Archive for the 'Wages' Category

May 05 2009

3 million job openings! Good news… or is it?

Help Wanted: Why That Sign’s Bad – BusinessWeek

This week’s cover story in Business Week magazine tells an interesting story about unemployment in America. Listen to the podcast or follow the link above to read more of this story:

Surprising statistic: In the midst of the worst recession in a generation or more, with 13 million people unemployed, there are approximately 3 million jobs that employers are actively recruiting for but so far have been unable to fill. That’s more job openings than the entire population of Mississippi.

Sound like good news? It’s not. Instead, it’s evidence of an emerging structural shift in the U.S. economy that has created serious mismatches between workers and employers. People thrown out of shrinking sectors such as construction, finance, and retail lack the skills and training for openings in growing fields including education, accounting, health care, and government. At the same time, the worst housing bust in decades has left the unemployed frozen in place. They can’t move to get work because they can’t sell their homes.

In IB and AP Economics we teach that there are three types of unemployment an economy may experience, ranked roughly in order from the least undesirable to the most undesirable (from a macroeconomic perspective):

  • Frictional unemployment: This accounts for people who are “in between jobs” or fresh out of college looking for their first jobs.
  • Structural unemployment: This is caused by the changing structure of an economy. As America’s manufacturing sector shrinks and its education and health care sectors grown, those whose skills lie in manufacturing become structurally unemployed.
  • Cyclical unemployment: This is also called “demand-deficient” unemployment because it is caused by a fall in aggregate demand or overall spending in the economy.

America today is clearly experiencing all three types, but due to the particular circumstances of the recession, the American worker is finding it it harder than ever to match his skills with an appropriate job. Below are some of the industries with the most and the fewest job openings today:

Most openings:

  • Education
  • Health care
  • Government
  • Energy (such as wind, oil, natural gas)
  • “Analytics” (i.e. business data analysis by firms such as IBM)

Fewest openings:

  • Construction
  • Manufacturing

Unfortunately for the large numbers of unemployed construction and factory workers, the kinds of skills required to work in the fields with the most job openings are prohibitively different from those learned in their previous industries. In addition to a mismatch of skills between the industries in which jobs are being lost and those in which labor is in demand, there is also a geographic mismatch in the labor market. Below are the states with the least and the most job openings:

Most job vacancies (states with large energy sectors: oil, natural gas and windmills)

  • North Dakota
  • Wyoming

Least job vacancies (states with large manufacturing and construction sectors)

  • North Carolina
  • California
  • Michigan

Historically, the geographic factor has not posed an issue to American workers, and when jobs opened up in one part of the country, Americans would pack up and move where necessary to find work. Today, however, with the collapse of house prices, more and more Americans find themselves stuck with a house they can’t sell in a part of the country where they can’t find a job.

To paraphrase the podcast above, “the US in danger of looking like Europe. The European job market has been described as ‘sclerotic’; people don’t respond to want ads because of the generous long-term unemployment benefits offered by European governments. Europeans have historically been geographically immobile due to nationalist ties to their home countries.” Today, the US job market reflects some of the same “sclerosis” as that of Europe.

America is facing the perfect storm of unemployment. At the same time that the economy is undergoing its most significant structural change since the Industrial Revolution brought millions of American workers from the farm fields into factories, it is facing the most significant decline in private sector spending (consumption, investment and exports) since the great depression. Put this together with the relative immobility of the American worker caused by the housing crisis, and unemployment has climbed to its highest level in three decades.

This interesting story ends with a glimmer of hope for the American worker:

To fight this sclerosis, the White House is using $3.5 billion of the stimulus for training, while boosting support for community colleges. Classes for factory workers seeking entry-level health-care careers have shown some success.

The truth is, displaced workers may have to move down a few rungs as they switch careers because their skills are irrelevant in their new roles… Many laid-off Wall Street financial engineers still haven’t absorbed that, says Fred Wilson, a partner in Union Square Ventures, a New York venture capital firm. “For them to take a job that pays a lot less, they have to make a meaningful change in their lifestyle. And that is an issue.”

