differences.  First, note the scale is different.  Instead of peaking in April at an overall unemployment rate of 14.7%, the unemployment rate would instead have reached over 19%.  Furthermore, it would still be at 9.7% as of November, which is high.  It is not far from the peak 10.0% rate reached in 2009 following the 2008 economic collapse.

Second, both the path and the levels of the unemployment rate for those other than on temporary layoff are now quite different.  That rate jumps abruptly in March and April to 8.2% of the labor force, from 3.1% before, and then remains at around 7 1/2 to 8% since then.  This a much more worrisome level than was seen above when no correction was made for what has happened to the labor force this year.  There is also no downward trend.  All the gains in the reduction of overall employment since April would have been due to the reduction in those on temporary layoff.

D.  Conclusion

The economy remains weak.  And president-elect Joe Biden is certainly correct that a necessary (although not sufficient) condition for the economy to recover fully will be that Covid-19 be addressed.  Australia, New Zealand, and the countries of East Asia have shown that this can be done, and how it could have been done.  Simply wearing masks would have been central.  Dr. Robert Redfield, the head of the CDC, has noted that wearing a mask could very well be more effective in stopping the spread of the virus that causes Covid-19 than some of the vaccines now under development, if everyone wore them.  But Trump has been unwilling to call on all Americans, including in particular his supporters, to wear a mask.  Indeed, he has even repeatedly mocked those who choose to wear a mask.

As a longer-term solution, however, vaccinations will be key.  But this also depends on most Americans (probably a minimum of 70 to 80%, but at this point still uncertain) being vaccinated.  Even under the most optimistic of circumstances, constraints on vaccine availability alone means this will not be possible before the summer.  But this also assumes that, once available, 70 to 80% of the population (or whatever the minimum share required will be) will choose to be vaccinated.  Given how the simple wearing of face masks was politicized by Trump (and turned into a signal of whether one supports him or not), plus controversies among some on both the left and the right on vaccinations that pre-dates Trump’s presidency, it is hard to be optimistic that such a vaccination share will soon be reached.

Hopefully a sufficiently large share of the population will at some point have chosen to be vaccinated to end the spread of the virus.  But until that happens, further support to the economy, and not least relief to those most affected by the crisis, needs to be passed by Congress and signed by the president.  The House passed such a measure already last May, but Mitch McConnell, the Republican Majority Leader in the Senate, has so far blocked consideration of anything similar.  As I write this, there appears to be a possibility of some compromise being considered in the Senate, but it remains to be seen if that will happen (and if Trump then will sign it).

It is certainly desperately needed.

Trump’s Economic Record in Charts

A.  Introduction

Donald Trump has repeatedly asserted that he built “the greatest economy in history”.  A recent example is in his acceptance speech for the Republican nomination to run for a second term.  And it is not a surprise that Trump would want to claim this.  It would be nice, if true.  But what is surprising is that a number of election surveys have found that Trump polls well on economic issues, with voters rating Trump substantially above Biden on who would manage the economy better.

Yet any examination of Trump’s actual record, not just now following the unprecedented economic collapse this year resulting from the Covid-19 crisis, but also before, shows Trump’s repeated assertion to be plainly false.

The best that can be said is that Trump did not derail, in his first three years in office, the economic expansion that began with the turnaround Obama engineered within a half year of his taking office in 2009 (when Obama had inherited an economy that was, indeed, collapsing).  But the expansion that began under Obama has now been fully and spectacularly undone in Trump’s fourth year in office, with real GDP in the second quarter of 2020 plummeting at an annualized rate of 32% – to a level that is now even well below what it was when Trump took office.  The 32% rate of decline is by far the fastest decline recorded for the US since quarterly data on GDP began to be recorded in 1947 (the previous record was 10%, under Eisenhower, and the next worst was an 8.4% rate of decline in the last quarter of 2008 at the very end of the Bush administration.

This post will look at Trump’s record in comparison to that not just of Obama but also of all US presidents of the last almost 48 years (since the Nixon/Ford term).  For his first three years in office, that Trump record is nothing special.  It is certainly and obviously not the best in history.  And now in his fourth year in office, it is spectacularly bad.

The examination will be via a series of charts.  The discussion of each will be kept limited, but the interested reader may wish to study them more closely – there is a lot to the story of how the economy developed during each presidential administration.  But the primary objective of these “spaghetti” charts is to show how Trump’s record in his first three years in office fits squarely in the middle of what the presidents of the last half-century have achieved.  It was not the best nor the worst over those first three years – Trump inherited from Obama an expanding and stable economy.  But then in Trump’s fourth year, it has turned catastrophic.

