Posted tagged ‘recession’

Not With a Bang But With a Whimper

July 26, 2016

The U.S. economy is currently in its 86 month of an economic expansion that began in the summer of 2009 according to the National Bureau of Economic Research, the organization that officially dates U.S. business cycles. If the expansion lasts another seven months (as it will), it will be the third longest economic expansion in our nation’s history, trailing only the 120 month expansion from 1991 to 2001 and the 106 month expansion from  1961 to 1969.

The probability of recession in the next six months is low but the business cycle hasn’t been repealed, another recession will occur and almost certainly sometime before the end of 2019.  It’s just that none of the excesses – wage and price growth, high energy prices, inflationary pressures, inflated asset values, etc.- that have preceded past recession are much apparent in today’s economy and there aren’t signs that any are imminent.  What will make the next recession unique in the post WWII era is that it may very well occur before the nation has fully recovered from the previous recession, despite how long the current recovery has lasted.  “Fully recovered” here means that the actual output of the nation’s economy (GDP) reaches its potential output (for a brief explanation of actual and potential output of the economy see this Congressional Budget Office publication). This is somewhat akin to feeling the effects of a hangover in the morning despite not having enjoyed the celebration the night before.  Unlike the last recession, or most recessions, the next one may not begin with a bang but rather with a whimper.

No expansion can last forever; the U.S. and the NH economies are showing signs of slowing so it is difficult for me to believe that the nation can avoid slipping into recession sometime during the first term of our next president.  If that President is named Clinton it will most likely mean a one-term presidency as three consecutive terms for an incumbent party (relatively rare in itself) along with a recession in the third term (unless is happens very early in her term allowing sufficient time for growth prior to 2020) would almost certainly result in the nation looking for a change in the party controlling the White House.  If the President is named Trump he will no doubt blame the recession on the past administration and that may help give him a pass in 2020, but a recession will challenge his claim as someone who knows how to create jobs, while his penchant for populist and nationalistic themes aren’t generally viewed as monetary and fiscal policies effective in combating a recession.  His administration’s and his personal  response to the recession might determine his fate (does anyone else remember the images of the first, single-term, President Bush zooming around in his cigarette boat off the coast of Maine while the U.S. was in the middle of the 1990-91 recession?).

The past two months have been marked by one very bad and one very good month for job growth in the nation and in NH.  I  advocate looking at three months of job growth numbers in discerning employment growth trends and a prudent man would wait for the release of the nation’s July job growth numbers on August 5th before making any proclamations about the direction of the U.S. or NH economy.  But a prudent man doesn’t write this blog and I am comfortable knowing that when you right too early it often seems like you are wrong so here are a few of the more accessible  indicators that I believe suggest slower economic growth moving forward.  There are others but jobs and revenues are what interest policymakers most so they are highlighted here.

  • The rate of private sector job growth has slowed.
  • The number of industries that are adding jobs versus the number shedding jobs (the employment diffusion index) has declined.
  • Help wanted advertising is declining.
  • Nationally, state corporate income tax collections appear to have peaked.

Slowing Private Employment Growth

Recognizing that there is always some level of unemployment in the economy, the nation and NH are at or very near “full employment,” making  job gains harder to obtain.  Full employment in the latter stages of recovery is the most obvious rationale for slower job growth going forward.  As the chart below shows, growth in private sector employment nationally is still solid but has been trending downward for some time while growth in NH accelerated in 2015 but appears to have peaked in early 2016.

private sector job growth

The Breadth of Job Gains Narrows

I use a 13 industry private employment diffusion index to assess the breadth of job growth across the private sector economy.  When more industries are adding jobs than are shedding jobs, the index is below .50 and the greater the number of industries adding jobs compared to those shedding jobs the higher is the index number.  The chart below shows that both the national and NH diffusion index have dropped, with NH’s decline of particular concern as it now stands below .50 on a three month moving average basis. NH’s employment numbers are often substantially revised so this index value may not be as bad as it appears here but the U.S. number still points to a slowdown.

diffusion index

Historically, significant declines in NH’s employment diffusion index have signaled turning points in the state’s labor market. The relationship between NH’s diffusion index value and the rate of year-over-year private sector job growth four months later is strong (a correlation of .82).  A simple linear regression of the NH diffusion index on private sector employment growth suggests the last two quarters of 2016 will see private employment growth in NH of about 0.6% on an annualized basis compared to the current rate of growth of about 2.0%.  Clearly not in danger of recession but definitely a slowdown.

diffusion index and emp growth

Fewer Help Wanted Ads

Nationally and in NH the number of help wanted ads has declined in recent months.  In NH the relationship between the three month moving average of help wanted ads and job growth in the quarter that follows is strong (R= .80).