Employers need to bend as well, recognizing that the candidates they’re seeking may not exist. Mark Mehler, co-founder of CareerXRoads, a staffing strategy consulting firm in Kendall Park, N.J., tells employers: “You’re hiring potential….You’ve got to train them.”

A mismatch of work and workers is never a good thing. But smart policy—combined with realism on the part of employers and job seekers—can minimize the disruption.

Discussion Questions:

  1. In what way may structural unemployment be a sign of a healthy economy, rather than a sick one?
  2. Part of the Obama stimulus package includes increased benefits for unemployed Americans. How may this pose an obstacle to reducing unemployment in America?
  3. Historically, the natural rate of unemployment in most European economies has been higher than that of the United States. Why is this?
  4. Do you think America’s NRU will return to its historic level (4-6%) when the economy eventually recovers from the current crisis? Why or why not?

38 responses so far

Mar 03 2009

Recession’s effects on small vs. large companies: some evidence in support of the Classical view of self-correction

Why Are Large Companies Losing More Jobs Than Small Ones? – TIME

This is a fascinating, short article from TIME. Before reading it, see if you can answer the multiple choice question below:

Q: Why do small companies lay off proportionately fewer workers during a recession than large companies?

A) Because small firms are less likely to be in the industries hardest hit by a recession (such as manufacturing)?
B) Because small firms are less focused on maintaining profits to satisfy greedy shareholders?
C) Because small companies are able to hang on to employees and even hire new ones during a recession because of all the talent being laid off by big firms.

Still thinking? Well, it’s likely that all three are true to some extent. But it’s the third one that seems most intriguing as a student of economics. Here’s what the article says:

…small companies hire disproportionately more early on in an economic recovery because it’s easy for these firms to find good workers while unemployment is still high—and easy for workers to come across small companies since there are so many of them. Once the economy is chugging along at full-steam and the labor market is tight, larger companies regain the advantage, since they’re likely able to offer more money—and poach from smaller outfits.

Seems pretty straight forward, right? Sure, but the fact that small firms are likely to hire when unemployment is high supports one side in a long-running economic debate over the economy’s ability to “self-correct” in times of recession.

As any student of Macroeconomics learns early on, there are two dominant theories of macroeconomics, both which are represented in the aggregate demand/aggregate supply diagram that we learn and use in AP and IB Economics.

The two models below represent the two opposing views of macroeconomics. First we see the Keynesian model, which shows that when overall demand in an economy falls, unemployment increases drastically and output tanks, plunging the economy into a deep recession. This is primarily because of the “inflexible” nature of wages, meaning that even when unemployment rises, workers are unwilling to accept lower wages and firms therefore are unwilling to hire more workers.

According to Keynesians, the only way to get the economy out of the recession is by increasing overall demand through heavy doses of government spending (case in point, the $775 billion stimulus in the US).

Next is the Classical AD/AS model with a vertical long-run aggregate supply curve. The implication of the vertical AS curve is that regardless of the level of overall demand in the economy, output will always return to the full-employment level, and thus unemployment will always return to its natural level. The major assumption underlying the Classical model is that wages are in fact flexible in times of recession. As unemployment rises, workers will accept lower wages since they’d rather be making less than making nothing at all. As wages fall firms will begin hiring more workers, increasing overall output and decreasing unemployment until full-employment output is restored.

The implication of the model on the right is that government is NOT needed to get the economy out of a recession, because it will self-correct due to the new hiring and production by firms in response to falling wages in the labor market.

The reason this article stood out to me was that it seems to offer some evidence in support of the flexible-wage, Classical model of macroeconomic self-correction. There has been surprisingly little talk among news anchors, pundits and politicians about the likelihood of the US or ANY economy suffering in the global slowdown “self-correcting” as the Classical model would suggest it should. But the fact that small businesses are less likely to lay off workers in a recession and more likely to begin hiring them due to the large number of workers being laid of by big companies offers at least an inkling of evidence in support of the Classical model of flexible wages and macroeconomic self-correction.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why is laying off workers the first thing big companies do when faced with falling demand for their products? Why don’t they shut down factories instead?
  2. What pressures does a publicly traded company (one that sells stocks to investors) face in times of recession that a small, privately owned business does not?
  3. When the global recession is finally over, do you think more people or fewer people will be working for small companies (less than 50 people) than before the recession? What would you rather work for, a small firm or a large one? Why?