Also, while there is a lot more that could be covered, the post will be limited to examination of the outcomes for growth in overall output (GDP), for the fiscal accounts (government spending, the fiscal deficit, and the resulting public debt), the labor market (employment, unemployment, productivity, and real wages), and the basic trade accounts (imports, exports, and the trade balance).

The figures for the charts were calculated based on data from a number of official US government sources.  Summarizing them all here for convenience (with their links):

a)  BEA:  Bureau of Economic Analysis of the US Department of Commerce, and in particular the National Income and Product Accounts (NIPA, also commonly referred to as the GDP accounts).

b)  BLS:  Bureau of Labor Statistics of the US Department of Labor.

c)  OMB Historical Tables:  Office of Management and Budget, of the White House.

d)  Census Bureau – Foreign Trade Data:  Of the US Department of Commerce.

It was generally most convenient to access the data via FRED, the Federal Reserve Economic Database of the St. Louis Fed.

B.  Real GDP

Trump likes to assert that he inherited an economy that was in terrible shape.  Larry Kudlow, the director of the National Economic Council and Trump’s principal economic advisor recently asserted, for example in his speech to the Republican National Convention, that the Trump administration inherited from Obama “a stagnant economy that was on the front end of a recession”.  While it is not fully clear what a “front end” of a recession is (it is not an economic term), the economy certainly was not stagnant and there was no indication whatsoever of a recession on the horizon.

The chart at the top of this post shows the path followed by real GDP during the course of Obama’s first and second terms in office, along with that of Trump’s term in office thus far.  Both are indexed to 100 in the first calendar quarter of their presidential terms.  Obama inherited from Bush an economy that was rapidly collapsing (with a banking system in ruin) and succeeded in turning it around within a half year of taking office.  Subsequent growth during the remainder of Obama’s first term was then similar to what it was in his second term (with the curve parallel but shifted down in the first term due to the initial downturn).

Growth in the first three years of Trump’s presidency was then almost exactly the same as during Obama’s second term.  There is a bit of a dip at the start of the second year in Obama’s second term (linked to cuts in government spending in the first year of Obama’s second term – see below), but then a full recovery back to the previous path.  At the three-year mark (the 12th quarter) they are almost exactly the same.  To term this stagnation under Obama and then a boom under Trump, as Kudlow asserted, is nonsensical – they are the same to that point.  But the economy has now clearly collapsed under Trump, while it continued on the same path as before under Obama.

Does Trump look better when examined in a broader context, using the record of presidents going back to the Nixon/Ford term that began almost 48 years ago?  No:

The best that can be said is that the growth of real GDP under Trump in his first three years in office is roughly in the middle of the pack.  Growth was worse in a few administrations – primarily those where the economy went into a recession not long after they took office (such as in the first Reagan term, the first Bush Jr. term, and the Nixon/Ford term).  But growth in most of the presidential terms was either similar or distinctly better than what we had under Trump in his first three years.

And now real GDP has collapsed in Trump’s fourth year to the absolute worst, and by a very significant margin.

One can speculate on what will happen to real GDP in the final two quarters of Trump’s presidency.  Far quicker than in earlier economic downturns, Congress responded in March and April with a series of relief bills to address the costs of the Covid-19 crisis, that in total amount to be spent far surpass anything that has ever been done before.  The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates that the resulting spending increases, tax cuts, and new loan facilities of measures already approved will cost a total of $3.1 trillion.  This total approved would, by itself, come to 15% of GDP (where one should note that not all will be spent or used in tax cuts in the current fiscal year – some will carry over into future years).  Such spending can be compared to the $1.2 trillion, or 8.5% of the then GDP, approved in 2008/09 in response to that downturn (with most of the spending and tax cuts spread over three years).  Of this $1.2 trillion, $444 billion was spent under the TARP program approved under Bush and $787 billion for the Recovery Act under Obama).

And debate is currently underway on additional relief measures, where the Democratic-controlled Congress approved in May a further $3 trillion for relief, while leaders in the Republican-controlled Senate have discussed a possible $1 trillion measure.  What will happen now is not clear.  Some compromise in the middle may be possible, or nothing may be passed.

