Mismeasuring the Burden of Student Loan Debt

Posted October 14, 2015 by Brian Gottlob
Categories: college, Debt, New Hampshire, NH, Student loan, Uncategorized

Tags: , , , ,

Rising higher education costs along with the volume of outstanding student loans, now in excess of $1.3 trillion nationally and greater than the volume of credit card or motor vehicle loan debt, are prompting  concerns about the impact that student loan debt is having on economic growth. Student loan debt grew at the fastest rates on record during the 2000s, doubling from $600 billion to $1.3 trillion over the past decade. Popular reports annually rank the debt loads of students graduating from colleges and universities in each of the 50 states. New Hampshire, is notable for being at the top of the list as having students graduate with the highest levels of debt in the nation.

debt of grad 2013

But the average debt levels of recent college graduates in any state says little about the impact that student loan debt has on a state’s economy. First, the schools from which students graduate aren’t necessarily the states in which students choose to reside (and repay their debts) after graduation, and second,  reports of the average debt levels of recent graduates provide no information about the outstanding balance of student loan debt (and thus overall student loan debt burden) held by residents of each state. The latter is necessary to understand the impact that student loan debt is having on a state’s economy.  I had not seen data on the balance of student loan debt on a state-by-state basis until a journalist (Ryan Lessard of the Hippo Press here in New Hampshire) passed along data from the U.S. Department of Education that was recently released by the White House. The data includes information on federal student loan debt only, and does not include private student loans or other loans used to pay for college – such as home equity loans taken out by parents, but is still extremely useful in understanding the differential impact of student loan debt in each state. The data present a different view of the student loan debt issue than do the data released annually on the debt of recent college graduates. In this post I add some economic and demographic data to the student loan debt data from the Dept. of Education to examine different measures of the relative burden that student loan debt places on individuals, and thus the economy of each state.

As of January of 2015 there were 212,000 individuals residing in New Hampshire with outstanding federal student loan debts totaling $5.1 billion dollars according to the U.S. Department of Education. The $5.1 billion compares to my estimate of $4.5 to $5.6 billion in credit card debt and $37.8 billion in home mortgage debt in the state.  In contrast to reports showing that the most recent graduates of colleges in NH have the highest student debt levels, the average outstanding loan balance among all of NH’s borrowers (regardless of where or when they graduated), at $24,048, was near the bottom of all states.

outstanding balnace by state

As I documented in a recent study of student debt, New England and the Northeast have the highest college costs in the nation, with graduating student’s debt levels similarly high. So why would NH’s average outstanding student debt balances be among the lowest in the nation? If NH residents with student debt had been paying off those debts for a longer period of time (that is borrowers were longer removed from college i.e. older on average) then their debt levels would be relatively lower even if their original debt levels were higher on average. In addition, if recent grads in NH, and their higher debt levels, leave the state, while somewhat older individuals move into the state, the state would be trading individuals with higher debt levels for those with more modest student debt levels. This seems like a plausible explanation based on some of the analysis of NH’s demographic trends I’ve written about in this blog and elsewhere. In addition, some of the discrepancy results from the new data on total student loan balances by state that includes all debt from students at two and four year colleges, as well as graduates and those with debt but who did not graduate. Thus the data released by the White House is a much more comprehensive measure of student loan debt at the state level. In addition, because it aggregates student loan debt of individuals who reside in each state, it is a more appropriate measure of the burden of student debt on any state’s economy.

Student loan debt is a problem, it has retarded household formation in NH and the U.S. and contributed to a slower than anticipated recovery in the housing market.  It has other negative impacts on younger individuals and families as well, but how large of a burden is student debt on any state’s economy and what is the best metric to assess it? It is not an easy question to answer.  The White House (Dept. of Education) data helps tremendously but analyzing it raises almost as many questions as it answers. The $5.1 billion in federal student loan debt held by borrowers living in NH represents about 7.1 percent of the state’s 2014 gross state product. Using this measure , NH ranks in the middle of all states on student loan debt burden, higher than indicated by the average student loan debt in the state. Because NH has a high percentage of students who have attended (and graduated) from college, even with below average student debt levels among all borrowers, the aggregate debt as a percentage of the state’s economy is higher than in states with lower average levels of debt among borrowers.  States with a high percentage of college attendees and graduates in their populations are likely to have a higher student loan debt to GSP ratio regardless of the average outstanding loan balance of borrowers. But is 7.1 percent a problem for the state’s economy?

debt as a pct of gspI think the student loan debt burden is probably better understood from its impact on individuals.   Only about 20 Percent of the adult population (age 18+) in New Hampshire have student loan debt and the debt has its greatest impact on a subset of the adult population. The typical repayment period of student loan debt is 10 years so, in theory, the population between graduation (or leaving school) and the age of about 35 should be most affected by student loan debt and assessing the impact of student loan debt should focus on impacts among this demographic group. For this analysis I use the characteristics of each state’s population ages 24-34 to assess the relative impacts of student debt on each state. The chart below uses the average outstanding student loan debt in each state and the average annual earnings of residents age 24-34 in each state to calculate how much of the annual earnings of 24-34 year working individuals with at least an associate’s degree go to student loan repayment in each state. Using the average outstanding loan balance in each state and assuming a combined federal subsidized and unsubsidized loan  interest rate of 4.5 percent, on a monthly basis, almost all states have average student loan burdens that require monthly payments of less than $300. The one exception is DC, not presented on the graph, where the $40,000+ average loan balance and $413 monthly payment is attributable to the high percentage of law school and other professional and advanced degree student who reside in the city.

monthly paymentA monthly student loan payment of $300 is not an inconsequential amount but less than most new car loan payments. Still, as a percentage of annual earnings, student debt payments clearly could influence the ability of younger people to purchase a home or make other significant financial commitments.  Combining monthly payments (annualized)  with the average annual earnings of college graduates ages 24-34 living in each state provides a measure of student loan debt service as a percentage of the earnings of graduates in each state.  Again, the chart shows that New Hampshire, along with several other states with both high college costs and high debt, rank relatively lower on repayment as a percentage of annual income.