262 responses so far

Feb 11 2009

Will the economy self-correct?

Does the Economy Self-Correct? – Welker’s Wikinomics Page
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The debate in Washington over Obama’s fiscal stimulus package, which has now been re-written by both the House and the Senate, is ultimately one of the validity of orthodox economic theories. By voting for a nearly $1 trillion government spending bill, the Obama administration and Congress are clearly taking the position that an economy in recession will either not be able to correct itself, or will take too long to self-correct, thus the government is needed to accellerate the recovery process.

Washington’s stimulus package presents students and teachers of economics with an all too rare opportunity to put to the test the two competing hypotheses of macroeconomics: the Demand-side Theory versus the Supply-side Theory.

At the core of the long-running macroeconomic debate is the simple question, “Does the economy self-correct in times of recession?” The supply-side theory, attributed to the “classical” economists dating back to Adam Smith and David Ricardo, argues that the answer to this question is YES. The rationale between this laissez faire approach to macroeconomics is the following:

  1. Falling demand in an economy means less output by firms, forcing them to lay off workers.
  2. As inventories build up due to their inability to sell their output, firms will be forced to lower their prices, putting downward pressure on the price level in the economy (deflation).
  3. High unemployment and falling prices eventually lead to workers in the economy being willing to accept lower wages.
  4. Weak demand for commodities such as oil and minerals put downward pressure on raw material and energy prices faced by firms.
  5. Falling wages and raw material prices mean more potential for profits for firms in various enterprises, even as overall demand in the economy is weak. Firms begin hiring workers at lower wages, and increase production to take advantage of lower input costs. Overall supply of goods and services in the economy begins to increase due to lower costs faced by firms in all sectors.
  6. The downward spiral caused by weak aggregate demand, rising unemployment, falling prices for output, falling wages and commodity prices, is eventually reversed and turns into an upward spiral as firms hire more workers, employ more resources, creating more income and spending, moving the economy towards recovery and economic growth.

The supply-side theory of self-correction (so called because recovery results due to an outward shift of aggregate supply) outlined above depends on the downward flexibility of wages. If wages do NOT fall, as some demand-siders propose, then the idea that firms will eventually begin to hire more workers is busted, and unemployment will only continue to increase as overall demand remains weak.

Today, there is some evidence that wages in the United States may in fact be downwardly flexible.

GM Slashing 10,000 White-Collar Jobs, Cutting Pay – washingtonpost.com

…the base pay of higher-level U.S. executives will be lowered by 10 percent, while other salaried employees will face cuts of between 3 and 7 percent.

General Motors employees are beginning to accept lower wages. Rising unemployment, especially in the white collar sector, mean that the number of highly educated and skilled American workers unable to find work will grow as corporate layoffs continue.

A “shovel-ready” stimulus package from Washington may indeed help to “create or save” 3 million jobs, as Obama claims, but it is the self-correcting nature of markets due to flexible commodity prices and wages that will ultimately contribute to a recovery of the US economy. As prices of commodities fall, combined with lower wages for white collar workers and deflation in the overall economy, firms will find it profitable to begin employing resources at their lower costs, putting people back to work, stimulating spending through market forces.

Fiscal stimulus may accellerate the recovery process, but the threat it poses is the same threat posed by all forms of government intervention in the free market: that the nearly trillion dollars will go towards satisfying the priorities of politicians rather than the wants and needs of society as a whole, resulting in a misallocation of the nation’s resources towards goods, services, and infrastructure projects that are chosen by legislators, not the market itself. Stimulus is needed, but only the right kind. The recognition by politicians and the media that markets may also self-correct is also needed. News like GM’s wage cuts may sound dire, but the underlying implication of falling wages may be a sign that the US economy is already on the path to recovery, even before Washington has spent a single dollar on stimlus.

