Archive for the ‘New Hampshire’ category

“But NH Isn’t Dead”

November 17, 2016

There is a scene from the movie “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” where a wagon stacked with bodies is being pulled through a plague infested medieval village while a crier calls out “bring out your dead.”  The comedy in that grim scene comes when a man tries to load a body slung over his shoulder onto the wagon and against the protests of the still quite alive “dead man” who says such things as “but I’m not dead,” I’m feeling better,” and “I think I will go for a walk.” I am reminded of that movie scene every time I hear proclamations about NH being the 1st or 2nd oldest state in the nation.

An excellent radio program in NH (especially  when I am guest – I wasn’t on this broadcast) recently spent an hour discussing the implications of NH being “the second oldest state in the nation.” The operational definition of “second oldest state” was never given but I assume it is based on the median age of the state’s population.  Using 5 year Census Bureau estimates (2010-14) NH has the third highest median age of any state in the nation (collective gasp here), behind only Maine and Vermont.


Before administering the sacrament of the anointing of the sick to New Hampshire, however, understand that a state’s median age says relatively little about the age distribution of a population and even less about the demographic and public policy challenges (and their severity) that a state will confront in the future.  Does NH’s high median age really mean our state is worse off demographically than 47 other states?

First, a high median age doesn’t mean NH has a disproportionate number of elderly residents.  It does mean, and has for some time, that NH has a high percentage of residents in the middle of the age distribution and fewer at early ages. As the chart below shows, on the percentage of the population age 65+, NH ranks 15th among all states and below many states with a lower median age.


Second as I argued here, if you want to understand the strains that an older demographic may place on the fiscal system of a state or a nation you need to look at the “old age dependency ratio,” or the number of older residents in relation to the number of working-age residents because that is a measure of the population that will largely be paying for or supporting the services for the older population.  There will be more elderly in NH and that will increase service needs but the fiscal pressures those needs place on the state is a function of both the number in need of services and the number of working age individuals supporting the services (that is why China’s “one-child” policy that results in  four grandparents, two parents, and one child was always a demographic ponzi scheme).   The old-age dependency ratio is rising in NH but again, on that metric, NH hardly looks  that much worse off than most states as it is firmly in the middle of all states on the ratio of residents age 65+ to working age residents.  In addition, because NH has relatively healthier and more well-off older residents compared to many states, our dependency ratio probably slightly overstates the challenge the old-age dependency ratio presents to the state. With NH’s lowest in the nation birth rates the old-age dependency ratio could rise rapidly depending on migration trends (as has been the case in recent years) and is one more reason to want to make our state broadly appealing to demographic groups.


NH does face significant demographic challenges and if overstating their magnitude is necessary for action to address them then I guess I can live with that.  But too often the discussions of the demographic challenges facing NH are laced with agenda driven diagnoses and  prescriptions that make for great headlines but ineffective policies.

Low birth rates (NH now has the lowest in the nation) resulting from high labor force participation and levels of educational attainment among women in NH (a sign of our state’s successes not our failures) along with low mortality rates among an older population that is both healthier and wealthier (on average) than in most states, is a recipe for a higher median age in a state.  That is unless median age can be made more stationary through the in-migration of younger residents, or as NH has traditionally done, in-migration of residents more in the middle of the age distribution along with their children.  That was exactly NH’s recipe for success for decades even as young people have left the state (a decades long trend in NH), at least until net state-to-state migration slowed in NH, just as it has been slowing nationally for some time.   Between 2010 and 2015, the Census Bureau estimates that about 5,500 more NH residents moved out-of-state than residents of other states moved in, with about 6,700 more moving out of Hillsborough County than moved in, while about 4,500 more residents moved into Rockingham and Strafford Counties than moved out during that time.  The graphic below disputes the notion that NH is no longer a place that people want to locate, they are just being more selective in where they choose to locate in the state.  Examining the differences in population growth and demographic changes among individual communities within these counties  further suggests some of the factors that can contribute to in-migration and inform public policies that seek to address NH’s demographic challenges.  Not all communities experienced the growth or decline in migration characteristic of their counties.  Understanding why  is important to the future of our state and its communities.  It is more than just nearby job opportunities or Hillsborough County would not have seen so much out-migration.  I have written about some of the factors in prior blog posts.