burdens as a pct of earnings

The examples of several states highlight the importance of different variables in assessing the impact of student debt on any state’s economy.  The average debt of recent graduates from colleges in Vermont is in the middle among all states, yet the average loan balance of all borrowers in the state is higher than the debt levels of recent grads.  As a percentage of the earnings of working college grads ages 24-34, however, student loan debt in Vermont is the highest among all states. This suggests that recent grads (with their moderate level of debt) may be leaving Vermont while the state attracts or retains individuals with higher levels of student debt. It also suggests that the high percentage of the earnings of 24-34 year olds in the state that is absorbed by student loan debt service is, in part, a function of relatively modest average earnings  in the state.

avg debt and pct of earnings scatterplot

Another illustrative example is Georgia, a state with a relatively low average debt among recent graduates from its colleges, but with the highest level of debt among all borrowers of any state. From my limited experience in Atlanta, it is seems the city hasn’t been as overrun with northerners since Sherman’s march to the sea. This time the northerners have come armed with college degrees and promissory notes.  A state with below average student debt among recent graduates from its colleges but with above average student debt among all residents can’t address it’s high student loan debt burden by increasing state support for colleges or by providing more student aid.  Georgia appears to be gaining individuals with higher levels of educational attainment (“talent”) at a cost of higher student debt levels and greater debt burden among its residents. That is not a bad tradeoff as the state gets a more skilled workforce at a low cost to state government. Georgia reinforces a point that I repeatedly make, the importance of being attractive to skilled individuals with higher levels of educational attainment. NH makes this point as well, it has the highest average debt levels of recent graduates but relatively low average student debt for all borrowers in the state. We know NH losses a lot of its recent graduates to other states as I have documented in this blog and elsewhere, but attracts a lot of college graduates from other states, especially in the 25-40 age range.  These individuals, if they have student loan debt, have likely paid-off a good portion of it.  NH too has upgraded the skill of its labor force at a relatively low public cost by importing or attracting talent from other states.

New Hampshire, Vermont and Georgia are just three of many examples of how the debt levels of recent college graduates in a state must be interpreted with caution and in particular, when debating state-level policies directed at rising student debt levels. This brief analysis suggests different ways to assess the burden that student loan debt places on the residents of any state as well as on a state’s economy and shows that those burdens cannot be simply assessed by the most common assessment, looking at the average debt of recent college graduates. Reports on the average student loan debt of recent graduates by state can be an especially misleading indicator of the burden student loan debt places on any state’s economy.  I am not arguing here that student loan debt is not a problem, but like most public policy issues it is subject to errors of popular sentiment and conventional wisdom that can distort decision-making by policymakers. My purpose in this post is to explore some alternative measures (other than the average debt of recent graduates) of the impact that student loan debt has on each state’s economy. I welcome suggestions for better measures or criticisms of the ones examined or the methodology in this post.

Who is Moving to NH and Why Does it Matter?

Posted October 5, 2015 by Brian Gottlob
Categories: in-migration, Labor Force

Tags: , , , , ,

A lot of time and energy is expended fretting over young people and recent college graduates from New Hampshire moving to other states. It would be nice if many young people remained in the state but keeping a larger percentage of a shrinking demographic is, at best, a small part of New Hampshire’s longer-term demographic and economic challenges. New Hampshire, along with the rest of Northern New England has been a net supplier of 18-24 year olds to other states for decades and it that hasn’t changed much in recent years. It isn’t exactly a trade but what NH got in return, that is until the mid-2000s to the mid-2010s, was a lot of 30-44 year olds with high levels of educational attainment. The movement of individuals and families into New Hampshire during their early and mid-career years was what set New Hampshire apart from the rest of New England and the Northeast and it is what provided the fuel for the extraordinary rise in prosperity in the state from the 1980s to the early 2000s.

If NH becomes more attractive to young people that is great, but with the lure of several great and exciting cities so close, I don’t think our appeal to the youngest entrants to the working world is likely to be fundamental strength of our state. Still, I say go for it, it can’t hurt unless it takes our state’s “eye off the ball” of what contributed so greatly to our state’s prosperity. Take whatever actions to make our state a “hipper” place for young people as long as those actions also make NH even more attractive to those we have already proven we can attract and retain. Attempting to address whatever shortcomings NH has in the eyes of young people is a noble goal but no entity thrives for very long if it spends most of its time addressing its failures instead of feeding its successes. In this case, NH’s success is its demonstrated appeal to early and mid-career individuals and young families. After a decade of limited net in-migration from other states (more people moving in than moving out) and even net-out migration, in-migration to NH from other states is once again rising.

I confess to being a huge fan of the middle of the age distribution. Attracting those in the middle won’t give a state the lowest median age but it does help keep a state’s median age relatively stationary in the face of declining birth and mortality rates. More importantly, the benefits that individuals age 30-54 confer on an economy are much more important than are the benefits conferred by the 18-25 crowd. A younger workforce has been in favor since the 1980’s and capturing recent college grads is an obsession in NH and in many states, but in reality the strong economic growth that characterized the US and NH economies during much of the 80s and 90s, was, in part, the result of an increasingly high percentage of workers age 35-54, and a corresponding decline in the % age 20-34. In the aggregate, workers age 35-54 are our most productive. They have more accumulated expertise, knowledge and training than younger workers, at the same time they work more and are in their “peak” earning years. The high % of workers age 35-54 during the 1990s likely played a significant role in boosting our national and state productivity. The 35-54 age group works and earns earn more than older workers, boosting overall income levels and government revenues, at the same time this age group invests and saves more than the 20-34 age group, contributing to lower inflation and interest rates at the national level. As the chart below shows, NH’s period of strongest economic growth (as well as the nation’s) coincides with an increasing % of workers age 35-54.

