The Labor Market Downturn and the Role of Consumer Credit

by Zach Bethune, Thomas Cooley and Peter Rupert

The labor market added 252,000 jobs in December according to the Employment Situation released today. In addition, there were substantial positive revisions to last two months: 243k to 261k in October and 321k to 353k in November.

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The unemployment rate declined to 5.6%, which marks the lowest it has been since mid 2008. While the number of unemployed workers hasn’t fallen to its pre-recession level, the remaining ‘slack’ left in the labor market is largely due to the longer-term unemployed or those with jobs but who are underutilized, like the part-time workers for economic reasons. The story in terms of how (and in which dimensions) the labor market is recovering remains the same: slow but continued progress after a historically deep recession.

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Our usual goal in these posts is to describe where the US is in its now 7-year recovery from the recent recession. However, we ask a different question in this post (one that has been the central focus of many economists since the crisis started): why was the downturn in the labor market so deep?

The Labor Market Downturn

Compared to past recessions, the increase in unemployment during the Great Recession was the worst since the Great Depression. The unemployment rate more than doubled from mid 2007 to late 2009. Even compared to recent recessions, this crisis was particularly severe. What factors led to such a severe recession? In my job market paper, “Consumer Credit, Unemployment, and Aggregate Labor Market Dynamics”,  I study the role of  households’ ability to access and use consumer credit when they become unemployed and ask if this relationship, at the household level, can help us explain the depth of the recent recession.

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The Role of Consumer Credit

The Great Recession was unique in many respects, but a feature that continually stands out has been the response of household debt and borrowing. The credit boom of the late 1990s led many households to increase their reliance on debt to finance consumption and investment. The ratio of debt-to-income increased from around 0.6 in the 1980s to nearly 1.2 at the peak of the boom in 2007. During the crash, both debt and borrowing fell at rates never seen before as the unemployment rate doubled. Debt-to-income currently stands around 0.95.

Not only was the pattern in unemployment and borrowing similar in the aggregate, we also see them linked if we look across regions of the US. For instance, counties that had the largest increase, and subsequent fall, in borrowing during the Great Recession also tended to be the counties that experienced the largest declines in employment or increases in unemployment (see an excellent non-technical summary of this work here). These facts have led to a new emphasis on research into how problems in household financial markets might exacerbate recessions.

One area of household debt that was a strong predictor of the response of unemployment was borrowing on consumer credit lines, mostly comprised of credit cards(Mian and Sufi, 2009). The fall in consumer credit borrowing between 2007 and 2009 was nearly twice as large as in the previous 4 recessions.

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Not only were households borrowing less, it was also more difficult to access the consumer credit market. Evidence from the Federal Reserve Board’s Senior Loan Officer’s Survey suggests that lenders were tightening credit card standards and also decreasing limits on outstanding accounts. Consumer credit became more difficult to access during the Great Recession at the same time that the labor market was deteriorating.

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This leads to the question of what was happening at the household level between a consumer’s access to credit and their labor market status. Evidence from the 2007-2009 Panel Survey of Consumer Finances suggests that not only was credit being tightened for all consumers over this time period, but that it was being tightened more strongly for consumers that lost their jobs. These households applied for credit more frequently and were denied at a higher rate. The difference in the rate of denials was driven by denials that were employment and income related, being told by lenders that their income was too low. In the end, the rate of monthly borrowing fell 60% more for an average consumer that lost their job than an average consumer that maintained employment. Put simply, a job loss over the Great Recession corresponded to a significant reduction in a household’s ability to borrow on consumer credit.

Accounting for this relationship in a macroeconomic model leads to recessions that are around 70% deeper than what a standard model would predict. A shock to the economy, say a fall in productivity or house prices, gets amplified if the unemployed face tighter credit constraints. As the unemployment rate increases, a higher fraction of households are credit constrained, borrowing falls, and subsequently the demand for firms’ products. The decrease in ‘aggregate demand’ lowers firms’ demand for labor which induces more unemployment. This cycle repeats itself, causing the recession to become deeper.

Conclusions

The evidence above highlights two aspects of why the fall in household borrowing between 2007 and 2009 corresponded closely with the increase in unemployment. First, the complementarities between the household credit market and the labor market run down to the household level. It became more difficult to borrow precisely for households that demanded it the most, the unemployed. Second, this relationship affected the incentives for firms to hire, which exacerbated the initial causes of the recession.  Accounting for the relationship between borrowing and unemployment at the household level is important in understanding the trends we see aggregate data.

