Setting the Bar Very Low: The Unemployment Report for December 2011

Well I’m back.  Yes, it’s been a longer than expected break from blogging driven by work considerations, but contrary to the rumors, I have not been “doomed”.  So it’s on to a new semester and a new resolution to post frequently. I hope 3-5 times per week.

To start things off, yesterday was the first Friday of the month which means, of course, the monthly report on employment, jobs, and the unemployment rate.  I’ll let Calculated Risk report the news and graph first:

December Employment Report: 200,000 Jobs, 8.5% Unemployment Rate

There were 200,000 payroll jobs added in December. This included 212,000 private sector jobs added, and 12,000 government jobs lost.

The following graph shows the employment population ratio, the participation rate, and the unemployment rate.

Employment Pop Ratio, participation and unemployment ratesClick on graph for larger image.

The unemployment rate declined to 8.5% (red line).

The Labor Force Participation Rate was unchanged 64.0% in December (blue line). This is the percentage of the working age population in the labor force.

The Employment-Population ratio was unchanged at 58.5% in December (black line).

The good news then is that trend indicates we are creating net more jobs in the last few months than we have been doing for several years.  An unemployment rate of 8.5% is definitely a lot better than the 10% we had in 2009. And, the rate is coming down.  But we shouldn’t get too excited nor should politicians think  their work is done.  First off, although this is the strongest 3 month improvement in the rate we’ve seen since the start of the recession back in 2007, we have seen similar short trends of improvement that fizzle out. It’s always possible as some analysts have observed that the November-December numbers were driven by a surge in temporary hiring in the online retailing sector.  It’s possible that we’re only seeing  a temporary strengthening and that January and February will see a return to same stagnation we saw last summer.

Second, it’s always possible that Congress will do something incredibly stupid that dramatically cuts employment and aggregate demand immediately. A third, very serious risk is that Europe will continue to slide into government austerity-induced recession and possibly trigger a global financial crisis with the Euro.  A European slide will adversely affect our exports and depending on how severe it is, possibly reduce employment in U.S. exporting industries.  A Euro financial crisis would likely ripple back to big U.S. banks who could in turn cause problems here.

But the biggest reason that we shouldn’t be satisfied with these numbers is simple. This isn’t enough! An improvement of 200,000 net new jobs might be acceptable if we were already at full employment, but we’re not. We need to grow faster so we can put the millions of unemployed back to work.  Again back to Calculated Risk:

Percent Job Losses During RecessionsThis graph shows the job losses from the start of the employment recession, in percentage terms aligned at maximum job losses.

This is the worst post WWII employment recession. However, as bad as this is, the Great Depression would be way off the chart. At the worst, employment fell a little over 6% during the recent employment recession – although the data is a little uncertain – employment probably fell by around 22% during the Great Depression.

Calculated Risk makes the point that the past few years haven’t been as severe as the Great Depression.  That’s true in the sense of how deep or severe the crisis has been.  But in terms of length, how long we go without full employment, we are clearly on a path to making this on par with the Great Depression.  The Great Depression in employment was essentially 11 years long.  Unemployment started rising in late 1929. It never fully recovered until the war spending took off in a big way in 1940-41. That’s eleven years. The current recession/depression/inadequate recovery started in late 2007. It’s at least 4 years old already.  The current pace of jobs addition puts us another 3 or so years until we recover all the jobs we lost.   So that’s a total of 7 plus years.

But as Paul Krugman points out, the population and labor force has been growing during the last 4 years.  To really reach full employment we need even more.

Let me give two back-of-the-envelope ways to think about how inadequate 200,000 jobs a month is.

First, note that there are still about 6 million fewer jobs than there were at the end of 2007 — and that we would normally have expected to have added around 5 million jobs over a four-year period. So we’re 11 million jobs down — and we need at least 100,000 jobs a month just to keep up with working-age population growth. Do the math, and you’ll see that it would take 9 or 10 years of growth at this rate to restore full employment.

Alternatively, note that during the Clinton years — all 8 of them — the economy added around 230,000 jobs a month. As it did that, the unemployment rate fell about 3 1/2 percentage points — which is about what we’d need from here to get back to something that felt like full employment. Again, this suggests that we’re looking at something like a decade-long haul to have full recovery.

So yes, this is better news than we’ve been having. But it’s still vastly inadequate.

So, yes I’m encouraged by the recent employment reports, but not very much.  I still hold to my position that when all is done and we look back on this period we’ll be referring to it as some sort of depression, not a “Great” one, but some sort of depression.