Falling, Falling, Falling

Sudeep Reddy at WSJ:

In California, former auto worker Maria Gregg was out of work five months last year before landing a new job—at a nearly 20% pay cut.

In Massachusetts, Kevin Cronan, who lost his $150,000-a-year job as a money manager in early 2009, is now frothing cappuccinos at a Starbucks for $8.85 an hour.

In Wisconsin, Dale Szabo, a former manufacturing manager with two master’s degrees, has been searching years for a job comparable to the one he lost in 2003. He’s now a school janitor.

They are among the lucky. There are 14.5 million people on the unemployment rolls, including 6.4 million who have been jobless for more than six months.

But the decline in their fortunes points to a signature outcome of the long downturn in the labor market. Even at times of high unemployment in the past, wages have been very slow to fall; economists describe them as “sticky.” To an extent rarely seen in recessions since the Great Depression, wages for a swath of the labor force this time have taken a sharp and swift fall.

Huffington Post:

When hard times hit, employers typically are reluctant to reduce wages. But this downturn has been different: More than half the workers who found new work by early 2010 after losing jobs between 2007 and 2009 said their pay had dropped, according to Labor Department data cited in the WSJ. A full 36 percent said the new job paid 20 percent less than their former one.

While headlines have focused on the national unemployment rate of 9.4 percent, the pain extends far beyond those 14.5 million who are deemed officially unemployed by government statistics. The only other instance of such severe wage reductions since the Depression was during the recession of the early 1980s, but the current slump is on track to be far worse, the WSJ notes.

Among people who are lucky enough to have work, living standards have been significantly downgraded. Almost a third of America’s working families are now considered low-income, earning less than twice the official poverty threshold, according to a recent report. The recession reversed a period of improvement.

This trend spells a grim future for the American worker, and for the American economy.

“They’re no longer working actively, with a chance to advance and gain more experience and skills,” said Brandon Roberts, manager of the Working Poor Families Project and a co-author of the report on low-income working families. “They’re just putting pieces together to stay afloat, to meet basic needs.”

Calculated Risk:

Even for those who can find work, the impact of the great recession lingers …

Note: Wages are typically sticky downward for those workers who do not lose their jobs – but for those who lose their jobs, wages can fall sharply when they eventually find new work (this happened in the early ’80s too).

James Pethokoukis:

Some liberal economists, for instance, claim wages have been falling since the Golden Era of the 1970s. More likely that they actually went up by at leasts 20 percent in real terms, according to researchers at the Fed.  But I have no doubt that wage growth slowed during the downturn and many folks have suffered a real and permanent loss of income. I think you will hear Democrats talk more and more about wage insurance — having government temporarily make up the shortfall between old and new jobs — especially with Gene Sperling back in the White House. He is a big proponent of the policy.  And we shouldn’t forget that John McCain proposed something like this back in 2008 during the campaign.

Ezra Klein

Rob Bluey at Heritage

Ryan Avent at Free Exchange at The Economist:

Is downward wage rigidity a problem? Mr Reddy’s anecdotes indicate that many of those who’ve been without work for a long time are willing to take new jobs at significant pay cuts, but perhaps others are still holding out for the wages they’re used to.

On the other hand, there may not be jobs available for them. Why would that be the case? Why wouldn’t firms swap out older, more expensive workers for the cheaper unemployed ones available to them? One possibility is that firms are worried about the disruptive impact of such workforce turnover and have decided that it’s better to keep employing existing labour at existing wages. But then we might expect new firms to start up and hire jobless workers; if the unemployed were just as productive as the employed, new businesses could operate at a significant cost advantage over competitors. But Robert Hall argues that credit conditions remain tight for new businesses, who are the big job creators.

Or it could be that jobless workers are simply much less productive than those who continue to work. Ragu Rajan indicates that this kind of structural explanation could be behind most current unemployment, and he therefore emphasises the importance of retraining. But if so many workers are now too unproductive to hire, one has to ask why firms had them on payrolls before the recession. Mr Rajan points to the unusual growth and subsequent collapse in the construction industry, but as Mr Shimer notes unemployment has basically doubled among all subgroups within the labour force. The data seem not to point toward structural factors as the primary driver of unemployment.

Perhaps the problem is a shortfall in demand, which is preventing existing firms from expanding. It could be that the real interest rate simply isn’t low enough to induce firms to invest in new plants and equipment—investments that would produce corresponding jobs.

These are the factors with which economists are currently wrestling in an attempt to understand unemployment. I do think it’s worth pointing out that a little bout of inflation would be helpful in resolving all of the above issues, with the possible exception of structural skills mismatch. So I continue to find criticism of the Fed’s decision to resume easing perplexing.

Ed Morrissey:

In one sense, this is just the normal response to supply and demand.  Labor is a commodity in that sense, and the cost of labor increases when supply is short, and decreases when supply is glutted.  As a hiring manager for several years in the Twin Cities, we had to repeatedly increases wages across the board (not just for new hires) to keep staff on board and to entice qualified applicants to work for us when unemployment in the area was in the 3% range.  Right now it’s more like 7% in this region, and I’m certain that had I remained in that career, I would be finding it much easier to keep the call center staffed without having to raise compensation levels at all.

It may not be quite as bad as it sounds, either.  While compensation falls as the jobless have to settle into new, less-lucrative jobs, prices are also falling in other areas, especially in real estate.  Retail prices have stabilized, but retailers are still relying on heavy discounting to move inventory.  Buying power may not be declining as much as wages, although it’s certainly not increasing.

The reason that the problem is worse than at any time since the Depression, assuming that the WSJ is correct in that analysis, is that we have had the worst extended unemployment since that time.  The best way to resolve this problem is, not coincidentally, the best way to resolve the housing crisis and other economic woes: stimulate job-creating growth.  Unfortunately, as the Obama administration pursues its regulatory expansion, it will disincentivize that kind of domestic investment, which will perpetuate this problem for at least another two years.

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