 

Sources

Bethune, Zachary (2014), “Consumer Credit, Unemployment, and Aggregate Labor Market Dynamics” in mimeo. 

Mian, Atif and Amir Sufi (2010), “Household Leverage and the Recession of 2007 to 2009″ IMF Economic Review, Palgrave Macmillan, vol. 58(1), pages 74-117, August.

November Employment Crushes Estimates

by: Zach Bethune, Thomas Cooley, Peter Rupert

The Employment Situation released Friday by the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that payroll employment increased 321,000 in November, beating the “best guesses” by roughly 100,000 jobs! This represents the largest gain since May, 2010. Moreover, the number of jobs have been revised up for the previous two months: 23,000 more in September and 29,000 more in October. Indeed, revisions to employment have been positive for almost all of the last year!

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According to the household survey the unemployment rate was unchanged at 5.8%; however, the unemployment rate actually rose from 5.67% to 5.82% as there were only 4,000 more employed according to the household survey while the labor force expanded by 119,000. The employment to population ratio was unchanged at 59.2 and the labor force participation rate was also unchanged, remaining at 62.8. The number of persons working part time for economic reasons (PTER) fell by 177,000 and most of that decline (150,000) came from a reduction in those reporting slack work or business conditions. However, while the latest report is the strongest in some time, the transition rates we calculate from CPS microdata illustrate that these part-time workers are still having trouble finding full-time work. There are still 6.9 million PTER workers that would like to be working full-time; nearly two million more than there where pre-Great Recession. Given that the transition rates slow little signs of improvement, we expect the number of PTER workers to decline slowly.

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Further evidence that the labor market is strengthening is that average hours of work increased as did average hourly earnings.

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The stronger labor force was a reflection of the stronger economy overall that we discussed in our last report.  The fall in people working part time for economic reasons is another sign that constraints are easing. The strength of the report adds strength to the argument for the Fed to begin increasing rates sooner rather than later.

Q3 GDP: Continued (Sporadic) Recovery

by Zach Bethune, Thomas Cooley and Peter Rupert

GDP Report

The BEA announced in the advance estimate that real GDP increased at a s.a.a.r. of 3.5% for 2014 Q3. The estimate is down over a percentage point from the 4.6% growth rate in the second quarter, although it is still in line with the average pace of growth during the current recovery of 2.16%.

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The growth in GDP was led by an increase of 1.8% in personal consumption expenditures which also cooled off from its 2.5% rate in the second quarter. Other components contributing to the increase were exports (7.8%), nonresidential fixed investment (5.5%), and both federal (10.0%) and state and local (1.3%) government spending. The increase in federal defense spending (16.0%) was the largest since 2009 Q2. Defense spending and inventories have a habit of reversing in subsequent quarters so it is not necessarily a robust improvement in the outlook.

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Real personal income increased at an annual rate of 3.2%, up slightly from its second quarter growth rate of 2.9%.

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A day before the BEA release, the FOMC released this statement on October 29. The FOMC ended Q3, but kept the possibility that if things deteriorated they could drag it out again. The statement was guarded when talking about recent conditions (highlighted text is ours):

…economic activity is expanding at a moderate pace. Labor market conditions improved somewhat further, with solid job gains and a lower unemployment rate. On balance, a range of labor market indicators suggests that underutilization of labor resources is gradually diminishing. Household spending is rising moderately and business fixed investment is advancing, while the recovery in the housing sector remains slow.

 

The most significant early signal of improvements in the labor market came from the employment cost index ( abroad measure that includes benefits) which, after months of staying flat, showed a sharp spike up in recent months.  Average hourly earnings are also moving higher in recent months.  Fed watchers will be watching this closely in the coming months to see if it portends increasing price pressure elsewhere in the economy. Nevertheless, the most likely outcome for the near future is that inflation will continue to be below target and interest rates will continue at their current level.

Slack in the Labor Market: Who are the involuntary part-time workers and what are their outcomes?

by: Zach Bethune, Thomas Cooley, Peter Rupert

The establishment data issued this morning by the BLS showed continued gains in the labor market with establishments reporting an increase in payrolls of 209,000 workers. While it is slightly lower than the last few months, with slower growth in the service sector (140,000), goods producing performed better than the last few months, increasing 58,000. The diffusion index, however, fell from 65.3 to 61.9, meaning slightly fewer firms reporting employment gains as compared to last month.