Age comp of labor force

So, as I hurtle relentlessly toward the dying of the light I say three cheers for middle-age and let’s hope NH keeps attracting skilled, well-educated individuals and families in their peak working and earning years. My analysis of the last five years of NH data from the Census Bureau’s “Current Population Survey” suggests that is what is happening, boosting the prospects for accelerating prosperity in NH along the way. I examined the characteristic of some 22,000 individuals from the survey, over four years, who indicated that they had moved into NH during the prior 12 months period (I also examined the characteristics of those who moved out but that is another post). The age composition of in-migrants age 18 and older is presented in the chart below. It shows that the largest group of in-migrants was ages 25-34, representing 44 percent of the adult age migration to NH during the 2011 to 2014 time period. Another 25 percent were in the larger age 35-54 age group. New Hampshire will do quite well thank you very much if it can attract more of these individuals than it loses to other states each year. Net in-migration to NH resumed in 2013 and anecdotally appears to be accelerating in some parts of the state.

age comp of in migrants

As encouraging and important as the age composition is of in-migrants to NH is, the educational attainment of in-migrants is perhaps even more so. On that front there is even more encouraging news. About 55 percent of in-migrants age 25 and above hold a post secondary degree, with 47 percent holding a bachelor’s degree or higher. This is significantly higher levels of educational attainment than in the current population of NH residents age 25 and above.
ed attain of in migrants

I am waging my own private campaign (with limited success) to keep three of NH’s best and brightest young people in our state. Efforts to attract well-educated, early career and middle-aged residents aren’t nearly as exciting as campaigns to entice the young and the restless to remain or migrate to New Hampshire, but they are likely to pay greater dividends over the long-term for New Hampshire.

“A Chicken in Every Pot and a Car in Every Garage”

Posted September 28, 2015 by Brian Gottlob
Categories: forecast, NH Economy

Tags: , , , ,

I say this with all of the sagacity of Herbert Hoover who is quoted above: New Hampshire will once again exceed the U.S.  rate of employment growth in 2015 and will have the highest growth rate in the Northeast.  It has been our state’s decade long nightmare to have sub-par job growth after becoming accustomed to superior job growth for much of the prior three decades.  After several years of playing the pessimist it is nice to be able to argue that New Hampshire will once again be a leader in economic performance. Private sector job growth has accelerated and NH is moving up in the state rankings over the past twelve months. A steep decline in energy prices is helping the state by lowering the price of fuel oil, gasoline, and natural gas, lowering some costs for businesses and increasing disposable income of households in a state and region burdened by higher energy costs. Energy producing states are feeling the brunt of price declines. A year ago North Dakota could not be displayed on the graph below without ruining the scale of the Y axis, now they, along with Alaska, Wyoming, Oklahoma and other energy producing states are the laggards. Energy isn’t the reason NH had sub-par job growth but a reduction in energy prices is helping accelerate growth in the state.

Gottlob 2015 Savings Bank of Walpole Presentation

The quality of job growth is also improving, with jobs in better paying industries increasing more than jobs in industries that tend to have fewer well-paying jobs. The troubling exception is in professional, scientific, and technical industries where there has been no job growth.

job quality

Private sector job growth is accelerating despite the fact that help-wanted ads have declined. I believe this indicates that more jobs are being filled, lowering the number of unfilled jobs, and thus help-wanted ads, even as job growth is increasing. One exception may be jobs in professional, scientific, and technical fields which comprise the largest category of help-wanted ads but where industries that employ the largest number of these occupations appear to have had no net job growth over the past year. A large number of these jobs appear to be going unfilled and indicate a technical and professional labor supply problem in the state.

help wanted

I expect New Hampshire to add about 16,000 non-farm jobs in 2016, a rate of about 2.5% annual growth. This is a rate higher than any in the past decade and comes with a few caveats. First, energy prices must remain stable and relatively low, this I think is a lock. NH faces more upside potential (things will get better) than downside risk on the energy front. Second, the pace of government job cuts has to slow or reverse. The reduction in local government employment has been a significant drag on overall employment growth in the state, subtracting about 0.5% from the state’s total non-farm job growth rate. And stop please, anyone who thinks cutting local government jobs is a reason for accelerating private sector job growth. Third and most importantly, NH’s labor force has to grow at rates above the past few years. I have recently written about the labor force being the most significant constraint on the NH economy, and largely responsible for NH’s sub-par job growth (as opposed to some fundamental erosion of the business climate). One thing is clear, labor force growth will not come from just absorbing the “slack” in NH’s labor market. The chart below shows that NH is essentially at full employment with the exception of individuals who are working part-time for economic reasons (that is they would like to work full-time but can’t get full-time employment). There will always be some level of unemployment regardless of the strength of the economy, both for frictional reasons as people change careers or jobs, as well as structural reasons as the economy and industries change and the demand for different skills and occupations shifts. There are now  more people working part-time for economic reasons in NH than there are unemployed individuals. Three quarters of part-time workers in NH work part-time by choice according to my analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics Current Population Survey data. The remaining 25 thousand or so part-timers wanting full-time work shows an equal number of men and women, spread fairly evenly over the age distribution between 22 and 64. More than one-third have at least an associate’s degree and 24% a bachelor’s degree. This source of labor can be more fully utilized boosting overall output but they are already working and don’t expand the size of the labor force. Discouraged workers number less than 1,500 with about that number again who are conditionally discouraged but would enter the workforce for the right job. They are predominately male (80%) and older (75% age 45+) and overall have lower levels of educational attainment (although a percentage of college grads is included).

unemployement rate

Hope for expanding the labor force in NH comes mostly from a return to net in-migration from other states. NH’s primary source of for increasing the skill and talent of its labor force for three decades, this source became a net negative factor in recent years. Data on this comes with a long lag but some unofficial, non-government statistics suggest that in-migration is returning and accelerating in some parts of the state, supplying an influx of talent and additional labor that will contribute to expanding differential rates of growth in the state. Areas of the state that have seen labor force growth in recent years have been adding jobs at a much faster rate than the remainder of the state and is one reason why I advocate giving as much attention to making a community, region, or state “attractive to individuals and families”  as making them attractive to business. The Seacoast will continue to lead in job growth because of the region’s ability to attract “talent” and expand its labor force. Job growth in the Manchester region is picking up and I expect a stronger performance for that region in 2016, while the Nashua region will continue to lag.