But the spending already approved will have a major stimulative effect.  With such a massive program supporting demand, plus the peculiar nature of the downturn (where many businesses and other centers of employment had to be temporarily closed as the measures taken by the Trump administration to limit the spread of the coronavirus proved to be far from adequate), the current expectation is that there will be a significant bounceback in GDP in the third quarter.  As I write this, the GDPNow model of the Atlanta Fed forecasts that real GDP in the quarter may grow at an annualized rate of 29.6%.  Keep in mind, however, that to make up for a fall of 32% one needs, by simple arithmetic, an increase of 47% from the now lower base.  (Remember that to make up for a fall of 50%, output would need to double – grow by 100% – to return to where one was before.)

Taking into account where the economy is now (where there was already a 5% annualized rate of decline in real GDP in the first quarter of this year), what would growth need to be to keep Trump’s record from being the worst of any president of at least the last half-century?  Assuming that growth in the third quarter does come to 29.6%, one can calculate that GDP would then need to grow by 5.0% (annualized) in the fourth quarter to match the currently worst record – of Bush Jr. in his second term.  And it would need to grow by 19% to get it back to where GDP was at the end of 2019.

C.  The Fiscal Accounts

Growth depends on many factors, only some of which are controlled by a president together with congress.  One such factor is government spending.  Cuts in government spending, particularly when unemployment is significant and businesses cannot sell all that they could and would produce due to a lack of overall demand, can lead to slower growth.  Do cuts in government spending perhaps explain the middling rate of growth observed in the first three years of Trump’s term in office?  Or did big increases in government spending spur growth under Obama?

Actually, quite the opposite:

Federal government spending on goods and services did rise in the first year and a half of Obama’s first term in office, with this critical in reversing the collapsing economy that Obama inherited.  But the Republican Congress elected in 2010 then forced through cuts in spending, with further cuts continuing until well into Obama’s second term (after which spending remained largely flat).  While the economy continued to expand at a modest pace, the cuts slowed the economy during a period when unemployment was still high.  (There is also government spending on transfers, where the two largest such programs are Social Security and Medicare, but spending on such programs depends on eligibility, not on annual appropriations.)

Under Trump, in contrast, government spending has grown, and consistently so.  And indeed government spending grew under Trump at a faster pace than it had almost any other president of the last half-century (with even faster growth only under Reagan and Bush, Jr., two presidents that spoke of themselves, as Trump has, as “small government conservatives”):

The acceleration in government spending growth under Trump did succeed, in his first three years in office, in applying additional pressure on the economy in a standard Keynesian fashion, which brought down unemployment (see below).  But this extra government spending did not lead to an acceleration in growth – it just kept it growing (in the first three years of Trump’s term) at the same pace as it had before, as was seen above.  That is, the economy required additional demand pressure to offset measures the Trump administration was taking which themselves would have reduced growth (such as his trade wars, or favoritism for industries such as steel and aluminum, which harmed the purchasers of steel and aluminum such as car companies and appliance makers).

Trump has also claimed credit for a major tax cut bill (as have Reagan and Bush, Jr.).  They all claimed this would spur growth (none did – see above and a more detailed analysis in this blog post), and indeed such sufficiently faster growth, they predicted, that tax revenue would increase despite the reductions in the tax rates.  Hence fiscal deficits would be reduced.  They weren’t:

Fiscal deficits were large and sustained throughout the Reagan/Bush Sr. years.  They then moved to a fiscal surplus under Clinton, following the major tax increase passed in 1993 and the subsequent years of steady and strong growth.  The surplus was then turned back again into a deficit under Bush Jr., with his major tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 coupled with his poor record for economic growth.  Obama then inherited a high fiscal deficit, which grew higher due to the economic downturn he faced on taking office and the measures that were necessary to address it.  But with the economic recovery, the deficit under Obama was then reduced (although at too fast a pace –  this held back the economy, especially in the early years of the recovery when unemployment was still high).

Under Trump, in contrast, the fiscal deficit rose in his first three years in office, at a time when unemployment was low.  This was the time when the US should have been strengthening rather than weakening the fiscal accounts.  As President Kennedy said in his 1962 State of the Union Address: “The time to repair the roof is when the sun is shining.”  Under Trump, in contrast, the fiscal deficit was reaching 5% of GDP even before the Covid-19 crisis.  The US has never before had such a high fiscal deficit when unemployment was low, with the sole exception of during World War II.

This left the fiscal accounts in a weak condition when government spending needed to increase with the onset of the Covid-19 crisis.  The result is that the fiscal deficit is expected to reach an unprecedented 16% of GDP this fiscal year, the highest it has ever been (other than during World War II) since at least 1930, when such records began to be kept.