Many communities are aging more slowly than the state as a whole and their experiences are illustrative of some of the factors and actions that can influence the age structure of a state or a community. Yet policy discussions about demographics at the state level typically overlook positive demographic trends in many communities in the state.  Below is a chart that highlights how the median age has changed over two decades in just a few NH communities.  The chart shows the median age of each community in 1990, and then incrementally adds how much the median age has changed in each of the following two decades.  There was relatively little difference in the median age of each community’s population in 1990, but especially in the 2000 to 2010 decade, the rate of change in median age varied significantly among the communities.  Communities such as Portsmouth, which had a relatively high median age until 2000, slowed its rate of “aging” dramatically in the 2000s, as did Dover and Manchester, albeit for different reasons and with different demographics.


The point is that if some regions and some communities in NH can rage against the dying of the light, others and maybe even the state as a whole, can as well.  So, while many want to heap NH onto a metaphorical “death wagon,” let me say “but NH is not dead, I think we should go for a walk today”.

A Perfect Labor Force Storm

May 24, 2016

A perfect storm is brewing for the economy and individual businesses in NH and across the country.  Slow labor force growth, the retirement of baby boomers, and weak growth in labor productivity are severely limiting the productive capacity of the nation’s economy.  Between 2010 to 2015 labor productivity in the U.S. increased by just 0.5 percent on average annually, and the labor force by an average of just 0.4 percent.  Since the end of World War II, the combined, labor productivity and labor force growth in the U.S. had never fallen below 1 percent – until 2015 when it was just 0.9 percent. I have written about the the limits labor force growth place on the U.S. and NH economies here and here (and others).  Factors such as the flow of population (state-to-state migration and  international migration), and changes in labor force participation rates will play a large role in determining which states and regions are most affected, but a real possibility exists that the economies of some  states and regions could shrink over time.

Figure 1

A quick assessment of the potential impact of baby boom retirements across the country is illustrated in Figure 1 which shows the ratio of the population in each state that will (or could) be entering the labor force approximately over the next decade – that is individuals currently ages 5-19 –  to those who will (or could) be exiting the labor force – individuals currently ages 50 to 64.   The bars in the graphic that fall below zero indicate states that face more retirements from their labor force than new entrants over the next decade or more.  As the chart shows, the labor force in New England and much of the Northeast will be especially challenged by baby boom retirements as far more individuals will leave than enter the workforce.

In NH, the impact of baby boom retirements will vary greatly by industry.  The Millennial generation will soon be the largest segment of the labor force but their distribution across industries varies greatly.  For this analysis I examined the demographic characteristics of each industry’s workforce in NH.  Figure 2 presents the ratio of early career (age 25-34) to older workers (age 55-64) in major industry groupings in NH.  The graph suggests industries that will be more and less challenged by retirements of the baby boom generation.  Industries that have higher ratios employ more individuals early in their working lives than individuals nearing retirement age.  Several industries stand out for the high percentage of older individuals in their workforce.  Manufacturing is one industry that has had difficulty attracting younger workers and I have written about that issue long ago in this blog, Educational services is another.  Professional, scientific, and technical industries have a surprisingly low percentage of younger workers but an examination of this industry grouping at a more detailed level shows that the legal profession has among the oldest demographics of any industry in the state.

Figure 2

Looking at the age composition of workers in broad occupational groups in NH (Figure 3)  shows how much difference there is across different occupations employed in professional, scientific, and technical industries. The ratio of younger to older workers in the legal profession is just 46 percent, while in computer and mathematical occupations there are many more younger workers and the ratio is 127 percent.

Figure 3

Health care is also a field with a larger percentage of older individuals in the workforce but when the demographics are examined at a more detailed industry level or by specific occupations, it is clear that the industry is bifurcated – with physicians and other health care practitioners having an older demographic while many of the support occupations in the industry that have emerged as health care has become a much larger portion of the economy, have a much younger demographic.

