Monday, August 2, 2010

Stop Worrying About Structural Unemployment

The economic blogosphere has suddenly become very concerned about the possibility that structural unemployment – resulting from a mismatch between the needs of employers and the capabilities of available job-seekers – has increased in the US. Paul Krugman is worried; Brad Delong is convinced; it’s obvious to Tyler Cowen; The Economist presents a variety of opinions; and any number of other bloggers and fora have been discussing the topic.

One major source of this newfound concern is a post by Dave Altig of the Atlanta Fed, who has detected a shift in the relationship between job openings and unemployment – the Beveridge curve. While the shift is unmistakable in his chart (see below), I have looked more closely at the data, and I have come to the conclusion that it does not represent a major increase in structural unemployment. Rather, I believe it represents the normal dynamics of the business cycle in the context of an incipient recovery from a historically severe recession that, in some ways, has not quite ended.

First, let’s get a clear idea of what’s going on in the chart:

Consistent with a common practice by people (including me) who plot economic data, Dave Altig has drawn a linear regression line to represent the general relationship between job openings and unemployment. But we should not therefore assume that the true relationship is a linear one. If you ignore the regression line, you can see a distinctly curved pattern to the points. We should expect a curved pattern: a strictly linear relationship wouldn’t make sense, because it would mean that, if there were enough job openings, unemployment could go below zero, and if there were enough unemployment, job openings could go below zero. In practice, when one of the series gets very low, it becomes less responsive to the other series. Thus the pattern in 2009, where the unemployment rate keeps rising while job openings become nearly flat at a very low level, is exactly what one might expect. It’s certainly what I expected, having plotted curves like this before.

But the point labeled “2010 Q2” breaks the pattern. It appears that we’ve suddenly moved off the old Beveridge curve onto a new one that has yet to be traced and that promises to associate a significantly greater amount of unemployment with any given number of job openings. But have we, really?

To answer this question, we need to think about how job openings (as well as other factors) affect the number of unemployed workers. Take a look at the actual numbers: in 2010 Q2 there were about 15 million unemployed workers and just over 3 million job openings. If all 3 million job openings were filled, it would (other things equal) reduce unemployment to about 12 million. But if you were to plot that hypothetical point on the chart, it would still be above the old Beveridge curve. So even with what seems a rather optimistic assumption about the matching process, it was inevitable, given the appearance of a comparatively large number of job openings in Q2, that they produced a point that was off the old curve. That result has nothing to do with structural unemployment; it’s just because there are many more available workers than openings.

My assumption is not really as optimistic as it seems, though, because in fact job openings fill very quickly. The May (most recent) JOLTS report, for example, shows 3.2 million job openings but 4.5 million new hires – which implies that the average job opening gets filled in less than a month. What about all those employers complaining that they can’t find people with the right qualifications? Apparently they are a minority – or else they end up settling.

If we’re looking for evidence of an increase in structural unemployment, we need to compare the rate at which openings fill today to the rate at which they filled in the past. When was the last time that there were this many job openings? In November 2008, there were 3.2 million openings but only 4.1 million hires. So job openings are filling faster now than then. You might expect them to fill faster, since there are more unemployed people with whom to fill them (15 million vs. 11 million). Indeed, the fact that they fill only a little bit faster could be taken as evidence that some of the additional unemployment is structural. But these data don’t support the idea that there has been a dramatic shift, that the pool of the unemployed is a significantly worse match for the available job opportunities than it was a few years ago. To find a point where actual hiring was happening as quickly as it is today, you have to go back to August 2008, before the fall of Lehman, when there were 3.7 million job openings.

So if 4.5 million people (equivalent to 30% of the unemployed) find jobs in a given month, how come so many people are still unemployed? Because people are losing jobs almost as quickly. That’s what I meant when I said that the recession, in some ways, has not quite ended. While the average rate of job losses during the recent recession was not particularly severe, those job losses continued for a long time (as it was a long recession) and pushed more and more people into unemployment, while there was an unusual lack of new jobs to get them out of unemployment. The new jobs are finally starting to appear, but the job losses are continuing. When I declared last year that “job losses are not the problem,” it hadn’t occurred to me how long the job losses might last. By the standards of a recovery, job losses are the problem today.

Well, part of the problem. Notice that even after the recent jump, there are fewer job openings than there were at any time during the 2001 recession, and only about as many as there were at the depth of the 2003 “job recession” that lingered after the official recession had ended. Whether you measure in terms of job losses or job openings, the job market is still depressed. There’s plenty of reason to expect persistent cyclical unemployment. Structural unemployment, not so much.

DISCLOSURE: Through my investment and management role in a Treasury directional pooled investment vehicle and through my role as Chief Economist at Atlantic Asset Management, which generally manages fixed income portfolios for its clients, I have direct or indirect interests in various fixed income instruments, which may be impacted by the issues discussed herein. The views expressed herein are entirely my own opinions and may not represent the views of Atlantic Asset Management.


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