The consequence is a public debt that is now shooting upwards:

As a share of GDP, federal government debt (held by the public) is expected to reach 100% of GDP by September 30 (the end of the fiscal year), based on a simple extrapolation of fiscal account and debt data currently available through July (see the US Treasury Monthly Statement for July, released August 12, 2020).  And with its momentum (as such fiscal deficits do not turn into surpluses in any short period of time), Trump will have left for coming generations a government debt that is the highest (as a share of GDP) it has ever been in US history, exceeding even what it was at the end of World War II.

When Trump campaigned for the presidency in 2016, he asserted he would balance the federal government fiscal accounts “fairly quickly”.  Instead the US will face this year, in the fourth year of his term in office, a fiscal deficit that is higher as a share of GDP than it ever was other than during World War II.  Trump also claimed that he would have the entire federal debt repaid within eight years.  This was always nonsense and reflected a basic lack of understanding.  But at least the federal debt to GDP ratio might have been put on a downward trajectory during years when unemployment was relatively low.  Instead, federal debt is on a trajectory that will soon bring it to the highest it has ever been.

D.  The Labor Market

Trump also likes to assert that he can be credited with the strongest growth in jobs in history.  That is simply not true:

Employment growth was higher in Obama’s second term than it ever was during Trump’s term in office.  The paths were broadly similar over the first three years of Trump’s term, but Trump was simply – and consistently – slower.  In Obama’s first term, employment was falling rapidly (by 800,000 jobs a month) when Obama took his oath of office, but once this was turned around the path showed a similar steady rise.

Employment then plummeted in Trump’s fourth year, and by a level that was unprecedented (at least since such statistics began to be gathered in 1947).  In part due to the truly gigantic relief bills passed by Congress in March and April (described above), there has now been a substantial bounceback.  But employment is still (as of August 2020) well below what it was when Trump took office in January 2017.

Even setting aside the collapse in employment this year, Trump’s record in his first three years does not compare favorably to that of other presidents:

A few presidents have done worse, primarily those who faced an economy going into a downturn as they took office (Obama) or where the economy was pushed into a downturn soon after they took office (Bush Jr., Reagan) or later in their term (Bush Sr., Nixon/Ford).  But the record of other presidents was significantly better, with the best (which some might find surprising) that of Carter.

Trump also claims credit for pushing unemployment down to record low levels.  The unemployment rate did, indeed, come down (although not to record low rates – the unemployment rate was lower in the early 1950s under Truman and then Eisenhower, and again in the late 1960s).  But one cannot see any significant change in the path on the day Trump was inaugurated compared to what it had been under Obama since 2010:

And of course now in 2020, unemployment has shot upwards to a record level (since at least 1948, when these records began to be kept systematically).  It has now come down with the bounceback of the economy, but remains high (8.4% as of August).

Over the long term, nothing is more important in raising living standards than higher productivity.  And this was the argument Trump and the Republicans in Congress made to rationalize their sharp cuts in corporate tax rates in the December 2017 tax bill.  The argument was that companies would then invest more in the capital assets that raise productivity (basically structures and equipment).  But this did not happen.  Even before the collapse this year, private non-residential investment in structures and equipment was no higher, and indeed a bit lower, as a share of GDP than what it was before the 2017 tax bill passed.

And it certainly has not led to a jump in productivity:

Productivity growth during Trump’s term in office has been substantially lower (by 3%) than what it was during Obama’s first term, although somewhat better than during Obama’s second term (by a cumulative 1% point at the same calendar quarter in their respective terms).

And compared to that of other presidents, Trump’s record on productivity gains is nothing special:

Finally, what happened to real wages?  While higher productivity growth is necessary in the long term for higher wages (workers cannot ultimately be paid more than what is produced), in the short term a number of other factors (such as relative bargaining strength) will dominate.  When unemployment is high, wage gains will typically be low as firms can hire others if a worker demands a higher wage.  And when unemployment is low, workers will typically be in a better bargaining position to demand higher wages.

How, then, does Trump’s record compare to that of Obama?:

During the first three years of Trump’s tenure in office, real wage gains were basically right in the middle of what they were over the similar periods in Obama’s two terms.  But then it looks like real wages shot upwards at precisely the time when the Covid-19 crisis hit.  How could this be?

One needs to look at what lies behind the numbers.  With the onset of the Covid-19 crisis, unemployment shot up to the highest it has been since the Great Depression.  But two issues were then important.  One is that when workers are laid off, it is usually the least senior, least experienced, workers who are laid off first.  And such workers will in general have a lower wage.  If a high share of lower-wage workers become unemployed, then the average wage of the workers who remain employed will go up.  This is a compositional effect.  No individual worker may have seen an increase in his or her wage, but the overall average will go up if fewer lower-wage workers remain employed.