Industry Growth is as Important as Industry Demographics

 The retirement of baby boomers only hints at the industries that could face the most significant labor shortages over the next decade.  Retiring workers may need to be replaced but they may not.  If employment in an industry shrinks or if it grows slowly over the next decade, then labor shortages are likely to be less severe than baby boomer retirements would suggest, even in industries with a higher percentage or older and retiring workers.

 To capture the impact of industry trends on potential labor shortages related to baby boom retirements I combined projected industry growth in NH over the next decade with the ratio of younger to older workers in each industry to produce a supply/demand balance metric.  For illustrative purposes I present the supply/demand calculations for broad industry groupings in Figure 4.  I did the same calculations at a more detailed (50+ industry) level but that level of detail is not amenable to presentation in a single graphic.  It is not possible to know what industries workers entering the labor force over the next decade will work in so these calculations are only rough estimates of potential supply/demand imbalances. As the chart shows,  industries with a relatively older workforce, such as manufacturing, public administration, and utilities, will nevertheless likely confront fewer labor shortages because of slower employment growth in those industries.  Unfortunately, all industries are likely to face shortages in some occupations that are employed and in demand across many industries.

Figure 4

What Can States and Business Do?

The primary shortcoming of Figure 1 is that it is a static representation of the demographics each state’s workforce.  The population and demographic composition of states are not static however.  People move from place-to-place, state-to-state, county-to-county, and country-to- country.  A state or region with substantial labor shortages that is also viewed as an attractive location can see increases in labor supply in response to labor shortages and wages that are rising in response to shortages.   For more than two decades attracting skilled individuals with higher levels of educational attainment has been a key to NH’s economic success, since the mid 2000s however, NH has seen fewer individuals moving into the state from other states.

A popular meme in NH (and in many rural states) is that the state’s labor force challenges are largely the result of young people leaving the state.  But that is a phenomenon that has been occurring for decades in NH as it has in other rural states.   While it plays some role in the state’s labor force challenges, it has not been a key factor contributing to or detracting from NH’s economic performance – either NH’s strong successes of the 1980s and 1990s  or its subpar job growth of recent years. I wrote about who is moving to NH here, the chart below adds who (from an age perspective) left NH during the same recent 5 year time period.

Figure 5

I am not arguing that we ignore the issue of out-migration of youth, but a state budget in surplus along with the “migrating youth” meme is likely to produce proposals for labor supply policies that are likely to be as costly as they are ineffective.  In future posts I will examine the costs and benefits of several labor supply policies directed at increasing the percentage of young people in NH as well as the percentage attending college and remaining in NH after graduation.   NH is not monolithic, some communities and regions have been attracting younger workers and the age structure of their labor forces has not been increasing as rapidly as NH overall.  If policymakers want to attempt to change decades of youth migration trends then these communities are instructive of the types of actions that may or may not help NH capture higher numbers of workers early in their working lives.

Still, migration along with changes in the labor force participation rate among different demographic groups are going to be the primary determinants of the magnitude of NH’s labor force growth in the coming decades. As Figure 6 below shows, net migration from other states (the # moving in versus the # moving out) has been negative in recent years. That is largely the result of a slowdown in people moving to NH rather than a substantial increase in those leaving the state. The chart also shows that net international migration has offset much of the recent loss from state-to-state migration.

Figure 6

International migration of foreign workers into NH has played a critical role in meeting the demand for many occupations in NH.  Overall just under 8 percent of the labor force in NH is foreign born but in some occupations such as computer and mathematical occupations and life and physical sciences occupations, the percentage of foreign born workers in the NH labor force is over 20 percent (Figure 7).

Figure 7

The projections of labor supply/demand imbalances in this post don’t account for  potential increases in domestic or foreign migration but each of these will  play an important role in meeting the demand for labor in the Granite State.  Businesses have little control over net migration to NH so what can businesses do in the face of impeding labor shortages?  Here are some possible strategies to help businesses  meet their labor needs in an era of slow labor force growth:

  • Increase Wages and Pass Costs on to Consumers
  • Expand Automation and Increase Productivity
  • Move to Areas with More Labor
  • Increase Teleworking to Expand Potential Labor Pool
  • Tap the Untapped Labor Pools
  • Provide Incentives to Delay Retirement
  • Rely More on Contingent Workers
  • Recruit (and Train) Discouraged Workers.