labor forcde growth

Jobs Just Don’t (and Won’t) Grow Like They Used To

Posted June 29, 2015 by Brian Gottlob
Categories: Employment Growth, Labor Force, Labor Force Participation, NH Economy, Population Growth

Tags: , , , , ,

A late boss of mine used to say “We all know the time when education in this country started to go downhill; it was the day after each of us graduated.” I am trying to not let nostalgia influence my views of the current labor market and prospects for job and economic and growth. In prior posts I have tried to make the case that slower labor force growth (and to a degree a skills gap) is the fundamental factor constraining growth in the NH economy. In my last post I wrote: “Looking ahead, population and demographic projections show that both nationally and in NH, the working age population (defined here as age 18-64) will show almost no growth over the next 25 years.” If that was written in another’s blog I would have dismissed it if it was not empirically supported, especially if it was as fundamental to the analysis as it was in my post. Regardless of whether you agree with or have even read the analysis in that post, the population and labor force trends it references are keys to understanding critical obstacles to future economic and employment growth.  In this post I provide some documentation and my interpretation of those trends.

It is important to make the distinction between growth in the “working age population” (which my prior post referenced) and “growth in the working age labor force,” (which is a more appropriate measure for the main thesis in that post.). While the two measures  move in the same direction, the magnitude of change can differ as the age composition of the population changes and as  trends in labor force participation among different age and demographic groups change over time. Longer-term trends (as opposed to shorter-term or cyclical trends – those affected by business and economic cycles) in labor force participation can mitigate or exacerbate some of the population trends affecting the size of the labor force.

“Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future”
—Neils Bohr, Nobel Laureate in Physics

First, let’s look at the assertion from my prior post that: “the working-age population …..will show almost no growth over the next 25 years.” That is a remarkably imprecise statement on which to base any analysis and its accuracy depends on your definition of “almost no growth,” as well as how you define the working-age population.  The chart below shows the U.S. Census Bureau’s “middle scenario” for U.S. population growth to the year 2060. In the chart I show four definitions of “working-age population” along with the cumulative growth rate of each. Three of the four definitions begin at age 22 to reflect the adult working age population. The three definitions include: ages 22-64 that recognizes a historical traditional retirement age at 65, as well as two others (ages 22-69 and ages 22-74) that reflect mortality, health, occupational, and retirement trends that have many individuals working beyond traditional retirement ages. To show that adding the younger population has relatively little impact on the trends I include a traditional definition of working-age population that includes individuals ages 16-64.

working age pop growth

The chart shows that the “adult working-age population” is projected to grow by about 10 percent over the next 25 years (between 2015 and 2040) in the first two (more traditional) definitions of working-age and by a much larger 15 percent for the definition that extends “working-age” population to ages 22-74. “Almost no growth” may overstate the decline in the rate of growth but, for me, 10 percent growth over 25 years is pretty close to almost no growth, especially by historical standards. I think the chart highlights the important role that older individuals could play in employment growth in the future. I like to call this the “revenge of the baby boomers” who first entered the labor market in competition with large numbers of other boomers and who experienced resulting demand for their labor that could not always keep up with the big increase in supply. Much later in life boomers who wish to continue working will likely see demand for their labor higher than it has been in the past for older workers.

The Distinction Between Population and Labor Force Growth

How growth in the “working-age” population translates into growth in the labor force is a function of the age composition of the labor force and the labor force participation rates among the different age groups in the population. Participation rates are highest between ages 25 and 54, much lower among teenagers, lower among 22-24 olds and much lower and declining at ages 55 and above. Thus when the population is growing in high participation age groupings (between 25 and 54) labor force growth will grow more similarly to population growth than when more of the growth in population is among younger (under 25) and older (55+ individuals). That is illustrated in the following two charts. The chart below compares cumulative population and labor force growth between 2015 and 2060 in the broadest definition of “working-age population” which here includes ages 16-74. Labor force projections incorporate a forecast of an increase in labor force participation rates for all age groups above age 55 (averaging about a 5% increase in participation rates) consistent with projections of participation made by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The increase in labor force participation among individuals aged 65 and above is not simply a result of individuals who are not able to financially retire (although that does play a role), it is also a function of the better health of older individuals and a decrease in the percentage of jobs in the economy that are physically demanding, among other factors. For age groups in the middle age ranges there is a slight decline in participation rates (averaging about 0.4%), and for the youngest age groups a decline averaging 3.6 percent.

Combining the age distribution of the growth in the working-age population with trends in labor force participation shows that actual labor force growth among the population ages 16-74 is going to be much smaller than population growth because so much of the population growth will be among age groups with the lowest labor force participation rates.


When a the “adult working-age population” is examined (including ages 22-69), little difference between the cumulative population and labor force growth is seen, with time periods where growth rates are identical and some during which cumulative population growth is slightly higher.. This occurs because the combination of growth in the ages 55-64 population and an increase in the labor force participation rate of this age group compensates for the decline in participation among the youngest age groups and slower population growth in the high participation age groups (25-54).
22-69 growth

Population and Labor Force Growth Over the Next Several Decades Will Support Job Growth That is Less Than One-Half of Current Employment Growth Rates

Each of the graphs above show a labor force that is growing nationally (in fact some states will likely see an outright decline in their labor force). Because the charts show labor force growth it is easy to miss the significance of a slower rate of labor force growth on the U.S. economy and future job growth. Over the past three years the average monthly job growth in the United States has averaged about 200,000 jobs. Real labor force growth hasn’t been sufficient to accommodate that level of growth but because of the layoffs in the labor market during the recession there was enough slack (unemployed individuals and individuals temporarily out of the labor market) in the labor market to allow for that level of job growth. Eventually that slack will be taken-up and job growth will be more constrained because of labor force growth and wages will rise in response to tighter supply (that is just beginning to happen). That was the essence of my thesis about the interaction between NH’s business taxes and demographic and labor market trends.