Second, this downturn was different from others in that a high share of the jobs lost were precisely in low-wage jobs – workers in restaurants, cafeterias, and hotels, or in retail shops, or janitors for office buildings, and so on.  As the economy shut down, these particular businesses had to close.  Many, if not most, office workers could work from home, but not these, commonly low-wage, workers.  They were laid off.

The sharp jump in average real wages in the second quarter of 2020 (Trump’s 14th quarter in office) is therefore not something to be pleased about.  As the lower-wage workers who have lost their jobs return to being employed, one should expect this overall average wage to fall back towards where it was before.

But the path of real wages in the first three years of Trump’s presidency, when the economy continued to expand as it had under Obama, does provide a record that can be compared.  How does it look relative to that of other presidents of the last half-century?:

Again, Trump’s record over this period is in the middle of the range found for other presidents.  It was fairly good (unemployment was low, which as noted above would be expected to help), but real wages in the second terms of Clinton and Obama rose by more, and performance was similar in Reagan’s second term.

E.  International Trade Accounts

Finally, how does Trump’s record on international trade compare to that of other presidents?  Trump claimed he would slash the US trade deficit, seeing it in a mercantilistic way as if a trade deficit is a “loss” to the country.  At a 2018 press conference (following a G-7 summit in Canada), he said, for example, “Last year,… [the US] lost  … $817 billion on trade.  That’s ridiculous and it’s unacceptable.”  And “We’re like the piggybank that everybody is robbing.”

This view on the trade balance reflects a fundamental lack of understanding of basic economics.  Equally worrisome is Trump’s view that launching trade wars targeting specific goods (such as steel and aluminum) or specific countries (such as China) will lead to a reduction in the trade deficit.  As was discussed in an earlier post on this blog, the trade balance ultimately depends on the overall balance between domestic savings and domestic investment in an economy.  Trade wars may lead to reductions in imports, but then there will also be a reduction in exports.  If the trade wars do not lead to higher savings or lower investment, such trade interventions (with tariffs or quotas imposed by fiat) will simply shift the trade to other goods or other nations, leaving the overall balance where it would have been based on the savings/investment balance.

But we now have three and a half years of the Trump administration, and can see what his trade wars have led to.  In terms of imports and exports:

Imports did not go down under Trump – they rose until collapsing in the worldwide downturn of 2020.  Exports also at first rose, but more slowly than imports, and then leveled off before imports did.  They then also collapsed in 2020.  Going back a bit, both imports and exports had gone up sharply during the Bush administration.  Then, after the disruption surrounding the economic collapse of 2008/9 (with a fall then a recovery), they roughly stabilized at high levels during the last five years of the Obama administration.

In terms of the overall trade balance:

The trade deficit more than doubled during Bush’s term in office.  While both imports and exports rose (as was seen above), imports rose by more.  The cause of this was the housing credit bubble of the period, which allowed households to borrow against home equity (which in turn drove house prices even higher) and spend that borrowing (leading to higher consumption as a share of current income, which means lower savings).  This ended, and ended abruptly, with the 2008/9 collapse, and the trade deficit was cut in half.  After some fluctuation, it then stabilized in Obama’s second term.

Under Trump, in contrast, the trade deficit grew compared to where it was under Obama.  It did not diminish, as Trump insisted his trade wars would achieve, but the opposite.  And with the growing fiscal deficit (as discussed above) due to the December 2017 tax cuts and the more rapid growth in government spending (where a government deficit is dis-saving that has to be funded by borrowing), this deterioration in the trade balance should not be a surprise.  And I also suspect that Trump does not have a clue as to why this has happened (nor an economic advisor willing to explain it to him).

F.  Conclusion

There is much more to Trump’s economic policies that could have been covered.  It is also not yet clear how much damage has been done to the economic structure from the crisis following the mismanagement of Covid-19 (with the early testing failures, the lack of serious contact tracing and isolation of those who may be sick, and importantly, Trump’s politicizing the wearing of simple masks).  Unemployment rose to record levels, and this can have a negative impact (both immediate and longer-term) on the productivity of those workers and on their subsequent earnings.  There has also been a jump in bankruptcies, which reduces competition.  And bankrupt firms, as well as stressed firms more generally, will not be able to repay their loans in full.  The consequent weakening of bank balance sheets will constrain how much banks will be able to lend to others, which will slow the pace of any recovery.