NH US Help Wanted

Growth in State Corporate Income Tax Collections Has Peaked

Nationally, the rate of growth in state corporate income taxes is declining (chart below).

corporate tax revenues

The chart shows that compared to all states combined, the growth in NH’s business tax revenues is increasing as the growth rate nationally declines.  This despite the fact that NH’s private sector employment growth has been at about the U.S. average over the past year.  What is different in NH is the inclusion of NH’s Business Enterprise Tax revenue along with NH’s tax on corporate profits in the chart above.  Both private employment and wage growth have accelerated in NH over the past year. Wages and salaries paid by a business are the largest portion of the Business Enterprise Tax base so even as business profits grow more slowly, business tax revenues can be buoyed by substantial increases in overall wages and salaries.  While not a measure of the payroll of NH businesses, wage and salary income increased in NH by 8.6 percent between QI 2015 and QI 2016 compared to 5.3 percent nationally.  That increase has helped boost Business Enterprise Tax revenue and overall business tax revenue in NH in a way that it cannot in other states (most other states would see the change in individual income tax revenue).  The trend is depicted in the chart below that shows the growth rate of the annualized business profits portion of NH’s business tax revenue has slipped while the growth rate of the portion more dependent on wages and salaries has seen accelerated growth.  A slowing growth rate in private employment in NH implies slower growth in wages and salaries and business tax revenues in the state growing more similarly to the pattern among states nationally.  This will occur just as a budget surplus and strong overall revenue growth have increased pressures for additional state spending that had been muted by several years of relatively weak business tax and overall revenue growth.

NH business tax revenue growth

It is impossible to predict monthly payroll employment growth for a small state like NH (or any state for that matter) but I predict employment growth of about 120,000 jobs nationally in July but anything between 100,000 and 150,000 would be in line with the indicators highlighted in this post and consistent with a gradual slowing of economic growth nationally and in NH. Not soon but at some point that slowing will become a recession and that will be the reward for winning the White House and for new and incumbent occupants of statehouses across the nation.

A Simpler But No Less Troubling Explanation for Job Growth Trends

December 5, 2012

A lot of analysts, me included, have been looking for reasons why employment growth has been slower much of this recovery.  That prompts questions about whether the slow recovery from recession is the result of cyclical factors (related to swings in the business cycle) or structural factors that fundamentally and longer-term alter the ability of NH and the nation to create jobs.   While some wait for cyclical factors to improve job growth, in NH there is a lot of talk about demographics, migration, and too often (by me at least) the skills gap or mismatch between job openings and the skills of job seekers.  Much of the demographic story, especially concerns about NH’s ability to attract people from other states,  is relevant – except perhaps for the overblown concerns about NH’s “aging” (more about that in future posts).  I believe demographics and things like the skills gap play an important role in the slow recovery and more general downward trend in job growth, both before and following the recession.  But today, I offer another, simpler thesis, but  one that may be no less troubling.   If you look at job growth trends in NH by industry, you see that since the recession, employment weakness has really been most concentrated in  three sectors of the economy;  construction, government, and financial services.   The chart below shows job growth trends over the past several years for total non-agricultural employment in NH,  as well as total employment minus construction, government, and financial services.  Absent the three hardest hit sectors of the economy, job growth following the recession (until recently that is) didn’t look that much different than the recovery from the briefer, milder recession of the early part of the last decade.


I know construction,  government, and financial services are important but they still represent just over 20 percent of employment in the state, so the weakness in employment isn’t as broad-based as pessimists (including me at times) suggest.   But what is more troubling is that the weakness in these sectors are more structural than cyclical and thus we may be waiting for a rebound that may never occur.  I don’t think that is true for construction, where at least some rebound will occur as the housing market improves, as business investment strengthens, and whenever the fiscal health of governments improve enough for infrastructure spending to pick up.   But weakness in government and financial services employment is likely more structural.  New financial services regulations are likely to be an impediment to job growth in that industry for some time and there is no end in site for the budgetary impediments that will likely continue to weigh on job growth in the government sector.   I, and others, will continue to look at the implications of such things as demographics and skills gaps on recent and prospective job growth, but we can’t fail to recognize that sometimes  answers are less complex than the questions.