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Average weekly hours has remained unchanged over the past three months, sitting at 34.5.

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The household data revealed a slight increase in the unemployment rate, from 6.1% to 6.2%, with the number of unemployed persons rising 197,000 and the civilian labor force increasing by 329,000. So while the labor force expanded, the hiring did not keep pace, leading to an overall increase in the unemployment rate.

It is also worth noting that, even though employment is increasing, it is not creating upward pressure on wages. Average hourly earnings remained essentially stagnant the past month and have increased very little over the past year.  This is an important reason why the Fed doesn’t see increased inflation pressure coming from the labor market.

Slack in the Labor Market: Who are the involuntary part-time workers and what are their outcomes?

A couple of weeks ago, the Federal Reserve submitted their semiannual Monetary Policy Report to congress in which they outline their current stance on the state of the economy and how that weighs on their decisions about monetary policy.

Following several months of positive reports on the labor market , tepid first quarter GDP growth and strong second quarter GDP growth, the central question for policy makers remains: Is ‘liftoff’ of the federal funds rate near?

The answer to that question in June was no. The answer in July is also no. The expectation appears to be to keep the target for the federal funds rate between 0 and 1/4 percent “for a considerable period after the asset purchase program ends”. You don’t have to read very far into the report to Congress or this week’s FOMC announcement to see why the Fed is so hesitant to move rates. From the first paragraph of the summary (emphasis added):

The overall condition of the labor market continued to improve during the first half of 2014. Gains in payroll employment picked up to an average monthly pace of about 230,000, and the unemployment rate fell to 6.1 percent in June, nearly 4 percentage points below its peak in 2009. Notwithstanding those improvements, a broad array of labor market indicators—such as labor force participation, hiring and quit rates, and the number of people working part time for economic reasons—generally suggests that significant slack remains in the labor market. Continued slow increases in most measures of labor compensation also corroborate the view that labor resources are not being fully utilized.

The July statement from the FOMC highlights the continued concern about labor market conditions (emphasis added):

Information received since the Federal Open Market Committee met in June indicates that growth in economic activity rebounded in the second quarter. Labor market conditions improved, with the unemployment rate declining further. However, a range of labor market indicators suggests that there remains significant underutilization of labor resources.

The July statement adds:

The Committee currently anticipates that, even after employment and inflation are near mandate-consistent levels, economic conditions may, for some time, warrant keeping the target federal funds rate below levels the Committee views as normal in the longer run.

While it is true that unemployment has come down substantially since 2009 and workers are finding jobs, they aren’t the kind of jobs you (or the FOMC) would expect from a healthy labor market. A large fraction of those finding work are those that find part-time jobs despite the fact that they would like to be working full-time, known as “involuntary part-time workers,” that is, employed part-time for economic reasons.
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It is not uncommon in any state of the labor market to find a fraction of part-time workers to be involuntarily working part-time. Not all workers that want full-time work will get it–at least not right away; a part-time job may serve as a stepping stone to full-time work.

However, during the last recession the number of involuntary part-time workers more than doubled. There currently remains a historically high number of involuntary part-time workers. We use data from the CPS monthly survey to ask who composes this group, what types of jobs they hold, and how they transition out of part-time work.

Who are the involuntary part-time workers?

Below we compare the composition of involuntary part-time workers (jobs) across time. To do so, we use micro data from the monthly Current Population Survey (CPS) from 1997 to June 2014. For each month, we identify those workers that are currently working part-time and indicate that they would like to work full-time but cannot because of economic reasons. We ask how the pool of involuntary part-time workers has changed during the recession across 4 characteristics: sex, age, weekly hours, and weekly wages.

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The figure above plots the percentage change in each variable (e.g., age) from its 2007 value for 2009 and 2014. Notice the first ‘bar’ of each variable is set at 0 to represent the values in 2007. We show each variable’s actual value next to the columns. Before the recession, the involuntary part-time workers were equally represented between men and women, were on average 39.8 years of age, worked about 22.5 hours a week, and made $7,570 a week.

At the depth of the recession, in 2009, the pool of involuntary part-time workers shifted towards men (the share of men increased to 53%) and older workers. Hours decreased slightly to 22.36. Average wages increased to $8,490 a week, potentially representing a shift in the types of part-time jobs.