During the non-recessionary years of the 1990’s the average monthly job growth in the U.S. was about 243,000. Those monthly job growth numbers include jobs going to individuals below the age of 22.  While my analysis primarily is concerned with the adult working-age population (ages 22+), including the labor force ages 16-21 into the analysis changes the population and labor force growth trends very little. Even including individuals ages 16-21 into labor force projections labor force growth will not support an increase in 200,000 plus jobs in the coming decades (except following a recession when substantial layoffs and slack in the labor market exist)..

To illustrate that point the chart below translates the annual increase in the nation’s adult labor force into a potential monthly job growth for the nation (if all of the increase in labor force were employed) under four definitions of the labor force. The chart shows that under a traditional (ages 22-64) or a maximum expansion (ages 16-74) definition of the labor force, annual growth will not sustain current or historical rates of monthly employment growth. During years of the highest labor force growth, jobs would grow only at about one-half the current monthly rate of job growth in the U.S.

LF to job growth conversion

Caveats and Conclusions

Long range forecast and projections are always problematic but the scenario of slower labor force growth and greater competition for labor outlined in this and my previous post will play out even if the degree to which it does has some uncertainty. Despite the overall U.S. trends it is important to note that population and labor force growth will vary greatly among states. Unfortunately NH and other Northeastern states currently are confronting trends that are on the negative end of the spectrum for population and labor force trends.

When the percentage of women in the labor force increased dramatically beginning in the 1970s the labor market was fundamentally changed and the growth potential of the economy was given a tremendous lift. There are no equivalent transformative changes on the labor market horizon. More individuals will work later into their lives but it won’t have the same economic effects as did the increase in labor force participation among half the nation’s population. In addition there has been on ongoing trend of declining labor force participation rates among young people that is, in large part I believe, attributable to the increase in post secondary school enrollments over the past few decades and this partially offsets increases in participation among older individuals. Perceptions of the need for and value of a at four-year college degree are increasingly being challenged so it is possible that the trend of lower labor force participation rates among the young may begin to reverse. The scenario presented here is based on the assumption that current international immigration and state-to-state migration trends will continue unchanged into the future. It is possible that if labor shortages are severe enough in the northeast, we would we see increased net migration into the region, and once again into NH.  But the potential pool of labor which NH can attract will be growing more slowly, making attracting “talent” to the state ever more challenging. That is one reason why I stress the importance of making states and communities attractive to individuals (of all ages) as well as attractive to businesses. Net inter-state migration to NH will likely increase from recent low levels, however, only if the state and its communities offer enough of the amenities and enough of a value proposition to justify that net in-migration. Finally, it is also possible that labor shortages will spur action to increase rates of international immigration to the U.S.. Prediction is indeed very difficult – especially when it is about the future. and especially when it involves a long horizon and as many variables as do population and labor force growth. But for now, my money is on the scenario outlined in this and my previous post.

The Business Tax Discussion NH Should Have

Posted June 23, 2015 by Brian Gottlob
Categories: corporations, job growth, Labor Force, New Hampshire, NH, Tax Revenue

Tags: , , ,

What to do about New Hampshire’s business taxes is near the top of lawmaker’s agenda in the Granite State. Many policymakers are concerned that the business tax climate is contributing to a fundamental erosion of New Hampshire’s business climate that is reflected in lackluster employment and revenue growth. Reports that NH has recently outperformed  New England and the U.S. in gross state product (GSP) growth highlight the disconnect that can occur between economic metrics of output (GSP) and measures that more directly affect individuals in their daily lives, such as employment and wage growth. Better than regional or national average growth in GSP is good but state-level GSP numbers are relatively imprecise and should not obscure the fact that employment, wages, and state revenue growth have all been disappointing in NH by the standards of the past few decades. Sustained, disappointing employment and revenue growth since the end of the recession have prompted well-meaning lawmakers in NH to consider a number of policies to accelerate growth in the state.

NH and US emp Growth

Business Taxes Seen as Key

Business tax rates impact business decisions but I don’t believe they are the fundamental factor behind NH’s disappointing economic performance. Lawmakers should consider “what to do about business taxes” but that consideration should go well beyond current tax rates and regulations. Lawmakers should also be concerned with the long-term prospects (revenue yield) of business taxes because business taxes are the largest source of general revenue supporting state government.  New Hampshire’s fiscal structure is fundamentally tied to the performance of the state’s business taxes.  As importantly, lawmakers should be concerned with how NH’s business taxes will interact with key economic and demographic trends to influence the state’s future economic performance. The chart below shows combined quarterly business profits and business enterprise tax collections on an annualized basis and illustrates that nearly six years post-recession and more than seven past their high mark, business tax revenues in NH have not fully recovered. Some of the failure of revenues to rebound following the recession is a result of changes in the state’s business tax rules and some is the result of total private sector wages and salaries (the largest portion of the BET tax base) that declined in  2009 and 2010. Whatever the reason it highlights concerns about the viability of business taxes as the primary source of support for state government. I don’t believe that either raising or lowering rates is likely to improve the performance of business tax revenue enough to alleviate those concerns or even result in revenue gains that match those seen in the first half of the 2000s.

NH Business Tax Revenue

The Business Tax Burden in NH

Using tax rates to measure burdens over time is not a true measure of the impact that business taxes have on companies. Comparing state business tax climates using rates is problematic because of the various provisions of each state’s tax code that affect nominal rates. Here I assess business tax “burdens” using an economic measure – business tax collections as a percentage of private sector gross state product (GSP). This metric documents the state’s business tax burden placed on the total value of private sector goods and services produced in a state. Even using this measure of “burden” is problematic because it does not include all of the taxes, fees, and charges that may apply to a business in each state. Nevertheless, when it comes to addressing the primary sources of tax burden and the ‘headline taxes” that are identified with a state’s business climate, it is a better measure than looking at just business tax rates.