3 responses so far

Sep 12 2008

“In-sourcing”: a new trend among US manufacturers?

U.S. companies are rethinking manufacturing in China – Sep. 11, 2008

As the US presidential campaign trudges ever forward, both Obama and McCain have had much to say about “job creation” in the USA. Elaborate plans aimed at retraining workers displaced by globalization, arming them with 21st century skills that will enable them to thrive in our advanced economy, and assure that the hardships imposed by free trade are minimal and all Americans have the skills they need to find employment. These are good goals for America, but even as they preach their job creation plans across the country, right under the candidates’ noses jobs are being created thanks to the invisible hand of the market economy.

Talk of a reverse migration of manufacturing from China to the U.S. has been buzzing across union halls and factory floors, corporate boardrooms and Wall Street.

The cost of shipping outsourced goods from China to U.S. customers has doubled in just two years thanks to high oil prices, and labor costs in China are rising sharply.

“There’s a shortage of technical and managerial talent,” reports Anand Sharma, CEO of TBM Consulting Group. “To attract managers Chinese companies are talking about salary increases of 15% to 30% year-over-year.”

The phenomenon of jobs being “in-sourced” to America after a decade or two of being done by Chinese workers may seem surprising. Certainly, wages are still lower in China than in the US labor market. This is true, however, the demand for highly skilled labor in China is driving wages up higher and higher, due to its relative scarcity in a country where reliable, well-educated factory managers are nearly fully employed by the thousands of foreign and Chinese firms operating plants there. Competition among producers means the only way to attract new managers is to continually offer higher wages. This leads to a form of “wage-spiral inflation” where rising costs lead to higher priced output.

Despite its much smaller work force, the percentage of American workers with the managerial and technical skills needed to run a plant is much higher than in China, and the weak manufacturing sector growth in the US has meant relative wages between the US and China are closer than ever before.

Take into consideration the rising cost of fuel and the fact that China’s economy is producing at or beyond full employment, and it becomes clear why manufacturing certain products in China has become less attractive to American firms. To be sure, not all manufacturing jobs are being “in-sourced” back to the US. As Chinese wages climb and skilled labor becomes more scarce, the giant’s Asian neighbors are beginning to enjoy the re-allocative effects of the “invisible hand”.

…plenty of manufacturers will continue looking for ever cheaper places to produce. In fact, as the cost of doing business in China rises, many companies – including Chinese firms – are shifting their production to less expensive markets, such as Vietnam.

Discussion questions:

  1. What is the “invisible hand” referred to in the post above?
  2. How do higher wages in China benefit Americans? How do they harm Americans?
  3. Some critics of free trade argue that multi-national corporations exploit workers in developing countries. Does the article above illustrate give an example of exploitation? Discuss…

10 responses so far

May 26 2008

It may not be a recession, but it sure feels like one…

FT.com / Columnists / Wolfgang Munchau – Inflation and the lessons of the 1970s

It seem that everyone’s speculating about the US economy today. Recession or no recession, that is the question. The economy has even surpassed the Iraq War as the number one issue in the US presidential race! John McCain, who has publicly admitted that economics is not his strong suit, may just find himself in trouble in a general election where the most important concern among voters is the economic situation.

So what IS that situation, anyway? Is the US in a recession? In other words, has real gross domestic, or total output in the US economy, actually declined over the last six months? Technically, the answer is no. My fellow blogger, Steve Latter, explains this clearly here. What is true, on the other hand, is that the current situation shares many similarities to the global economic slowdown that did occur in the 1970s.

In 1973 OPEC, the newly formed oil cartel consisting at the time of only Arab states, reduced its output of oil and cut off exports to the United States in response to US support of Israel in the Yom Kippur War, in which the Israelis officially occupied the Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza and seized the Golan Heights from the sovereign nation of Syria. To punish the US for its position on this conflict, OPEC cut off supplies of oil to the west, driving gas and energy prices upwards by 70%, triggering a supply shock characterized by a decline in total output and an increase in both unemployment and inflation, a phenomenon known as stagflation: a macroeconomic policy maker’s worst nightmare.

