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The Feeble Economic Recovery Ahead

Can we call this a recovery? More Americans will be working, but for pay they consider inadequate.
 
 
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Many of my students at Berkeley who will be graduating in June are worried about the job market. I understand their worries. But they and other new college grads have less cause for concern than most American workers. Let me explain.

Since the start of the Great Recession in December 2007, the U.S. economy has shed 8.4 million jobs and failed to create another 2.7 million required by an ever-larger pool of potential workers. That leaves us more than 11 million jobs behind. (The number is worse if you include everyone working part-time who’d rather it be full-time, those working full-time at fewer hours, and people who are overqualified for the jobs they’re in.)

This means even if we enjoy a vigorous recovery that produces, say, 300,000 net new jobs a month, we could be looking at five to eight years before catching up to where we were before the recession began.

Given how many Americans are unemployed or underemployed, it’s hard to see where we get sufficient demand to support a vigorous recovery. Outlays from the federal stimulus have already passed their peak, and the Federal Reserve won’t keep interest rates near zero for very long. Although consumers are beginning to come out of their holes, it will be many years before they can return to their pre-recession levels of spending. Most households rely on two wage earners, of whom at least one is now likely to be unemployed, underemployed or in danger of losing a job. And even households whose incomes have returned are likely to be residing in houses whose values haven’t—which means they can’t turn their homes into cash machines as they did before the recession.

While consumers have been shedding their debts like mad—often simply by defaulting on loans—their remaining burdens are still heavy. At the end of last year, debt averaged $43,874 per American, or about 122% of annual disposable income. Most analysts believe a sustainable debt load is around 100% of disposable income, assuming a normal level of employment and normal access to credit—neither of which we are likely to have for some time.

Some economic cheerleaders say rising stock prices are making consumers feel wealthier and therefore readier to spend. But most Americans’ biggest asset is their homes. The “wealth effect” is felt mainly by the richest 10%, whose net worth is largely stocks and bonds. The top 10% accounted for about half of total national income in 2007. But they were only about 40% of total spending. A vigorous jobs recovery can’t be based on 40% of what was spent before the economy collapsed.

What’s likely to slow the jobs recovery most, however, is the indubitable reality that many of the jobs that have been lost will never return.

The Great Recession has accelerated a structural shift in the economy that had been slowly building for years. Companies have used the downturn to aggressively trim payrolls, making cuts they’ve been reluctant to make before. Outsourcing abroad has increased dramatically. Companies have discovered that new software and computer technologies have made many workers in Asia and Latin America almost as productive as Americans, and that the Internet allows far more work to be efficiently moved to another country without loss of control.

Companies have also cut costs by substituting more computerized equipment for labor. They’ve made greater use of numerically controlled machine tools, robotics and a wide range of office software.

These cost-cutting moves have allowed many companies to show profits notwithstanding relatively poor sales. Alcoa, for example, had $1.5 billion in cash at the end of last year, double what it had on hand at the end of 2008. It managed this largely by cutting 28,000 jobs, 32% of its work force. But for workers, there’s no return. Those who have lost their jobs to foreign outsourcing or labor-replacing technologies are unlikely ever to get them back. And they have little hope of finding new jobs that pay as well. More than 40% of today’s unemployed have been without work for over six months, a higher proportion than at any time in 60 years.

 
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