As the chart below shows, as a percentage of GSP, business tax burdens have nearly doubled in New Hampshire since the early 1990’s. Much of that is the result of the addition of the Business Enterprise Tax in 1993, as well as increases in the BET’s rate from 0.25% to 0.50% in 1999, to 0.75% in 2001. But some is also the result of increases in the rate of the business profits tax (BPT) which began the time period shown at 8.0% (from FY 92 through FY 93), dropped to 7.5% in FY 94 and hit a low of 7.0% (from FY 95 through FY 99) and finally rose to its current rate of 8.5% in FY 02. Importantly, the chart also shows that business tax revenue as a percentage of private sector gross state product has fallen since the recession and is now at a level seen at the beginning of the last decade. Again, changes in rules and a decline in wages and salaries both play a role in that decline. For comparison purposes the chart also shows the percentage of GSP that corporate income taxes take in Massachusetts, however, as noted, a number of other taxes are applied to or affect business in addition to corporate income taxes.

Taxes as a pct of GSP

What’s Ailing the NH Economy?

I don’t believe there has been a substantial, fundamental erosion of the ‘business climate” in NH. Slow labor force growth is by far the largest factor contributing to New Hampshire having gone from a leader to a laggard in job growth. That labor force issue is much broader and more complicated than the simplistic and too often noted “young people moving out-of-state.” The chart below shows that labor force growth has slowed more in NH than nationally in recent decades. Where once NH enjoyed a significant advantage in labor force growth, the state now lags the nation as a whole. Above average labor force growth is what allowed NH to have exceptional job growth in the 1980’s and much of the 1990’s.

lf growth 3 time periods

Labor force growth (largely via in-migration of skilled, educated individuals and families from other states) provided NH with a resource advantage for decades. Slow labor force growth is now capping the amount job growth that is possible in the state. Some believe the state’s labor force would experience stronger growth if more job opportunities existed in NH and that simply reducing business taxes will make that happen. While that is true to a degree, today, businesses rarely locate where there is not clearly a sufficient supply of needed labor. A sharp rise in help-wanted advertising in NH in recent years even as private sector employment growth has remained relatively constant and disappointing (chart below) shows that in the near-term at least, demand for labor does not necessarily increase its supply.  Significantly, the chart also shows that after a rapid rise in help wanted advertisements that was not accompanied by a noticeable increase in the rate of private sector job growth, help wanted ads have begun to decline in what may be a sign that employers, because of labor supply constraints, are increasingly looking  elsewhere for labor.

help wanted june 2015

The demand for labor does generally increase the supply of labor but when the supply is growing slowly everywhere (especially in the Northeast where NH has typically attracted much of its increase in labor force), supply will respond accordingly. Increasingly businesses follow labor rather than the other way around and they do not rely on their demand to increase labor supply.  Looking ahead, population and demographic projections show that both nationally and in NH, the working age population (defined here as age 18-64) will show almost no growth over the next 25 years. Competition for labor among businesses will become more intense and to keep and attract a labor force businesses will have to offer more than just the promise of a paycheck. I would argue that states and communities will also have to offer more (in terms of amenities – natural, social, civic, cultural, and services) to attract and retain the labor force needed for employment and economic growth. Evidence of the importance of amenities to labor supply (and employment growth) can be seen in the differential employment growth between some of NH’s regions such as the Seacoast (which has had higher population, labor force, and employment growth and which has several high amenity communities) and other regions of the state.

New Hampshire can improve its business taxes and business climate but whatever reforms are enacted, alone, are not going to overcome demographic and labor force imposed constraints on employment growth in the state. Lawmakers should, however, seek to assure that business taxes do not worsen key constraints on the NH economy moving forward.

The Longer-Term Problem

NH’s combination of a traditional tax on the profits of business profits (the business profits tax or BPT), along with its “business enterprise tax” or BET (on the combined compensation, interest, and dividends paid by businesses) may well exacerbate some of the disadvantages the state’s economy will face as a result of national and state demographic trends, making it more difficult for NH to overcome key constraints on employment growth in the state.

Reducing business tax rates that many see as too high is a near-term solution to a longer-term problem. The longer-term problem is slow or no labor force growth nationally and in NH in the coming decades that will limit profit growth everywhere but which will also place additional burdens on NH businesses. The labor force problem and NH’s reliance on business taxes will present NH businesses and state government with challenges that are unique to the state.

Wages and salaries are generally lower for comparable positions in NH than they are in Massachusetts. At one time it was easy to justify that wage differential because of large differences in the cost of living between the two states. Today, the cost of living differential between the two states has narrowed and NH is considered a high cost-of-living state. The U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) produces a “regional price parity index” Regional Price Parities (RPPs) measure the differences in the price levels of goods and services across states for a given year. RPPs are expressed as a percentage of the overall national price level (100). As the chart below shows (apologies for the poor quality – I lifted it directly from a BEA publication), NH (seen in red) has become a high cost state (largely because of housing costs), nearly as costly as Massachusetts.

price parityIn a state (NH) with living costs that are increasingly comparable to Massachusetts, workers in NH can be expected to seek wages nearly comparable to wages available in Massachusetts. For the most part, however, NH employees do not receive wages comparable to wages in Massachusetts and that contributes to some of NH businesses inability to hire needed workers and to NH’s modest job growth, despite increased job openings in the Granite State.   It may also be a contributing factor to NH’s significant drop in its unemployment rate with only modest job growth (the unemployment rate is a residency-based measure that considers only whether or not a resident of NH has a job or not, regardless of where that job is located).  Little or no growth in the labor force in the coming decades will increase competition for workers and will put more pressure on NH businesses to narrow wage and salary differentials with other, higher-cost states, if higher-skill jobs located in NH are going to grow. The catch 22 is that higher wages increase the BET liability of businesses at the same time they can reduce profitability (if productivity isn’t rising along with wages). A growing disconnect between the profitability of businesses in NH and the tax burden placed on them is not likely to be an incentive for businesses to compete for labor in a era when it is ever more scarce.