Recently the world has seen a similar (albeit of a different cause) rise in the price of oil and energy prices. Today the rise in energy prices is driven primarily by rising demand, rather than reduced supply (since the 1970s the OPEC cartel has grown to include many non-Arab nations, making it harder to achieve collusion to restrict output and drive up oil prices). Global demand for oil has risen steadily, driven ever higher due to rapid growth in China and other developing nations, and exacerbated by the falling value of the dollar, the currency in which oil prices are denominated.

The supply shocks of today have combined with falling aggregate demand in the US due to weak consumer spending to slow real growth rates to nearlry 0%. So technically, the US has avoided a recession, but the effect on American workers and consumers may be just as painful as the real recession of the 1970s. In order to prevent the “r” word from becoming a reality today, central banks (including the US Fed) have eased money supplies, lowering interest rates, fueling even greater increases in the price level.

…the global weighted average inflation rate will be 5.4 per cent this year, while the global money market interest rate is currently only 4.3 per cent. This means that global short-term real interest rates are negative – at a time when inflation is rapidly accelerating. As monetary policy has been excessively accommodating for more than a decade, inflationary pressures have built up in the global economy.

Central bankers like Ben Bernanke have to make tough decisions sometimes, weighing the trade-off between unemployment and inflation, and determining their monetary policies based on whatever they deem to be the “lesser of two evils”. Rising energy prices have forced firms to cut either cut back their production and raise the price of their products, both actions that result in less overall spending and output in the economy. Falling house prices have led consumers to cut back their own spending, further reducing demand for firms’ output. These factors have all pushed the unemployment rate from around 4.8% a year ago to 5.1% today, which combined with an estimated additional 3-5% of American workers having dropped out of the workforce, (referred to by the Department of Labor as “discouraged workers”) paints a pretty ugly picture of the reality for the American worker today.

The harsh reality of the weak labor market has led Mr. Bernanke and the Fed to pursue an expansionary monetary policy aimed at avoiding further increases in the unemployment rate and decreases in the GDP growth rate. Expansionary monetary policy means lower interest rates, with the goal being increased consumption and investment, both factors that could worsen the inflation problem already experienced thanks to the global supply shock. Evidence indicates that the inflation problem, even in the US where slow growth usually leads to lower price levels, is not going away:

In the US, a survey-based measure of inflationary expectations recently showed an increase to more than 5 per cent. I would estimate there are now several hundred basis points of difference between the current Fed funds rate and an interest rate that would be consistent with price stability in the medium term.

…meaning the Fed, in its attempt to avoid recession and rising unemployment, has created a condition where real interest rates are actually negative, a highly inflationary condition. All this wouldn’t be so bad if wages in the US were rising along with the price level. This however, does not appear to be happening:

The main difference between the situation in the 1970s and now is today’s absence of wage inflation, which explains why absolute inflation rates are a little more moderate. I guess this is probably because of some combination of deregulated labour markets and globalisation. But the lack of wage-push inflation is not necessarily good news. Falling real wages mean falling disposable income and tighter credit conditions mean less borrowing for consumption.

Rising prices for energy, transportation and food have put American households in a tough situation. In the past, periods of inflation have often been characterized by rising wages, meaning the full brunt of nominal price level increases was not entirely born by the American worker. Today, on the other hand, a recession has thus far been avoided, but the combination of record numbers of “discouraged workers”, rising unemployment and inflation may make the pain of our current economic situation just as real as recessions of the past.

In the words of billionaire investor and economic sage Warren Buffett just today:

“I believe that we are already in a recession… Perhaps not in the sense as defined by economists. … But people are already feeling the effects of a recession.”

“It will be deeper and longer than what many think,” he added.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What is the difference between nominal and real GDP? Which must decline in order for the economy to be in a recession?
  2. What impact do rising energy prices have on the behavior of individual firms?
  3. Why are low interest rates likely to make the inflation problem even worse?

9 responses so far

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