These strategies are not available to all businesses or all industries.  Of all, I like providing incentives to delay retirement the best – it is the “revenge of the baby boomers”. More occupations today are less physically demanding and older citizens are healthier than any time in our nation’s history.  Combined, this should allow individuals to work (if they so chose) well beyond traditional retirement years.  For a long while now younger workers have been all the rage.  It is fitting that baby boomers who entered the workforce in numbers large enough to depress wages, and who have seen workplace cultures that increasingly look to appeal to the youngest workers, could see increasing demand for their services at the end of their working lives.


Mismeasuring the Burden of Student Loan Debt

October 14, 2015

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.

The Business Tax Discussion NH Should Have

June 23, 2015

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.

More on Shifting Economic Activity in NH

April 17, 2014

My post on the “Shifting Locus of Economic Activity in NH” back in January generated a lot of interest and emails. That post has more views than any other post on this blog over the past year and half. Admittedly that’s setting a pretty low bar as far as blog readership honors go. Nevertheless I want to thank my family as well as those with an interest in flying, swarming insects and an inability to spell “locust” in their search engines for making it possible.


As I noted in my first post on the topic, I believe there are a number of economic and demographic indicators that support my contention about the shift in economic activity. Still, there are some (many?) in the Granite State who disagree. In the spirit of giving the public what it wants and sparking debate, I present another of what will be several posts on the topic.
Some themes essential to my thesis are: that the ability to attract and retain talent (skilled individuals with higher levels of educational attainment) is the critical ingredient responsible for the shifting of activity in NH – as well as the key ingredient for producing a dynamic economy anywhere; and that communities offering amenities and services desirable to “talent” and at a relatively more affordable price are keys to attracting talent. I think price (the ability to offer desirable amenities and services at a relatively more affordable price lower than other communities that offer similar amenities) has been important. But I also think that patterns of economic activity in NH and throughout the country demonstrate that unless your community or state is sitting on a valuable store of fossil fuels or minerals, being cheaper isn’t enough to generate more robust economic activity. One interesting artifact of the debate over local government fiscal policies is the mistaken belief that communities spend more when they contain a higher percentage of lower-income residents. In fact, just the opposite is true – expectations for services, quality, and amenities, along with their costs, generally rise as communities (primarily cities – small and large) generate more economic activity and become wealthier. This typically creates a lot of conflict in communities that are experiencing new economic successes and associated demographic changes and can make sustaining a higher level of economic activity difficult for a community.
Getting back to the evidence that supports my contention about economic activity in NH, the previous decade has not been kind to NH or most states in terms of job growth. I documented the Seacoast’s increasing share of NH’s employment and in key industries in my prior post on the topic.  Here, and in future posts, I will look at some of the demographics of that job growth to support my thesis. The chart below shows the percentage change in jobs among individuals of all educational levels (age 25 and up) in different counties and the State of NH between 2003 and 2012, as well as the percentage of jobs held by individuals with at least a BA degree.

County Job Growth
Similar to my prior post, the chart shows that job growth has been higher in the Seacoast (defined here as Strafford and Rockingham Counties because of data availability while the prior post used data at the community level) than in either Hillsborough County or the State as a whole. More importantly, the chart shows that the rate of job growth in the Seacoast among those with at least a BA degree has exceeded the rates for either Hillsborough County or the State by an even wider margin. Strafford County has seen an especially large increase (largely in Dover – my domicile in the interests of full disclosure) but its much smaller employment base makes larger percentage changes easier to obtain. Again, however, it is not just job growth but the nature of that growth and the shifting of talent that is the key.
The Seacoast accounted for a higher percentage of the state’s net job growth between 2003 and 2012 (chart below). The percentage of the state’s net job growth accounted for by the Seacoast was 70% compared to 46% for Hillsborough County (note the percentages add to more than 100% because some counties had negative job growth during the time period).