Since 2009, the composition of involuntary part-time workers has mostly returned back to normal. The exception is the average age of these workers which remains elevated.

Do involuntary part-time workers eventually find full-time jobs?

The answer is, on average, yes. However, since the recession the incidence of finding a full-time job has fallen and remains low. The longitudinal aspect of the CPS survey allows us to follow households over a little more than a year. Below we plot the fraction of all workers who were working part-time for economic reasons a year ago, that reported working full-time in the current period. This represents the probability, or transition rate, of leaving part-time work and finding a full-time job.

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In normal times this transition rate is around 0.45, meaning that 45% of all workers who work part-time but want a full-time job will find one over the year. During the recession, this rate plummeted to 0.35 and has stayed close to 0.38 since. It’s taking much longer for the labor market to clear these involuntary workers into full-time. (If we interpret these rates as Poisson, the average length of time it takes has increased from 2.2 years to around 2.8 years, or 1/.45 to 1/.35.)

Along other margins, the transition rates of involuntary part-time workers have returned to normal, which is good news. They aren’t going into unemployment as quickly as in 2009. While the rate jumped up during the recession it has since returned to around 0.06.

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There is also no discernible trend of these workers dropping out of the labor force. The transition rate from part-time for economic reasons to out of the labor force has remained close to 0.1.
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The considerable time it is taking for part-time workers to find a full time job is precisely the ‘slack’ the FOMC is thinking about when it is deciding to stay firm on monetary policy. While the unemployment rate has returned to more acceptable levels, there are many measures that continue to suggest the labor market is not ‘healthy’ and keeps the FOMC on the fence.

A Dismal^2 Q1 Final GDP Report

by Zach Bethune, Thomas Cooley and Peter Rupert

Final Revision to Q1 GDP: UGH!

Yesterday the BEA announced another large downward revision to first quarter GDP growth from -1.0% to -2.9%. The final estimate was primarily attributed to downward revisions in consumption (3.1% to 1.0%) and exports (-6.0% to -8.9%). In addition, there was a major hit to the late-2013 inventory overbuild and construction.

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All of this, obviously, leaves the FOMC and the administration in a tough position. While many analysts recount weather-related setbacks and changes in depreciation allowances (such as I.R.C. 179), there is certainly real concern that the weakness is, well, weakness.  Before the downward revisions, the weak Q1 GDP figures were already on the Fed’s mind. From Janet Yellen’s congressional testimony on May 8 (emphasis added):

“Although real GDP growth is currently estimated to have paused in the first quarter of this year, I see that pause as mostly reflecting transitory factors, including the effects of the unusually cold and snowy winter weather. With the harsh winter behind us, many recent indicators suggest that a rebound in spending and production is already under way, putting the overall economy on track for solid growth in the current quarter. One cautionary note, though, is that readings on housing activity–a sector that has been recovering since 2011–have remained disappointing so far this year and will bear watching.”

Real private domestic investment, after having just reached its levels from December, 2007, has been stagnant of late.  Both nonresidential and residential investment are culprits, though both had upward revisions from -1.6% to -1.2% and -5.0% to -4.2%.  The numbers are nothing to cheer over, but there is also nothing in today’s report should change the Fed’s reading on the housing market from May.

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More recently from Janet Yellen’s June 18th press conference (again emphasis added):

Although real GDP declined in the first quarter, this decline appears to have resulted mainly from transitory factors. Private domestic final demand—that is, spending by domestic households and businesses—continued to expand in the first quarter, and the limited set of indicators of spending and production in the second quarter have picked up. The Committee thus believes that economic activity is rebounding in the current quarter and will continue to expand at a moderate pace thereafter.

With yesterday’s large downward revisions to consumption, private domestic final demand is now estimated to have fallen in the first quarter, though more recent data are still in line with higher spending in the second quarter.

It’s not at all clear how much the revision will alter the Fed’s economic outlook or their stance on policy accommodation. The focus is still largely on improvements in the labor market, but a -2.9% Q1 growth rate is far from the FOMC’s latest central tendency projections for 2014 of 2.1%-2.3% growth. So what exactly does the growth rate of real GDP have to average over the next three quarters to be in line with the FOMC’s projection? The answer is 3.77-4.03%. While those rates are not impossible, it remains highly unlikely given the average growth during the recovery, as the figure below makes apparent.

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