Higher wages would not be a problem as long as productivity increases justify wage growth. When workers produce more they should see higher wages. Productivity growth has been modest over the past decade and shows little sign of accelerating. Thus increasing wages will likely mean slower profit growth for businesses in NH and elsewhere. I think we have seen the high mark nationally for corporate profitability for some time. But in NH, the higher wages needed to attract labor will also increase the business enterprise tax (BET) liability of companies. If profitability is indeed more modest because of faster wage growth and modest productivity growth, the BET liability of NH businesses relative to their business profits tax (BPT) liability will increase. An ad valorem tax on a resource (labor) in short supply with a rising price and that is paid regardless of the profitability of a business may increase (or cushion from decline) state revenue for a time but it also seems like a disincentive for businesses to pay the wages necessary to compete for labor and to hire in New Hampshire over the longer term.

New Hampshire’s tax structure has never really been a boon or an advantage for business but it has been attractive to large numbers of individuals and families over the years and it contributed to growth in the state’s labor force via inter-state migration into NH. Growth in key demographic groups within the labor force – skilled individuals with higher levels of educational attainment  and regardless of their age ( two wage-earner, college educated, married couple families with children characterized the typical inter-state migrant to NH) made New Hampshire a much more attractive place for businesses to operate. The in-migration of “talent” fueled the state’s transition to a more sophisticated, technology dependent economy. But there is less state-to-state migration everywhere today and national and regional population, demographic, and labor force growth make it much less likely that NH will continue to realize those benefits from its fiscal structure. In the coming decades as competition for labor increases because of limited growth in the labor force, stronger wage growth will be needed to attract a limited pool of labor. Taxing compensation (as NH’s BET does) will increase tax liabilities for many NH businesses even as higher wages limit their profitability.

It is time for a discussion of NH’s business taxes, but that discussion needs to involve a lot more than just tax rates, credits, and how the rules apply to publicly traded companies.

A Crisis of Our Own Making

Posted December 29, 2014 by Brian Gottlob
Categories: Electricity Generation, Energy, Natural Gas, NH, Uncategorized

Tags: , , , ,

Increased shale gas production as well as a December that is on pace to be the ninth warmest nationally since 1950 has natural gas prices in the U.S. plummeting by 18% in the last three months. Natural gas futures for January delivery fell to $3.144 per million BTU on the New York Mercantile Exchange. These all suggest that a crisis in the New England energy market caused by natural gas price spikes will be less than many predicted this winter.

To be clear, to this point the New England energy “crisis” has largely been a winter phenomenon. The chart below shows the weighted average price of natural gas for electricity generation in New England and the U.S. It shows, natural gas prices for electricity generation are roughly the same in New England and the U.S. with the exception of the winter months, when increased demand for home heating along with the region’s increased reliance on gas-fired electricity generation combine to exceed the capacity of the limited natural gas pipelines in the region. The result is a limited supply and exceptionally high natural gas prices for power generation in the region. As the chart shows, the premium (over average U.S. prices) paid for natural gas by New England power producers has increased each of the past several winters. Abundant supplies and lower prices nationally and a winter forecast of 11% higher mean temperatures compared to the Winter of 2013-14, will lessen but not eliminate natural gas issues or the larger issue of longer-term energy production in the New England region.
Cost of nat gas for generation

The chart below graphically depicts perhaps the most fundamental problem confronting the New England energy market, one that currently prevents the region from fully realizing the benefits of our nation’s booming production of natural gas. The chart highlights the dearth of natural gas pipeline capacity in the New England region compared to most other regions, including much more sparsely populated regions of the country.

ngpipelinesThere is a reason the chart shows a concentration of pipelines in Ohio, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and other nearby (to New England) Eastern states. These states currently produce about 40% of the nation’s shale gas but they promise to produce an even greater percentage of the nation’s gas in the future. Together, these states (along with small amounts from states near them) hold over 60% of the proved reserves of shale gas in the entire U.S. according to the U.S. Energy Information Agency. Unfortunately, the chart also shows that the increasing number of pipelines emanating from the region don’t make their way into New England. When the U.S. was more at the mercy of the exigencies of the world’s energy suppliers than it is now, New England had someone to blame for its energy disadvantages. With an emerging abundance of natural gas so close by, it is more appropriate to ask ourselves why we don’t benefit from the boom in nearby production.

shale gas productionNew England is not a region that produces its own fossil fuels but few areas of the country do and they still manage to avoid the sort energy “crises” that periodically plague New England. To the extent that there is an energy “crisis” we have nothing or no one to blame but ourselves. Natural gas is generally more expensive in New England but not always for electricity generation, except during a few months of the year when pipeline constraints are the culprit. New England is “retiring” older “base-load” power plants but so are many other regions – seven coal-fired power plants that I know of in Ohio and another five in Western Pennsylvania alone. But these are also states where new gas fired power plants or other generating facilities are being built to replace them and neither of these regions is straining their natural gas pipeline capacity by adding new, gas-fired power plants. I have done studies for three new gas-fired power plants in Ohio in recent years and although subject to just as much regulatory and public scrutiny, none of the facilities faced the kind of parochial opposition characteristic of most proposed projects in New England. I have also done work on a wind energy project in New Hampshire and it faced as much or more opposition as would any fossil fuel generating project. In New England it seems, any energy project with a public benefit is seen as synonymous with trampling some individuals’ rights.

Whatever the extent of the looming energy crisis in New England it is of our own making. If you don’t want renewable energy production (wind, solar, hydro etc.), gas-fired power plants and the pipelines needed to support them, or any other power producing facilities built, you have no right to complain about the availability or cost of energy in the region. Personally, I would like to see more renewable energy produced in New England and New Hampshire but that doesn’t mean we should refuse the benefits from a greater supply of natural gas. If we do, we will only put ourselves at a greater energy disadvantage than we already face. There are many reasons (aesthetic, environmental, etc. technical) why renewables are not a more favored option for generating electricity in the U.S. but most of the arguments in opposition are based on costs. Too often these arguments are made by ideologues, vested interests, and others with an agenda, most of whom have no idea of how to measure the true cost (levelized cost of energy or LCOE) of production by different generation sources or the hidden as well as direct subsidies provided to each.