But these impacts are still uncertain.  The focus of this post has been on what we already know of Trump’s economic record.  It is not a good one. The best that can be said is that during his first three years in office he did not derail the expansion that had begun under Obama.  Growth continued (in GDP, employment, productivity, wages), at rates similar to what they were before.  Compared to paths followed in other presidencies of the last half-century, they were not special.

But this growth during Trump’s tenure in office was only achieved with rapid growth in federal government spending.  Together with the December 2017 tax cuts, this led to a growing, not a diminishing, fiscal deficit.  The deficit grew to close to 5% of GDP, which was indeed special:  Never before in US history has the fiscal deficit been so high in an economy at or close to full employment, with the sole exception of during World War II.

The result was a growing public debt as a share of GDP, when prudent fiscal policy would have been the reverse.  Times of low unemployment are when the country should be reducing its fiscal deficit so that the public debt to GDP ratio will fall.  Reducing public dis-saving would also lead to a reduction in the trade deficit (other things being equal).  But instead the trade deficit has grown.

As a consequence, when a crisis hits (as it did in 2020) and government needs to spend substantial sums for relief (as it had to this year), the public debt to GDP ratio will shoot upwards from already high levels.  Republicans in Congress asserted in 2011 that a public debt of 70% of GDP was excessive and needed to be brought down rapidly.  Thus they forced through spending cuts, which slowed the recovery at a time when unemployment was still high.

But now public debt under Trump will soon be over 100% of GDP.  Part of the legacy of Trump’s term in office, for whoever takes office this coming January 20, will therefore be a public debt that will soon be at a record high level, exceeding even that at the end of World War II.

This has certainly not been “the greatest economy in history”.

Trump’s Attack on Social Security

Trump famously promised in his 2016 campaign for the presidency that he would never cut Social Security.  He just did.  How much is not yet clear.  It could be minor or it could be major, depending on how he follows up (or is allowed to follow up) on the executive order he signed on Saturday, August 8 while spending a weekend at his luxury golf course in New Jersey.  The executive order (one of four signed at that time) would defer collection of the 6.2% payroll tax paid by employees earning up to $104,000 a year for the pay periods between September 1 and December 31 (usefully straddling election day, as many immediately noted).

What would then happen on December 31?  That is not clear.  On signing the executive order, Trump said that “If I’m victorious on November 3rd, I plan to forgive these taxes and make permanent cuts to the payroll tax.  I’m going to make them all permanent.”  He later added:  “In other words, I’ll extend beyond the end of the year and terminate the tax.”

The impact on Social Security and the trust fund that supports it will depend on how far this goes.  If Trump is re-elected and he then, as promised, defers beyond December 31 collection of the payroll tax that workers pay for their Social Security, the constitutional question arises of what authority he has to do this.  While temporary deferrals of collections are allowed during a time of crisis, what happens when the president says he will bar the IRS from collecting them ever?  The president swore in his oath of office that he would uphold the law, the law clearly calls for these taxes to be collected, and a permanent deferral would clearly violate that.  But would repeated “temporary” deferrals become a violation of the statutory obligations of a president?  And he has clearly already said that he wants to make the suspension permanent and to “terminate the tax”.

There is much, therefore, which is not yet clear.  But one can examine what the impact would be under several scenarios.  They are all adverse, undermining the system of retirement benefits that has served the country well since Franklin Roosevelt signed the program into law.

Some of the implications:

a)  Deferring the collection of the Social Security payroll taxes will lead to a huge balloon payment coming due on December 31:

The executive order that Trump signed directs that firms need not (and he wants that they should not) withhold from employee paychecks the 6.2% that goes to fund the employee share of the Social Security tax.  But under current law the taxes are still due, and would need to be paid in full by December 31.

Suppose firms did decide not to withhold the 6.2% tax, and instead allow take-home pay to rise by that amount over this four-month period straddling election day.  Unless deferred further, the total of what would have been withheld will now come due on December 31, in one large balloon payment.  For those on a two-week paycheck cycle, that balloon payment would have grown to 54% of their end of the year paycheck.  It is doubtful that many employees would be very happy to see that cut in end-year pay.  Plus how would firms collect on the taxes due on workers who had been with the firm but had left for any reason before December 31?  By tax law, the firms are still obliged to pay to the IRS the payroll taxes that were due when the workers were employed with them.