Share of States Job Growth
Almost half of the net job growth in NH among workers with a BA degree occurred in the Seacoast. Hillsborough County still has a larger percentage of job holders in the state with a BA degree or higher (37% to 31% in the Seacoast) but that percentage has slipped by almost 1% over the time period, while the Seacoast’s percentage has increased by 1%. Still even shifts occurring at seemingly glacial speed are very powerful. I suppose it is possible that the Seacoast has just been more successful in adding jobs which overqualified BA’s are filling. Based on my initial examination of job growth by industry, I don’t think that accounts for the relative differences, but in future posts I will examine that and other possibilities.

Energy Prices Won’t Be Our Savior

March 24, 2014

For as long as anyone can remember New Hampshire (and most of New England and the Northeast) has had high energy prices compared to most other states.  We may narrow the gap some but as sure as tomorrow will be Tuesday, compared to most other states and regions of the country, our energy prices will be higher. There are a number of reasons for that and they can’t be adequately covered here so for now let’s move on to the real concern of this post.  Many will disagree with me about the prospects for relative energy costs in the state but even if I am wrong, and NH and New England could somehow be truly energy price competitive with the rest of the country, we are likely to be very disappointed in the resulting economic benefits.  I am all for lowering energy prices and doing whatever we can do to accomplish that.  Reducing energy costs will give households more discretionary income, ease the burden high energy prices place on many households, and benefit the cash flow of many businesses.  These are real economic benefits but based on op-eds and comments about how high electricity and energy prices are killing business, including by people and groups I like and respect, you might think that reducing the price of electricity will bring a new industrial revolution to the state.  The problem is, a new industrial revolution has been occurring and it is one that relies less on energy and is, in part,  a result of those high energy prices.

Energy BTUs per GS

Energy prices are becoming less important to the success of the New Hampshire economy all the time.  As the chart above shows, the energy content of what the state produces has been declining for decades.  More of what we produce relies less on energy content and the lower energy intensity of the NH economy indicates a lower price or cost of converting energy into GDP.  Reducing the price of an input that is becoming less important each year to the output of the NH economy is not a prescription for revitalizing the NH  or any state’s economy.

To cite just one example, high energy prices have hurt but certainly didn’t kill the pulp and paper industry in New Hampshire.  Industrial electricity rates in Georgia are almost exactly one-half (5.97 cents/kwh) what they are in New Hampshire (11.97 cents/kwh avg. as of Dec. 2013) but Georgia lost 10,000 pulp and paper jobs (40% of the industry in that state) over the last 11 years.  Industrial electricity rates are 40% lower in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania than they are in New Hampshire and those states lost 11,000 and 10,000 jobs respectively in paper-making industries.  California lost more than 13,000 jobs in the paper industry, Illinois 12,000, Ohio 10,000 etc., etc. etc., to the tune of about 200,000 jobs lost across the country and in states with both high and low energy prices.  So if you thought that lower electricity prices would reverse that  industry you would be wrong.

I hope NH does lower electricity prices and if we do, congratulations, we will have won a battle for the 1970’s and 1980’s.  Maybe then we can turn our attention to the battle for the future.   If you want an example of a NH paper company that is fighting (and winning) today’s and tomorrow’s battles consider Monadnock Paper, you can read an excellent online Forbes article about them here.

The future is as much or more about reducing energy intensity as it is about lowering energy prices.  In fact, while lowering energy prices would have been great for NH circa 1980, it might also have delayed the long-term economic adjustments and reductions in energy intensity needed for our state and region to thrive. An industry that can’t thrive in NH because of energy prices is an industry that probably could not thrive in a global economy for a number of other cost-related reasons.   Maine’s industrial electricity prices are about one-third lower than they are in the rest of New England and I don’t think it is a coincidence that Maine is the only state in the region with an economy as energy intensive as the rest of the nation (chart below). Maine’s reliance on more energy intensive natural resource industries hasn’t served that state’s economy well in recent decades.

state by state energy intensity

Our state’s (and our region’s) comparative advantage will never be natural resources or lower costs such as electricity.  For the most part, state economies have been adjusting to account for that fact in what has been at times a painful but necessary adjustment.  As the chart below shows, states with high electricity prices also generally use less electricity per dollar of gross state product.