Despite highlighting the increase in natural gas production this is not a post about the merits of hydraulic fracturing. In the coming years the benefit/cost calculus of “fracking” will be refined. This post is about whether New England will realize any of the benefits that result from an increasing supply of natural gas in the country. I have written before that I do not believe energy prices are the root cause of New Hampshire’s recent slower economic growth (we have had high relative energy prices during the state’s boom periods and New Hampshire is producing more goods and services with a lower energy content per dollar of gross state product than ever before). But even if not a savior, a more stable and abundant supply of energy resources at lower prices would have real economic benefits. Whatever your views of its merits, there is little doubt about the impact of the boom in shale oil and gas production on U.S. energy independence, it will no doubt alter the economic, fiscal and the international geo-political landscape of the country. In ten years it is quite possible that the only nation from whom the U.S. imports oil is Canada. Whether the shale oil and gas boom also alters the prospect for NH’s energy and economic future is less certain but is almost entirely within our control.

The Demographic Trend NH Should Most Worry About

Posted April 25, 2014 by Brian Gottlob
Categories: Demographics, in-migration, migration, NH

Tags: , , ,

I believe that demographics explains two-thirds of everything and with more observers, analysts, and pundits also appreciating the explanatory power of demographics, the use of demography to account for economic, fiscal, and social phenomena has increased dramatically. That also means there are more inaccurate or misleading demographic analyses to sort through to find real insights.

The simple story about how NH is aging rapidly is a nice, if not completely accurate, dramatic story with intuitive appeal that makes it ideal for stimulating PowerPoint presentations as well as marketing and promoting a host of public policies and causes.  Most of the policy prescriptions justified on the basis of demographics will have no impact on the age structure of NH or any other state.   As I have noted before, aging is a permanent, irreversible consequence of low average family size and longer life expectancies in developed societies.   Unlike some states NH’s aging is more a result of its successes than of its failures.   As long as NH continues to have relatively healthier and wealthier (lowering mortality rates) older citizens who resist shedding their mortal coil in a timely manner, and as long as females in the state continue their preference for achieving relatively high levels of educational attainment and labor force participation (lowering birth rates), NH will have a relatively higher median age of its residents.   The youngest states (by median age) in the nation are those with higher birth rates i.e. Utah, California, Texas.   Adding population at age zero has the greatest impact and over the longest time on the age structure of a population.

It is possible for NH to achieve a relatively stationary median age through in-migration; even if the in-migration isn’t concentrated among the youngest age groups (this can be demonstrated mathematically but is not amenable to a blog post).   In fact, that is exactly what New Hampshire did for several decades during its boom years – it added a lot of individuals and families in the middle of the age distribution (30-44), typically two wage earner married couple families (probably both college educated) with children.

I think it is great, although somewhat unrealistic, to  think NH can retain all of its young people in an effort to address the “aging” issue (young people from smaller states and non-metro areas seem to have an understandable preference for locating in areas teeming with a similar demographic).   Even if NH keeps all of its young people in-state after completing their education I don’t think there is anything we can do to keep them from growing older, so as long fertility rates continue to decline the state will only be keeping a somewhat larger percentage of a declining demographic.   But that is not to say that efforts to make the state more attractive to young people aren’t valuable, whether or not they are directed at individuals born in New Hampshire.   In fact, NH should be more concerned with making the state attractive to the skilled individuals with higher levels of educational attainment, of all ages.

Our state’s ability to attract ‘talent” from other states has largely been responsible for NH’s increasing prosperity over the past several decades and that gets to the demographic trend NH should be very concerned with – the continuing decline in our nation’s mobility or rate of inter-state migration.   The recent decline has been attributed to economic conditions but there is a longer-term trend decline in inter-state migration that has been widespread across demographic and socioeconomic groups, as well as for moves of all distances.
National interstate migration rates

Researchers have noted that homeownership and the age distribution of the population (older households move less) can account for some, but not much of the decline, and some have hypothesized that changes in the labor market (reduced job changing and switching of employers) may be playing a significant role.   The chart above shows that both inter-state migration and individual rates of changing employers have been declining. While not indicative of causation, there is a strong correlation between the two variables over time.

NH has seen a larger drop in its annual inter-state migration rate between the decade of the 1980s and the decade of the 2000s than almost all other states. Of course some of that is attributable to the fact that we began with much higher rates (see the drop in other states with high rates of inter-state migration) but it is still an important trend to examine.

State interstate migration change

Examining the relationship between inter-state migration and switching employers with cross-sectional (state level) rather than as a time series, shows a similarly strong relationship, suggesting to me that a more dynamic labor market where individuals are less concerned about moving between employers will maximize NH’s opportunity to increase the net in-migration.   Still, developing a simple predictive model that includes rates of switching employers to explain inter-state migration rates suggests that NH should have seen a much smaller decline in net-migration than actually occurred.   The chart below shows the model’s residuals, or errors in predicting the change in inter-state migration for each state, it shows that NH’s decline in average annual inter-state-migration between the 1980s and 2000s was actually greater than predicted by the model.   At the other end of the spectrum, Massachusetts, while having a declining inter-state migration rate, experienced a much smaller decline than predicted.   A lot of self-serving hypothesis for the above expected decline in NH’s inter-state migration rate will be offered but understanding the real causes are critical for the state’s future.

Residuals of interstate migration
New Hampshire needs to concerned with demographic trends but it also needs to be concerned with the right ones and the ones that it has some ability to influence.   I don’t think the state can or perhaps even should do much about its lower birth and certainly not the lower mortality rates that are key drivers of population aging.   But I do think that achieving a relatively stationary (it will increase it is just a matter of how rapidly) median age is possible. But this will require policies that are concerned with making NH attractive to individuals as well as businesses.   At the local level this is working as evidenced by the differences in growth rates among NH regions, but as the data in this blog suggest, in doing so the state will be pushing against larger national economic and demographic trends.



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