Hence most expect that firms will continue to withhold for the payroll taxes due, as they always have.  The firms would likely hold off on forwarding these payments to the IRS until December 31 and instead place the funds in an escrow account to earn a bit of interest, but they would still withhold the taxes due in each paycheck just as they always have (and as their payroll systems are set up to do).  This also then defeats the whole purpose of Trump’s re-election gambit.  Workers would not see a pre-election bump up in their take-home pay.

b)  But even in this limited impact scenario, there will still be a loss to the Social Security Trust Fund:

Thus there is good reason to believe that Trump’s executive order will likely be basically just ignored.  There would, however, still be a loss to the Social Security Trust Fund, although that loss would be relatively small.

Payroll taxes paid for Social Security go directly into the Social Security Trust Fund, where they immediately begin to earn interest (at the long-term US Treasury rate).  Based on what was paid in payroll taxes in FY2019 ($1,243 billion according to the Congressional Budget Office), and adjusting for the fewer jobs now due to the sharp downturn this year, the 6.2% component of payroll taxes due would generate approximately $40 billion in revenue each month.  Assuming the $160 billion total (over four months) were then all paid in one big balloon payment on December 31 rather than monthly, the Social Security Trust Fund would lose what it would have earned in interest on the amounts deferred.  At current (low) interest rates, the total loss to Social Security would come to approximately $250 million.  Not huge, but still a loss.

c)  If collection of the 6.2% payroll tax is deferred further, beyond December 31, the losses to the Social Security Trust Fund would then grow further, and exponentially, and become disastrous if terminated:

Trump promised that “if re-elected” he would defer collection by the IRS of the taxes due further, beyond December 31.  How much further was not said, but Trump did say he would want the tax to be “terminated” altogether.  This would of course be disastrous for Social Security.  Even if the employer share of the payroll tax for Social Security (an additional 6.2%) continued to be paid in (where what would happen to it is not clear), the loss to Social Security of the employee share would lead the Trust Fund to run out in less than six years.  At that point, under current law the amounts paid to Social Security beneficiaries (retirees and dependents) would be sharply scaled back, by 50% or more (assuming the employer share of 6.2% continued to be paid).

d)  Even if the Social Security Trust Fund were kept alive by Congress acting to replenish it from other sources of tax revenues, under current law individual benefits would be reduced on those who saw their payroll tax contributions diminished:

There is also an issue at the level of individual benefits, which I have not seen mentioned but which would be significant.  The extent of this impact would depend on the particular scenario assumed, but suppose that the payroll taxes that would have come due and collected from September 1 to December 31 were permanently suspended.  For each individual, this would affect how much they had paid in to the Social Security system, where benefits are calculated by a formula based on an individual’s top 35 years of earnings (with earnings from prior years adjusted to current prices as of the year of retirement eligibility based on an average wage inflation index).

The impact on the benefits any individual will receive will then depend on the individual’s wage profile over their lifetime.  Workers may typically have 20 or 25 or maybe even 30 years of solid earnings, but then also a number of years within the 35 where they may have been not working, e.g. to raise a baby, or were unemployed, or employed only part-time, or employed in a low wage job (perhaps when a student, or when just starting out), and so on.

There would thus be a good deal of variation.  In an extreme case, the loss of four months of contributions to the Social Security Trust Fund from their employment history might have almost no impact.  This would be the case where a worker’s income in their 36th year of employment history was very similar to what it was in their 35th, and the loss in 2020 of four months of employment history would lead to 2020 dropping out of their employment top 35 altogether.  But this situation is likely to be rare.

More likely is that 2020 would remain in the top 35 years for the individual, but now with four months less of payroll contributions being recorded.  One can then calculate how much their Social Security retirement benefits would be reduced as a result.

The formulae used can be found at the Social Security website (see here, here, and here).  Using the parameters for 2020, and assuming a person had earned each year the median wages for the year (see table 4.B.3 of the 2019 Annual Statistical Supplement of Social Security), one can calculate what the benefits would be with a full year of earnings recorded for 2020 and what they would be with four months excluded, and hence the difference.

In this scenario of median earnings throughout 35 years, annual benefits to the retiree would be reduced by $105 (from $17,411 without the four months of non-payment, to $17,306 with the four months of the payroll tax not being paid).  Not huge, but not trivial either when benefits are tied to a full 35 years of earnings.  That $105 annual reduction in benefits would have been in return for the one-time reduction of $669 in payroll taxes being paid (6.2% for four months where median annual earnings of $32,378 in 2019 were assumed to apply also in 2020 despite the economic downturn).  That is, the $669 not paid in now would lead to a $105 reduction in benefits (15.8%) each and every year of retirement (assuming retirement at the Social Security normal retirement age).