The Fiscal “Cliff” is No “Bluff”

November 27, 2012

Linguists will take exception to that and note that a cliff is, in fact, a bluff.    The consensus among economists, however,  is that the fiscal cliff is indeed no bluff.    A number of commentators have noted that the fiscal cliff is more like a slope and will not  cause immediate economic calamity.  I was one of those as a guest on NHPR’s “The Exchange“.   But just as there was once too much hyperbole surrounding the fiscal cliff issue, now, as we get closer to the deadlines when the combination of tax hikes  and spending cuts that define the fiscal cliff take effect, there seems to be more of an effort to minimize the likely impacts that will occur if no resolution is found.  That would be a mistake because whether the spending cuts take effect immediately or over the course of a year or more, and whether the tax hikes immediately effect spending and investment decisions is not the issue.  The issue is that the U.S. economy is simply not growing fast enough to withstand the impacts of the full implementation of the provisions of the fiscal cliff.  Skeptics fire away, but below is a succinct chart that shows how the effects of the fiscal cliff relate to real growth in our nation’s economy, assuming the effects of the cliff occur in 2014.  To lump all effects in one year isn’t accurate, but the point is to place the magnitude of the cliff’s impacts into context.  I believe the context in the chart below highlights the importance of a reasonable resolution to the potential problems the cliff could cause.

Equity in Unemployment

November 26, 2012

I started this analysis wondering if the percentage of jobs in professional, technical, and scientific industries in NH that are held by females is greater among younger workers in the industry than older workers.  I became sidetracked by the unexpected finding that the percentage of workers in those industries is about evenly divided between men and women (and as a spoiler the percentage that is female is larger at younger age groups – consistent with my “‘feminization of the NH workforce” theme from an earlier post).  One caveat before proclaiming gender equity in professional and scientific fields, the data do not account for the specific occupations in the industries.  That is, it is possible that the conventional wisdom that women are less employed in those industries is not supported, but the fact may remain that the more professional, scientific, and technical occupations in those industries (as opposed to the management, support and other occupations) may still be dominated by males.  Unfortunately there is data from different datasets that supports this thesis, although it does appear to be changing.

The chart below shows that women comprise about half of the employment in the broad industry grouping of professional, scientific, and technical industries.

The real kicker in the data is that it shows that reductions in employment in those industries came largely at the expense of female workers.  Again, this may just be a function of the reductions in those industries occurring in specific occupations more likely to be populated by females, a viable interpretation.  It may also be related to an increase in female employment among younger and newer workers in the industry who’s employment  may be most vulnerable in a recession.  Nevertheless, such a high percentage of  decline in those industries coming at the expense of female workers is well beyond what would be expected based on probability and chance alone.

The Recession’s Impact on The Entrepreneurial Economy

November 5, 2012

The cost of the recent recession in terms of jobs lost was great,  but the  longer-term cost could be far greater because of the impact the recession had on NH’s entrepreneurial economy.   While small businesses are cited as being responsible for the majority of new job creation, the fact always left out of that truism is that most of the job creation by small businesses come from new businesses, and more specifically, a small number of new businesses that become “gazelles,” new businesses with the potential to grow much larger.  Most small business will always be small.  They start, they fail, and with a lot of churning they are the businesses with whom we most interact on a daily basis. New Hampshire and New England increasingly have relied on our economy’s ability to generate new and innovative businesses to maintain a dynamic economy, a decline in entrepreneurial activity would have significant implications for our ability to continue to do so.

Looking at data on employment by age of businesses in NH from the past decade, it is clear that while NH may have suffered less than most states during the recent recession, it is not so clear that our entrepreneurial economy did as well.  The chart below shows that the recession had an especially large impact on NH’s entrepreneurs, as the the number of people employed at firms operating for three years or less declined by 34% between its peak in 2006, and 2011.

