The jobs report from The Bureau of Labor Statistics this past Friday is not good reading. The economy added about 115,000 workers, the slowest increase in 6 months. To make matters worse, over 40% of the unemployed have remained out of work for at least six months. The unemployment rate did drop a notch, but this was because many discouraged workers left the labor force. In fact, the recovery is the slowest in the post World War II period. No single factor explains this slowness, but a combination of several explains most of the slow recovery.
Recoveries after major financial crises are notoriously slow. This is well documented in the book This Time is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly, by Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff. The authors study many financial crises, and the recoveries from these crises. Recoveries are slow partly because the dire nature of a financial situation is not recognized quickly, and policies that try to end a crisis are usually implemented slowly.
While slow recoveries from major financial crises are common, employment would have increased considerably more rapidly, and unemployment would have fallen much faster, were it not for several factors special to this recovery. Scott Baker, Nicholas Bloom and Steven Davis have studied changes in economic policy uncertainty since 1985, and have constructed an index of the degree of economic policy uncertainty during the past 26 years (see their “Measuring Economic Policy Uncertainty”, October 2011). The index spikes sharply after major events, such as Black Monday’s stock market fall in 1987, the 9/11 attack, and the beginning of the 2nd Gulf War. Economic policy uncertainty according to their index also rose to extremely high levels during the past several years, especially during the 2010 midterm election, the debate over the stimulus package in 2009, the Lehman bankruptcy and TARP legislation in 2008-9, and the Eurozone crisis and the US debt ceiling disputes in 2011.
These shocks to the degree of uncertainty about the economy and economic policy significantly affected hiring and investments by American businesses. The authors estimate sizable negative effects on employment for up to two years after an increase in the degree of economic policy uncertainty equal to the actual change between 2006 and 2011. Greater uncertainty encourages firms to delay investments in business capital and in new hires. Households faced with a more uncertain economic environment postpone purchasing consumer durables, not only housing but also cars and appliances. Companies and households delay these investments partly because they want to wait to see how the uncertainty is resolved before undertaking potential risky investments. They also wait because greater economic uncertainty raises the cost of capital.
Heightened uncertainty is inevitable during recessions, especially serious ones. However, some of the uncertainty during this financial crisis was avoidable if Congress and the president had not passed an ineffective stimulus package over a divided Congress, if they had resolved the budget deficit and debt ceiling issues (especially by trying to get entitlements under control), if agreement on tax policy toward broader and flatter taxes had been achieved, and if clearer policies were adopted about which companies would be allowed to go bankrupt and which would be bailed out.
Another force slowing down the recovery in employment was the result of more generous means-tested policies introduced during the recession. My colleague Casey Mulligan discusses these policies and their employment effects in “Do Welfare Policies Matter for Labor Market Aggregates?” (January 2012). He shows that they raised unemployment and reduced employment because they gave perverse incentives on the supply side of the labor market. Many others have also argued that the extension of unemployment compensation to 99 weeks clearly encouraged some of the unemployed to remain unemployed much longer than they would have if unemployment compensation ceased after a year.
Mulligan measures in addition the impact on employment and unemployment of several other policies adopted during the recession. For example, the food stamp program SNAP) was made more generous and more easily available, which enabled additional families to qualify for food stamps by reducing their earnings through remaining unemployed, withdrawing from the labor force, or working part time rather than full time. Policies were introduced to reduce mortgage debt of lower income families. Mulligan’s calculations suggest that the aggregate effect of all these policy changes on both US employment and unemployment was large because they reduced the supply of men and women who wanted to work, or to work full time.
The literature on financial crises shows that the employment recovery from this recession would likely have been rather slow even with clear and productive government responses. Unfortunately, such responses were not forthcoming. Instead, many of the policies discussed or implemented discouraged both hiring by companies and job seeking by members of the potential labor force through raising the uncertainty about where the American economy was headed. They also reduced employment by creating greater incentives to remain unemployed, or to stay out of the labor force.