The loss in retirement benefits would be greater in dollar amount if the period of non-payment of the payroll tax were extended.  Assuming, for example, a scenario where it was extended for a full year (and one then had just 34 years of contributions being paid in, with the rest at zero), with wages at the median level throughout those now 34 years, the reduction in retirement benefits would be $316 each year (three times as much as for the four-month reduction).  Payroll taxes paid would have been reduced by $2,007 in this scenario, and the $316 annual reduction is again (given how the arithmetic works) 15.8% of the $2,007 one-time reduction in payroll taxes paid.

All this assumes Social Security would continue to pay out retiree benefits in accordance with current law and assumes the Trust Fund remained adequate.  The suspension of these payroll taxes would make this difficult, as noted above, unless there was then some general bailout enacted by Congress.  But any such bailout would raise further issues.

e)  If Congress were to appropriate funds to ensure the Social Security Trust Fund remained adequately funded, the resulting gains would be far greater for those who are well off than for those who are poor:

Suppose Congress allowed these payroll taxes to be “terminated”, as Trump has called for, but then appropriated funds to ensure benefits continued to be paid as per the current formulae.  Who would gain?

For at least this part of the transaction (the origin of the funds is not clear), it would be the rich.  The savings in the payroll taxes that would be paid in order to keep one’s benefits would be five times as high for someone earning $100,000 a year as for someone earning $20,000.  The tax is a fixed 6.2% for all earnings up to the ceiling (of $137,700 in 2020, after which the tax is zero).  The difference in terms of the benefits paid would be less, since the formulae for benefits have a degree of progressivity built-in, but one can calculate with the formulae that the change in benefits from such a Congressional bailout would still be 2.3 times higher for those earning $100,000 than for those earning $20,000.

One might question whether this is the best use of such funds.  Normally one would want that the benefits accrue more to the poor than to those who are relatively well off.  The opposite would be the case here.

f)  Importantly, none of this helps those who are unemployed:

Unemployment has shot up this year due to the mismanagement of the Covid-19 crisis, with the unemployment rate rising to a level not seen in the US since the Great Depression.  Unemployment insurance, expanded in this crisis, has proven to be a critical lifeline not only to the unemployed but also to the economy as a whole, which would have collapsed by even more without the expanded programs.

Yet cutting payroll taxes for those who have a job and are on a payroll will not help with this.  If you are on a payroll you are still earning a wage, and that wage is, except in rare conditions, the same as what you had been earning before.  You have not suffered, as the newly unemployed have, due to this crisis.  Why, then, should you then be granted, in the middle of this crisis where government deficits have rocketed to unprecedented levels, a tax cut?

It makes no sense.  Some other motive must be in play.

g)  This does make sense, however, if your intention is to undermine Social Security:

Trump pushed for a cut in the payroll taxes supporting Social Security when discussions began in July in the Senate on the new Covid-19 relief bill (the House had already passed such a bill in May).  But even the Republicans in the Senate said this made no sense (as did business groups who are normally heavily in favor of tax cuts, such as the US Chamber of Commerce), and they kept it out of the bill they were drafting.

The primary advisor pushing this appears to have been Stephen Moore, an informal (unpaid) White House advisor close to Trump.  He co-authored an opinion column in The Wall Street Journal just a week before Trump’s announcement advocating the precise policy of deferring collection of the Social Security payroll tax.  Joining Moore were Arthur Laffer (author of the repeatedly disproven Laffer Curve, whom Trump had awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2019), and Larry Kudlow (Trump’s primary economic advisor and a strong advocate of tax cuts).

Moore has long been advocating for an end to Social Security, arguing that individual retirement accounts (such as 401(k)s for all) would be preferable.  As discussed above, the indefinite deferral of collection of the payroll taxes that support Social Security would, indeed, lead to a collapse of the system.  Thus this policy makes sense if you want to end Social Security.  It does not otherwise.

Yet Social Security is popular, and critically important.  Fully one-third of Americans aged 65 or older depend on Social Security for 90% or more of their income in retirement.  And 20% depend on Social Security for 100% of their income in retirement.  Cuts have serious implications, and Social Security is a highly popular program.

Thus advocates for ending Social Security cannot expect that their proposals would go far, particularly just before an election.  But suspending the payroll taxes that support the program, with a promise to terminate those taxes if re-elected, might appear to be more attractive to those who do not see the implications.

The issue then becomes whether enough see what those implications are, and vote accordingly in the election.