Eelectricty prices and energy intensity

Although it can, becoming a less energy and electricity intensive economy does not just mean ‘de-industrializing” or becoming a more services-oriented economy.  The dollar value of what New Hampshire’s manufacturers produce continues to climb in real dollars, they just do so just using less electricity every year.  As the chart below shows, the electricity content per dollar of manufacturing output in the state continues to decline and it is not a coincidence that our manufacturing sector has been evolving from traditional to more advanced manufacturing.

electricity content of manuf

Although much of this trend in manufacturing  has to do with the loss of more energy-intensive industries and the emergence of newer, less energy intensive industries, as Monadnock Paper demonstrates, some is also about traditionally energy-intensive industries adapting to the state’s less competitive energy climate.   In either case, the NH economy and individual businesses are way ahead of energy policies in the state.  The question is whether energy policies can catch-up enough to help facilitate the energy and economic transitions and adaptations that are occurring in the state’s economy

How Much of Housing’s Recovery Depends on Interest Rates?

October 11, 2013

Low interest rates did much to float the housing bubble of the 2000s, but like all bubbles the higher pressure inside the bubble eventually caused it to burst as it rose higher and encountered the  thinner atmosphere at high elevations.  Recently, even lower interest rates (lower than those that helped create the bubble) have significantly helped the housing recovery .Median price and Mortgage Rates

I haven’t written about the housing market lately because you can only jump off the “booming housing market” bandwagon so many times before people start wishing it causes you a fatal injury.   I won’t jump off the housing recovery bandwagon this post so much as I will move to the back of the wagon.  There is a nice modest recovery occurring in New Hampshire’s housing market.  It is not the boom that some national headlines indicate,  or even as strong as some data on median sales prices in New Hampshire would suggest, but the market is recovering.  CoreLogic’s home price indices show New Hampshire prices appreciated at about 5% over the past year.  Not bad but still 30 states had greater home price appreciation.  Home prices in the Granite state remain almost 17% below their peak levels and in only 12 states to prices remain  further below their peak levels.

Population growth (largely through in-migration) appears to be resuming again in New Hampshire and as household formations and job growth accelerate the market should improve at a faster rate.  Housing affordability is as high as it has been in decades.  The chart below shows a housing affordability index, or how  the monthly income of a NH household at the median income in the state relates to the monthly principal and interest costs of buying a home at the median price in the state.  When the index is above one, the index shows that the “typical” household with income at the state median, has more than enough income to cover monthly principal and interest costs (it says nothing about whether they have enough to make a 10 or 20% down payment to make the purchase or the ability to qualify for a mortgage).  The chart also shows how affordability changes at higher interest rates, indicating that for every 1% rise in mortgage interest rates, affordability declines by about 10%.

affordability index

The final chart shows how dramatically the combination of lower prices and falling interest rates affects the monthly principal and interest payments required to purchase a home in New Hampshire at the median purchase price and prevailing interest rates.   The chart also shows how the monthly principal and interest payments on a median priced home in NH would have been affected by interest rates that were 1% and 2% higher than they actually were.  The chart shows how significant changes in monthly payments can be at higher interest rates.  The impact of interest rates on monthly payments is more dramatic when home prices are higher so lower prices in this case suggest that an uptick in rates may have  somewhat less  of an impact than in the past.  Nevertheless the impact on affordability and prices of higher interest rates will be clear.

monthly pruchase costs and interest rates

A key question is how much of the recent rise in prices is the result of a genuine increase in effective demand for homes and how much is the result of the capitalization of interest rates into the purchase price (when rates are low sellers can get higher prices and still keep housing affordable but when mortgage rates are higher sellers must charge less to keep the same level of affordability).  For certain we know that more homes are being purchased, what we will find out, if interest rates continue to rise, is how much of that and sales prices are driven by low interest rates.  In new Hampshire this is especially critical because we have a relatively high percentage of homeowners with negative or near negative equity in their homes and changes in interest rates may determine whether or not they can sell their homes without incurring a loss.

%d bloggers like this: