What the Unemployment Rate Doesn’t Tell Policymakers Can Hurt Us

Posted June 22, 2016 by Brian Gottlob
Categories: job growth, NH Economy, Uncategorized, Unemployment

Tags: , , , ,

Last week the NH Labor Market Information Bureau released the NH jobs report for May and as usual all of the attention focused on NH’s low (2.7 percent) unemployment rate.  The more significant story was the April to May decline of 4,000 payroll jobs in the state.

Private sector jobs in NH were lower by 3,400 in May, the largest one month decline since 2008 – with one exception – a month in 2014 when workers at the Market Basket grocery chain left their jobs in support of their ousted CEO.  May 2016 job losses were an out sized drop for any month of seasonally adjusted data (a decline of that size would more likely be seen in the not seasonally adjusted data where large changes in employment occur annually during certain months of the year).  I am inclined to attribute some, but not all, of the drop in NH’s May employment to problems with seasonal adjustments and other statistical issues.  Still, the May data marks the first time since 2011 that a three month moving average of private sector employment growth in NH has been negative.

3 mos avg change in private emp

For some added context on the NH payroll employment numbers I wait for a release from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, usually about one week after NH releases its state’s job numbers.  That monthly report provides employment, unemployment, labor force and other labor market data for all 50 states.  Here is a bit of the context provided in the June 20th release from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics:

“In May 2016, four states had statistically significant over-the-month decreases in nonfarm payroll employment and three states and the District of Columbia had significant increases. The job losses were in Tennessee (-13,400), Michigan (-12,700), New Hampshire (-4,000), and Montana (-2,700). In percentage terms, Montana and New Hampshire had the largest declines (-0.6 percent each), followed by Tennessee (-0.5 percent) and Michigan (-0.3 percent).”

The term “statistically significant” decline in employment is important.  Twenty seven states experienced declines in nonfarm payroll employment in May but in only four of those states was the decline deemed “statistically significant,” meaning that the decline was large enough for the BLS to be at least 90% certain that the change in employment did not fall within the margin for error of the employer survey on which the employment estimates are based.

May emp change

It is not wise to be too concerned with one month’s job report.  Whether the  May job growth number is real or illusory and the product of statistical anomalies, the numbers for NH still should have attracted more attention (than a 0.1% uptick in the unemployment rate) from the media and especially from lawmakers and public officials.  The May job growth number is certainly more noteworthy than a slight uptick in the state’s unemployment rate that was the focus of most media reports.   As I noted in my previous post, employment growth nationally and in NH is going to slow and one bad month is not reason to panic.  But NH’s year-over-year percentage increase in private sector employment took a big hit with the May jobs report and the state’s ranking among states on private sector job growth did as well.  Private employment growth in NH has been on a solid pace for more than a year but with the May data NH moved from the top third to the bottom half among states on year-over-year private sector job growth.

Ranking Private Sector Job Growth

Public sector job cuts continue to be a drag on NH’s total nonfarm job growth, shedding about 2,500 jobs between May of 2015 and May of 2016, by far the largest percentage decline of any state in the nation.

Change in Govt Jobs May 15 to May 16

Still, while the May jobs report was troubling, initial unemployment claims are a very good leading indicator of economic activity and they remain subdued in NH and have yet to suggest a significant downtown in either the U.S. or NH economies.  The May jobs report also showed a continuation of the recent trend of solid labor force growth.


Implications for State Revenue

My primary concern about the May jobs report for NH, and with monthly jobs reports for NH in general, is how little attention payroll employment numbers get from policymakers and how much attention and importance is given to the state’s unemployment rate.  The state will begin crafting its two-year budget this fall and solid revenue gains over the past year and a budget surplus are building pressure for substantial increases in state spending.  This isn’t a commentary on the merits of specific spending proposals (I will save that for later posts) just a caution that the fiscal environment into which spending proposals will be entered can change and the need to recognize that change as far in advance as possible.  I would feel more comfortable about the upcoming budget process if NH’s weak May jobs number, and the possibility that weaker job growth will continue, were at least acknowledged by policymakers, state agencies, and the media.  I want to know that there is someone in NH’s wheelhouse focused on the horizon and not on our wake.   I understand the appeal of the unemployment rate as a single, intuitive metric that summarizes economic conditions but the unemployment rate is a lagging indicator of labor market and economic trends.  For policymakers and anyone who needs to assess the near-term economic outlook, using the unemployment rate as a guide is a bit like driving using the rear view mirror.   The unemployment rate is an important economic indicator that says a lot about current economic conditions, it is just not that useful for forecasting purposes. Moreover, NH’s demographics (fewer individuals in demographic groups that typically have high rates of unemployment) mean that the state will almost always have a relatively lower unemployment rate than the U.S..  Too frequently that leads lawmakers and others in NH to assume the state’s economy is performing better than it actually is and better than the U.S. economy.

Business taxes are a big reason that NH revenues have outperformed expectations this fiscal year, accounting for almost two-thirds (or $61.4 million) of the $99.4 increase in traditional taxes and fees over FY2015 during the first 11 months of fiscal year 2016.  Focusing on changes in private sector  payroll employment and wage growth is especially important for lawmakers in the Granite State and especially important as we head toward a budget making year.  As a lagging indicator of economic activity NH’s unemployment rate will remain low, even as the economy slows.

Emp Growth and Business Taxes

If lawmakers focus too much on NH’s unemployment rate in their assessment of state revenue trends they risk delaying recognition of turning points in the NH economy and thus changes in state revenue trends.  Private sector employment and payroll growth slow before significant changes occur in the state’s unemployment rate and private sector employment growth is a better indicator  of trends in NH business tax revenue than is the state’s unemployment rate.  So the next time a public official brags about NH’s unemployment rate, ask him or her how many jobs were added in the state during the last month.

Presidential Campaign Impacts on U.S. Job Growth and Implications for NH

Posted June 9, 2016 by Brian Gottlob
Categories: job growth, Labor Force, NH Economy, presidential election, Uncategorized

Tags: , , , , ,

The May U.S. jobs report with downward revisions to the March and April job numbers was bad, not bad enough that you should start stocking canned goods and bottled water in your basement but bad nevertheless.  The impact of 35,000 striking Verizon Corp. workers on the May numbers is cited as one explanation for the weak report but there were 25,000 temporary workers hired by the company during the strike so the overall impact was actually fairly small.  Seasonal adjustment factors (the statistical procedure used to smooth regular annual fluctuations in employment data throughout the year– things like Christmas hiring, summer employment of youth etc.) seem to be more problematic in recent years and that may also be a contributor.   Of course it is possible that hiring was just weak, plain and simple.  Hiring will continue to weaken, I just don’t think job growth is really as weak, and the slowdown as rapid, as the May jobs report suggests.

Presidential Campaigns Appear to Impact Job Growth

The first rule of politics is to forget all of the rules of economics and that is more problematic now that the national political climate seems to increasingly influence real economic variables. Think of the impact that debt ceiling debates and government shutdown threats have had on economic activity recently.  With almost no focus in the current presidential election on sound economics and economic policies it is easy to see how politics could  contribute to a weak May jobs report (when the empirical evidence doesn’t provide a clear explanation for economic events it is hard to go wrong blaming politics and politicians).  But there is some evidence that presidential elections can temporarily depress job growth.  The uncertainty of a presidential election, especially in a year without an incumbent, and the people and policies that candidates may employ in their administration can give pause to businesses investment and hiring decisions. The uncertainty surrounding future economic and fiscal policies in a presidential election year should arguably be greater several months prior to the election rather than a month or two when the election outcome and policy directions become clearer.  I compared average private sector job growth (government employment should not be affected) in the U.S. during the months of June-August in presidential election years, to the average job growth from September (of the year prior to the election) to May (of the election year).   Since 2000, in each presidential election year the average private sector job growth from June-August significantly lagged average job growth over the prior nine month (Sept-May) period. The pattern held in 2008 but because the U.S. economy was in free fall for other reasons it is not included here.   In years with no presidential election this generally was not the case (years such as 2002, 2003 and 2007 when the U.S. was entering or exiting a recession are exceptions).

UncertaintyJob growth in NH is going to slow regardless of political uncertainties given existing labor force constraints.  NH is essentially at full employment and the nation is close. The longer a recovery lasts the greater are the chances that job growth will slow.  Still,  there are more uncertainties regarding the presidential candidates and the policies that could affect business and the economy in this election than is typical in a presidential year so it is not unrealistic to think that politics is already affecting hiring and investment decisions.

Will New Hampshire Follow the National Trend?

State level job growth numbers for May will be released June 17th.  In a small state like NH monthly job growth can be especially volatile. Up or down  conclusions about a state’s economy should not be drawn from a single month of employment data.  A three month trend in private sector employment is a better reflection of the direction of a state’s economy and by that metric NH has been on a roll.  The chart below shows that after several years of below national average private sector job growth, the pace of job growth in NH is now at a level equal to the U.S. average.  Moreover, the growth trend for NH has accelerated while the rate of private sector job growth in the U.S. has decelerated.  The rate of private sector job growth NH is going to slow nonetheless,  just as it has in the nation overall.

private sector job growthI don’t think the private sector job growth trend has gotten enough attention in NH.  Many (including me at times) focused on several years of NH’s subpar total non-farm (including government) employment growth.  But as I have noted in prior posts, the percentage drop in government jobs in NH is among the largest of any state in the nation, masking some of the strength of hiring trends in NH’s private sector.  The chart below shows how both private sector and state and local government employment in NH have grown since each sector’s pre-recession peak.  Private sector employment in NH peaked in February of 2008 and after shedding 6% of those jobs during the recession NH has regained that many plus an additional 3%.  State and local government employment in NH did not peak until April of 2010.  It takes a couple of years for property valuations to reflect economic conditions so the largest declines in property valuations – and thus local revenues and employment- occurred as the recession had ended.  State and local government employment in NH is about 8.5% lower than at its peak, with local government shedding about 6,800 jobs and state government about 1,000 jobs.

public vs private sector growth

Labor Market Response in NH May Be Too Late

For too long in NH private sector job growth remained consistent at a subpar rate despite a large increase in help wanted ads in the state.  A combination of slow or no labor force growth and a mismatch between job opportunities and the skills of job seekers were the causes and not a fundamental erosion of NH’s business climate as I argued in this post.

NH US Help Wanted

But now help wanted ads in NH and the nation are slipping (chart above) and while the recovery isn’t over we are getting better more slowly.  Unfortunately, that is occurring just as the labor market conditions –  low unemployment, rising wages, and signs that NH is once again seeing net in-migration from other states, are all resulting in a more rapid expansion of the NH labor force, the key ingredient wages

the state has lacked in recent years to achieve a faster pace of  job growth.

NH Labor force growth

A Bumpy Ride for the Remainder of 2016

I am frequently in error but rarely in doubt and in this post  last fall I was confident NH would again exceed the U.S. rate of employment growth (it is still possible but not likely) and that NH would see a 2.5% increase in total employment in 2016 (that is not going to happen). In fairness, private sector job growth has been on a more than 2% growth pace for the year and I did include two caveats in my forecast last fall: first that labor force growth in NH would have to accelerate (in part due to a resumption in net in-migration to the state) and while the labor force is once again growing in NH,  it is at a pace that may not sustain the 2% plus growth that NH’s private sector is currently on.  Second, the decline in government jobs would have to abate – it hasn’t.  A month ago at a presentation at a local community bank I downgraded my job growth forecast for NH in 2016 from 2.5% to 1.8%.  With more recent national economic data – including the May jobs data and March/April revisions, readings from my PolEcon NH Leading Economic Index, along with the uncertainties produced by the nation’s political climate, I now believe the rate of growth will be just 1.2 to1.4 percent.

A Pyrrhic Victory for Pipeline Opponents

Posted June 2, 2016 by Brian Gottlob
Categories: Energy, Natural Gas, NH Economy, Uncategorized

Tags: , ,

Another energy project has been scuttled that could have provided some relief to New Hampshire and New England households and businesses who are paying among the highest prices for energy of any state in the nation. I believe the project would also have contributed to the important goal of reducing carbon emissions in NH and New England (more about my support for reducing carbon emissions and some controversial policies to accomplish that in a future post).  No doubt any proposed energy project is better when forged and tempered through a process of public review and debate.  But the withdrawal of proposed wind energy projects, and more recently the Northeast Energy Direct (NED) natural gas pipeline project, as well as the difficulties encountered by some solar projects in the state, question how committed many residents and some policymakers in NH are to finding solutions to an energy climate that is widely recognized as detrimental to households, businesses, and the NH economy.  As opponents of  pipeline, wind, and solar projects claim another “victory” in NH, an admonition given to Pyrrhus, a Greek general and ruler of Epirus comes to mind.  After a costly victory over his Roman enemies by Pyrrhus, the Greek philosopher Plutarch reportedly told Pyrrhus that another, similar “victory” would ruin him.  If the “ruin” that could occur only affected the combatants in NH’s  energy infrastructure battles, instead of the 1.4 million non-combatant “energy civilians” in the state, Plutarch’s warning might be useful.  But there are no “generals” and no real leaders or statesmen and stateswomen battling NH’s energy constraints and so the casualties of our state’s inability to take control and direct its energy future will be most broadly spread across the state’s population.

This post highlights some of my calculations of the costs to NH of the defeat (or victory as opponents would argue) over the Northeast Energy Direct natural gas pipeline proposal.  To begin, let’s reiterate the cost disadvantages faced by consumers of electricity in NH.  The chart below shows that through 2014, residential and commercial electricity customers paid, on average, about 35 percent higher rates than the national average, while industrial customers paid a whopping 70 percent higher rates than the national average.

energy prices

The NED Project’s Impact on Natural Gas and Electricity Prices

Natural gas prices have been lower in recent years as a result of increased U.S. production, largely from the Marcellus and Utica shale formations in  Ohio and Pennsylvania.  But as I noted in this post, a lack of pipeline capacity precludes NH and New England from realizing the full benefits from declining natural gas prices.  The increased supply of natural gas from nearby sources enabled by the Northeast Energy Direct project would impact natural gas prices in NH and New England.  Price reductions would result in direct savings to residential, commercial, and industrial consumers of natural gas and would also result in electricity prices that are lower in NH than without the Northeast Energy Direct project. New England’s wholesale power prices are closely related to natural gas prices because of the region’s dependence on gas-fired power generation capacity. By reducing spot prices for natural gas in New England, the NED Project will have a direct impact on New England’s wholesale power prices.

At least eight separate studies have forecast lower natural gas prices in New England resulting from an increase in pipeline capacity into the region.  Even one study from the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office, while suggesting an increase in pipeline capacity to New England isn’t needed to assure reliability of electricity supplies in the region (inaccurately I believe and contrary to reports by others, including the operator of the New England Energy grid), recognizes that increased pipeline capacity would result in lower regional natural gas prices.

 There is a range of estimates of the price impacts from an increase in natural gas supply to the region. My estimates of energy cost savings in NH use one of the more conservative estimates of the price impacts of increased supplies to the region as documented in a study  by ICF International. I used historical data on both natural gas and electricity consumption by sector (residential, commercial, industrial)  in NH from the U.S. Energy Information Agency (EIA) as well as forecasts of future consumption based on the EIA’s regional forecast for growth in natural gas and electricity consumption and applied ICF natural gas and electricity price reduction estimates to consumption forecasts in NH to estimate savings to customers in the state that would result from the operation of the NED pipeline.  In the initial full-year of pipeline operation I estimated the savings to natural gas and electricity consumers in NH to be $165.5 million.  The breakdown of saving by source and sector is presented below.  Savings represent about 3.4 % of the 2014 energy expenditures of NH residential consumers, 6.5% of commercial sector energy expenditures, and 8.9% of the energy expenditures of industrial consumers.

savings by sector

 Using the same sources and methods, I estimate the 10 year energy cost savings to NH natural gas and electricity consumers  would be just under  $2.2 billion in nominal dollars as a result of the Northeast Energy Direct project.

10 years savings

Additional Benefits of Increased Regional Access to Natural Gas

There are other potential benefits from NED that have been less talked about.  Much of NH has limited or no access to pipeline natural gas from local distribution companies.  The lack of access to natural gas increases energy costs for households and businesses in many regions the state.  In particular, lack of access increases the economic disadvantages currently faced by most rural regions in the state.   Natural gas is most available in the populated regions of Southern NH closest to regional pipelines and the lateral pipelines operated by local utilities who purchase natural gas from the regional pipeline operators.  The proposed NED pipeline would have passed through a portion of the state where the economy has lagged for some time and regions that could most benefit from access to pipeline natural gas.  The NED would increase capacity but local utilities would have to add lateral pipelines to serve communities, households and business in places like Keene, Claremont, Cheshire, Sullivan and Grafton Counties.

Along with extremely high electricity prices for industrial consumers relative to the U.S. average, the lack of access to natural gas is a significant disincentive to operating a manufacturing facility in much of New Hampshire, as nationally, natural gas accounts for 40 percent of the purchased energy of manufacturers on a BTU basis.  There is anecdotal evidence that manufacturers nationally are starting to react to lower natural gas prices by planning to open new facilities in the United States. There are other influential factors, including rising employment costs overseas, but those industries for which natural gas is an important input are anticipating an advantage of locating their operations in the U.S..  Cheshire and Sullivan Counties are among the most manufacturing dependent regions in the state and access to utility natural gas would especially benefit communities in those regions.  The chart below presents location quotients which represent the concentration of manufacturing employment in each NH county relative to the concentration of manufacturing employment in the U.S. overall. A location quotient of 1.00 indicates a region where the concentration of manufacturing employment is identical to the concentration of manufacturing in the the U.S. economy overall.  Location quotients above about 1.20 suggest counties where manufacturing is especially important to the regional economy.  Shaded bars represent counties through which the NED project would pass. The NED would not pass through Sullivan County but its proximity would make lateral access to gas from the pipeline feasible.

manufacturing LQ

Increased natural gas supplies and lower prices will be especially helpful to smaller manufacturing firms which face higher prices in New England but also face larger natural gas price differentials relative to larger manufacturers than anywhere in the country.  High prices and larger price differentials create a strong disincentive for new and emerging manufacturing firms to operate in New Hampshire and may be contributing to an “aging” in the manufacturing sector in the state.

gas prices to manufactures

Access to natural gas would also benefit households. Just under 20 percent of households in New Hampshire use pipeline natural gas for heating and another 13 percent use bottled gas but there are large regional variations in the availability of natural gas for heating.  Again, regions of the state that are considered economically disadvantaged, in most cases, have the least access to pipeline natural gas.  Access to pipeline gas won’t guarantee a reduction in disparities in the economic performance of various regions of NH but it would help households and manufacturers in regions where the economic performance has lagged.

home heating in NH by source

The savings for households heating with pipeline natural gas is substantial. The table below shows the average cost differential in annual heating costs between housing units heated with pipeline natural gas and other sources.  The difference between pipeline natural gas heating and fuel oil – the largest source of home heating fuel in NH – averaged over $890 annually between 2010 and 2014. By lowering natural gas prices the differential between homes heated with natural gas and other sources (other than solar) are likely to widen.  The NED would  increase opportunities for more communities, regions and more homes to be heated with natural gas in New Hampshire, amplifying the potential savings estimated here for NH households and the NH economy associated with lower natural gas prices.

Table copy

Factoring the impacts of the NED project on natural gas prices and disposable income for  residential consumers (and not including the impacts on commercial and industrial consumers)  I estimate that an additional 5,300 jobs would have been created in the first 10 years in response to the energy cost savings to households from the NED project.  When the impacts on industrial and commercial consumers are considered the potential benefits of the project become even clearer.


I originally prepared more detailed estimates (than in this post) in a report I did for the proposed NED project.  I write this blog (when I have time) because I enjoy researching and writing about topics that interest me, not to advance client interests. I think the report contained some good analyses and now that the NED proposal has been withdrawn and the company is no longer a client, I don’t feel conflicted writing about it here.  The success or failure of the NED project had no impact on the compensation I received. The report addresses energy issues in NH that I have been writing about since long before my work for the NED project. It examines the usual economic impacts from the construction phase of the project but more importantly potential longer-term impacts of the project.  The report also examines controversial topics such as potential impacts on tourism activities as well as fiscal impacts of the project.  The report can be viewed here. Because the report was paid for by the NED project owners, critics will dismiss some or all of the findings.  But a report that is paid for only means that its author(s) has some “skin in the game.” In a small state, and especially in NH, anyone who produces work that distorts findings or misleads policymakers won’t be offering services of  value and won’t be working in the state for long.  On the other hand, anyone without “skin in the game” or some compensated interest is pretty much free to make any claim without evidence, present any data, or any “analysis” regardless of its accuracy, without concern for the impact that it has on their business or professional reputation. I am not arguing that any information brought to policy debates that isn’t paid for has no value or is necessarily inaccurate or misleading, just that information that is not paid for by some interests is not is inherently or by definition more accurate or relevant than work that is paid for – there should be no “halo effect” for information entered into important policy debates simply on the basis of whether or not compensation was involved – compensated or not, information entered into the debate is provided by a party with a particular interest in the issue.  The quality and accuracy of the analysis should determine its merits.  I like to think that the ultimate test of the quality of an analysis is whether those who produced it will be around and willing to answer for its accuracy or inaccuracy when the time comes when that can be determined.  I don’t think my analyses (or forecasts) are wrong that often but when they are I am available to answer to policymakers and others for it.  I don’t think I would have had to answer for my my analysis of the impacts of the NED.

A Perfect Labor Force Storm

Posted May 24, 2016 by Brian Gottlob
Categories: Demographics, Labor Force, New Hampshire, Uncategorized, Workforce

Tags: , ,

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.


“It’s the Economy Stupid,” Unless it Isn’t: Predicting the 2016 Presidential Election

Posted April 6, 2016 by Brian Gottlob
Categories: Economy, Election, prediction, presidential, presidential election

Tags: , , , ,

You don’t need a political pundit to tell you what your eyes, ears and presidential primary results show  – in 2016 the electorate is angry. The economy isn’t at the top of every voters mind in every election but it is close.  For decades nearly every presidential candidate from both incumbent and non-incumbent political parties has asked voters “are you better off today than you were four years ago?”  As I documented in one of the very first posts in this blog, when the majority response was “yes,” the incumbent party’s candidate was almost certain to capture the White House.  There are some troubling economic trends and vexing economic issues affecting large numbers of Americans, still, to me the apparent level of anger in the electorate today seems outsized in historical context.

By most aggregate measures the country, as well as most individual states, are better off economically today than in 2012.  The simple calculus of Arthur Okun’s “misery index” – or the combined rates of unemployment and inflation – long a shorthand metric for assessing the likely aggregate economic sentiment of the American electorate, is much lower today than it was in 2012 suggesting that, collectively at least, we should feel somewhat better off.  But the level of anger in political and public discourse has elevated during the past four years and the  old “misery index” now seems a woefully inadequate measure of  the electorate’s assessment of current economic conditions.

Adding economic variables that have a demonstrable impact on American’s perceptions of the economy to the “misery index” – such as gasoline prices, home price appreciation, and household income – only adds to the apparent disconnect between standard economic metrics and current voter sentiment.  The table below shows, on a percentage basis, how much lower is the unemployment rate (since 2012), how much real household personal income has grown (since 2013), how much real home price appreciation has occurred in the past two years, and how much lower are gasoline prices over the last year, in each of the 50 states.  In addition, the table assigns weights (subjective though they may be) to the income, home price, and gasoline price measures to develop an aggregate measure of how much better or worse off the electorate is in each state over the past several years.  (The unemployment rate is not included in the combined metric because it is already captured as a determinant of changes in real household personal income).

table Notepad copyMisery metrics aside, historical election results show that regardless of economic conditions there is a tendency for many states to vote consistently for the candidate from one political party (the Democratic candidate has not garnered even 40% of the presidential vote since 1964 in Wyoming and the Republican candidate has won a majority in Massachusetts only once in the past 60 years). In addition, there is clear evidence of ‘voter fatigue” with the incumbent party after two terms in the White House that, depending on the state, can reduce the percentage of the incumbent party’s vote total by as much as 5%.  All of this makes me question the value of economic metrics in predicting presidential elections – just not enough to overcome my left brain obsession with developing quantitative analytical models to explain all things.  I am no political pundit and this is an economics and policy blog not a political blog – this post has nothing to do with arguing for one presidential candidate or one party over another.

I examined the statistical relationship between voting patterns and key economic variables and used the relationships between non-economic variables (voter fatigue, current presidential approval ratings, etc.) found by others to estimate the percentage of the vote that both the Republican and Democratic candidate would receive in each state and to produce the electoral vote totals in the two graphics below. The model is based on the most recent economic and other data and does not take into consideration the quality or characteristics of the potential candidates – a significant shortcoming as in this election in particular, who the candidates are would seem to have a large impact.

base scenario

The first graphic (or base scenario) suggests an election that should be reasonably close but with a victory for the Democratic candidate.  The second graphic shows a much larger margin of victory for the Democratic candidate.  The only difference between the two scenarios is in the importance (statistical coefficient) of the voting trend variable.  Each state exhibits a different strength of voting trend (for one party or the other) but after the time needed to statistically determine the trend variable in several states I opted to examine an easier, cross sectional, 50 state aggregate trend variable. This is a sub-optimal solution because the trend variable has a large impact on results.

scenario 2

In the first chart the voting trend variable has a somewhat weaker impact on the vote percentages, while the second chart shows a somewhat stronger impact than I found in my cross sectional analysis.  Each chart also shows states that are most likely to switch from either a Democratic (light blue) or Republican (light red) win.

I make no claim that this analysis will bear any relationship to actual election results and this post should make clear why I should stick to policy and not politics, but it has been an interesting exercise in examining the impact of the economy on elections and I will update the charts in the coming months to see how key variables impact the predictions.

“Too Big to Fail” or “Too Small to Succeed”?

Posted March 21, 2016 by Brian Gottlob
Categories: Banks, Financial, regulation, Small Business, Uncategorized

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Community banks’ share of the U.S. banking market has declined significantly over the past two decades but since 2010, around the time the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act was passed, community banks’ share of all U.S. banking assets has shrunk at a much faster rate.  Dodd-Frank may be offering consumers greater protections (data on that issue is not readily available and is less straightforward in any case), but the data clearly show that legislation designed to prevent another “too big to fail” financial crisis is also accelerating the declining market share of community banks, contributing to consolidation in the banking industry, and perhaps helping to create more “too big to fail” institutions.  The chart below shows how the volume of assets and loans have changed since the passage of Dodd-Frank for community banks (defined here as those with less than $1 billion in assets), banks with $1 to $10 billion in assets (some researchers consider these banks to be community banks), as well as banks with over $10 billion in assets.

assets and loans

Other than bankers and their regulators, nobody really cares about the market shares of different sized banks, but the out-sized role community banks play in lending to small businesses and the critical role community banks play in smaller communities and rural regions of the country make it an important economic issue for a large slice of the U.S. economy.  In almost one-third of the nation’s counties the only depository institutions located in the county are community banks according to a study by the U.S. General Accountability Office (GAO).  Small businesses also depend disproportionately on community banks.   The chart below shows that despite holding only 14 percent of all loans in the banking industry in 2006, community banks held 42 percent of all small business loans across the country.  The chart also shows how the rate of decline in the share of all loans held by community banks, as well as small business loans, have accelerated since 2010.

community bank shares

More troubling than the loss of market share by community banks (after all, does it matter as long as lending to small businesses increases?) is the sharp absolute decline in small business lending by community banks since the passage of Dodd-Frank.  I think it matters a lot that community banks’ share of lending is declining because of the traditional role of relationship banking and the willingness to consider “soft information” has played in community bank lending decisions and the implications for access to credit by small businesses.  As the chart below shows, as recently as 2006, community banks were the largest source of small business lending by the banking industry.  Since 2010, however, small business loans at community banks have fallen sharply.


small business loans

Some of this is the result of consolidation, smaller community banks being acquired by larger, non-community banks. But even that is influenced by Dodd-Frank.  Any regulatory requirement is likely to be disproportionately costly for community banks, since the fixed costs associated with compliance must be spread over a smaller base of assets.  As the GAO reports, regulators, industry participants, and Federal Reserve studies all find that consolidation is likely driven by regulatory economies of scale – larger banks are better suited to handle heightened regulatory burdens than are smaller banks, causing the average costs of community banks to be higher.

The implications for small businesses and for the economies of smaller and more rural communities are clear. As regulations require more standardized lending and reflect bigger bank processes and practices, community bank lending will be constrained and because they are a major source of small businesses loans and major source of local lending in most rural areas, small business and the economies of smaller, more rural communities will be disadvantaged.  Automobile, mortgage, and credit card loans have become increasingly standardized and data driven.  These loans are increasingly made without any personal interactions, via the internet and by less regulated institutions, or by larger banking institutions with the infrastructure to make exclusively data driven lending decisions.  Business loans are different.  Community banks have had to focus to a greater extent on small business and commercial real estate lending – products where community banks’ advantages in forming relationships with local borrowers are still important – as more types of loans have become increasingly standardized.  Community banks generally are relationship banks; their competitive advantage is a knowledge and history of their customers and a willingness to be flexible.  Community banks leverage interpersonal relationships in lieu of financial statements and data-driven models in making lending decisions, allowing them to better able to serve small businesses.  Regulatory initiatives such as Dodd-Frank are more reflective of bigger bank lending processes which are transactional, quantitative and dependent on standardization.   Understanding the financials of a business, its prospects, the local community in which it operates, or the prospects for its industry, are hard to standardize.  Community banks ability to gather “soft information” allows them to lend to borrowers that might not be able to get loans from larger institutions that lend with more standardized lending criteria.  The less “soft information” is incorporated into lending decisions, and the more costly become the regulatory requirements on banks, the more community banks will diminish and with it an important asset for small business, and small communities across the country.  It is possible that someday small business lending can be more standardized, less interpersonal, in a way similar to credit card or auto loans and in a way that does not disadvantage small businesses, but I am skeptical.

The debates surrounding financial services regulation since the “great recession” have focused on the safety and soundness of the financial system and on consumer protections, both important objectives, and to be fair, the banking industry too often  appears only self-interested in regulatory debates.  But far too little consideration has been  given to the impact of new financial services regulations on small business, communities, and rural regions of the country.

Authors Note:  I have done some studies for the banking industry in the past.  This post is not an effort to shill for their interests.  This blog is about timely topics that interest me and a place where I can write about them free of any compensated interests.  It is an outlet for my analytical interests and opinions.   I do confess, however, an affinity for community banks and the people who run them because of the strong commitment that they demonstrate to the people, businesses, and communities in which they operate.    


How Much of a Benefit is Low Oil Prices?

Posted March 7, 2016 by Brian Gottlob
Categories: consumers, Energy, NH Economy, Oil, U,S, Economy

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Low oil prices have provided an economic windfall to households in New Hampshire and across the nation. Based on actual 2014 energy consumption and expenditure data for NH, changes in 2015 energy prices, and forecasts of 2015 energy consumption (actual data won’t be released for another year), I estimate that businesses and households saved about $1 billion in 2015 as a result of lower oil prices (Figure 1).

NH savings

Households saved over $800 million – largely as a result of lower gasoline prices – and businesses saved nearly $200 million. In 2015 households in NH spent about $665 million less on gasoline than they did in 2014 and about $800 million less than they did in 2012 (Figure 2).
gasoline savings

Here I am talking about the monetary impacts of lower oil prices, the distribution of impacts among states, between business and households, by different income levels, and how increased U.S. oil production is changing the demand for imported oil. While the overall impact is a net positive on the U.S. economy – especially consumers – the net benefits to our nation’s economy have been smaller than many anticipated. This is not a full accounting, I do not consider any environmental implications (I will write about some of those in future posts on carbon emissions, carbon taxes and climate change that are sure to incite the unstable) or the fact that low oil prices make Vladimir Putin only slightly more scary or any number of petroleum states that much less stable.

There was a time not long ago when low oil prices would have provided a stronger stimulus to the U.S. economy, as every dollar saved by businesses and individuals as a result of lower oil prices translated into nearly a dollar of benefits to the U.S. economy as more of the dollars saved were dollars not being sent overseas. But today many more of the petro dollars saved are dollars that would have gone to U.S. businesses and workers, reducing the overall net benefits that lower oil prices have on the U.S. economy. Figure 3 shows the dramatic increase in U.S. oil production beginning late in the last decade along with a concomitant decline in oil imports.
production and imports

Regional Impacts

Make no mistake, lower oil prices are a good thing for U.S. economy overall, but the boom in oil and gas production in the U.S. includes states that are relatively new to energy production, spreading the negative impacts of a downturn in energy markets more broadly across the U.S., as well as some states who have gone from very small to more significant energy producers, deepening the negative impacts from low prices in those states. Texas, Oklahoma, Alaska, Louisiana are used to economic disruptions caused by fluctuations in oil prices (although much of Texas is now much more diverse) , North Dakota and other states not so much. Figure 4 shows the volume of oil production in 2014 by state and thus the relative exposure that these state have to fluctuations in oil prices.

state production

The increase in U.S. oil production was spurred by high world oil prices that made it economically viable to extract oil using more costly methods, as well as improved technologies that made it possible to extract oil that could not be obtained through traditional drilling techniques. A few years ago I worked on an energy project in the Permian Basin of West Texas and Eastern New Mexico that involved enhanced oil recovery (EOR) techniques. At that time the price of oil was around $100 bbl while the break-even price of EOR was approximately $67 bbl. In that environment it is not surprising that a boom in production would occur in areas with even difficult to extract oil reserves. Continued improvements in technology have no doubt lowered the break-even price of EOR below the $67 that it was back in 2012, but probably not as low as the $48 per bbl that was the average price for U.S. crude in 2015, and certainly not as low as the $32 bbl average of January 2016. The sharp decline in oil prices since 2014 is affecting the profitability, production, and employment of energy companies and those that service and supply them. Low oil and gas prices don’t help energy producing states the way they help NH and other non-energy producing states because the benefits of lower oil and gas prices to households and businesses are mitigated by the reduction in investment and employment in oil and gas extraction, transportation, and the industries that support them – including financial industries, professional and technical industries (engineering etc.) and many others. Figure 5 shows states at the bottom of private sector job growth in 2015 – all but Vermont and Illinois are significant energy producing states.
state emp  change

Income Support

The benefits of lower energy prices on households nationally have been large. Energy spending dropped from 6.1% of total expenditures of households in 2008 to 4.4% through mid-2015. All households benefit from lower energy prices but the benefits are not evenly distributed. Low-income consumers devote a larger share of their budgets to energy and thus lower energy prices provide a greater relative benefit to households lower on the income scale. Data from the Consumer Expenditure Survey of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics show that consumers in the bottom half of the income distribution devoted 10.7% of their budget to energy expenses, while consumers in the top half of the distribution devoted 8.1% of their budgets to energy (the figures are higher in the Northeast where households spends more on heating and much more on oil heat than the national average). To some extent these differences may overstate the benefits of lower energy prices to lower-income households because the largest difference in the percentage of household expenditures on energy by income level is for electricity; lower oil prices have had little impact on electricity prices, but the benefits to lower income households are still signficant. Figure 6 shows the percentage of total household expenditures in the U.S. that are devoted to energy among households in four different income ranges.

exp by income level


The most important implication of U.S. oil production may be for U.S. foreign policy. Not only are oil imports on the decline as U.S. production has increased, but the sources of imported oil are also changing. Persian Gulf states are a declining source of oil imported in the U.S., while Canada is a rapidly increasing source (Figure 7).

imports by region

The historical role that concerns about oil supplies have played in U.S. policies toward Persian Gulf states is debatable but a declining dependence on Persian Gulf oil at least offers the possibility that whatever U.S. involvement continues in the region will be less energy dependent. If current trends in U.S. production and imports continue, it is possible that the only country that the U.S. imports oil from in 10 years is Canada. If I have learned one thing from this presidential primary season it is that not all Canadian imports are a good thing. But, I grew up along the Canadian border and I would be pretty comfortable only relying on the great white north to meet our nation’s demand for imported oil.

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