As a percentage of private employment, workers at firms three years old or has fallen from over nine percent of private employment to just over six percent.  This data does not mean that 16,000 workers in firms three years old or younger actually lost their jobs.  Remember, this is time series data so the firms in 2006 that were three years old or younger are not the same firms in the three year old and under category in 2011.  Certainly there were substantial job losses among young firms during the recession (as well as some gains) but the data more likely suggests that the next wave of new businesses (some of whom could be expected to become “gazelles”) simply did not start or  were not able to survive and grow.   For how long those effects lasts should be a question for anyone wondering what to do about the slow pace of job creation in the state.  It would be nice to have a control group of data from Massachusetts to examine for comparison purposes but they do not participate in the program from which these data are drawn.  Recessions always take a toll on smaller and newer businesses because those businesses are often in more precarious financial positions.  The data for NH do not go back earlier than 2003 so it is difficult to say whether this recession was different in its impacts on entrepreneurial activity in NH but we really should be concerned about whether the impact of the recession on entrepreneurial activity will have longer-term impacts on the NH economy.

Some Good News in Some Very Bad Weather

October 29, 2012

(My apologies for the late post – I posted this 3 hours ago but it didn’t publish so I am trying again)

PolEcon’s NH Leading Index jumped from a revised + 3.7 to +13.0 this month. its highest value since January of 2011.  An Index reading of + 13.0 isn’t a signal of robust growth but it is a substantial improvement over much of the past 18 months and if it continues for another month or two it will be a clear sign of a much improved NH economy.

Weather and electricity permitting, the October edition of the Trend Lines will be emailed or available to read online at    Seven of the nine indicators in the Index improved over the month, with initial claims for unemployment insurance showing an especially large drop.  I prefer initial claims data to the unemployment rate, as it gives greater insight into the near-term direction of the labor market.  I’ve stated in a prior post that I believe job growth in NH will be revised upward, based on aggregate wage and salary growth and the volume of help-wanted advertising in the state.  Declining initial unemployment claims are another indicator that actual  job growth is likely somewhat higher than is currently being reported (NH has seen a few negative year-over-year monthly job growth reports recently). At an average weekly number of claims at 1,400 for the month, it is still much higher than the under 1,000 number that is typically seen during periods of solid job growth, but the number continues its downward trend.  The chart below shows how new claims currently compare with claims during previous periods of growth and recession.  On a three-month moving average basis, the number of new claims in NH  is now about what is was during the short-lived recession of the early 2000s, and compared to the first “great recession” of the early 1990s, it is also about as high now as during that difficult time.  But there is also a larger population in the state and also more employment  so examining initial claims as a percentage of employment in the state provides a better comparison to where the labor market stands today and where it may be heading.  That comparison makes the current labor market appear to be in the early stages of recovery from recession rather than two years removed from the official end of one, but its a sign of recovery nevertheless.

What’s the Breaking Point for Oil Prices in Northern NE?

October 17, 2012

Because the Northeast is the one region of the country where a high percentage of households heat with oil, high oil prices can take a particularly heavy  toll on household budgets in the region.  Not all states in the region are similarly affected however.  Maine get hits hard because of its weather, the fact that its industrial mix is more energy dependent than say NH , MA, or CT, and even VT.  Plus their extensive tourism industry gets hurt when gas prices rise.  In NH, a lot of economic activity also depends on travel to the state which is hampered by high gasoline prices, and overall, NH has a relatively high rate of non-discretionary driving (that is we have a bit longer average commutes and a higher percentage of commuters traveling further) that hurts budgets when gas prices rise but our industrial base uses less energy per dollar of GDP than most states (MA and CT are lower in NE).  I’ve done some econometric modeling to see how sensitive employment changes are in New England to changes in the price of oil and gasoline.  All states are affected by higher oil and gasoline and all energy prices but the MA economy is somewhat less sensitive (the elasticity of employment with respect to oil prices is lower) than any of the  Northern New England states.  In Northern NE, NH is the least sensitive to oil prices but as the chart below shows, even at current oil prices, or at the average price during all of 2012 (about $96), employment in NH is 2,000-3,000 lower than it would have been if oil prices had remained at 2010 levels.

Higher oil prices act like a tax increase on the consumer, reducing disposable income and resulting in a shift in  purchases away from some goods and services to pay for higher energy costs.  In addition, high energy prices (especially gasoline prices) have a tremendous negative psychological impact on household and consumers confidence and sense of economic well being.  How much is too much of an increase in oil prices in Northern NE?  At what point do higher oil prices (which largely determines gas prices) tip the region into recession?  Based on the same models used above, the point at which slower job gains or actual job losses would occur is probably at a sustained price (for months on end) of at least $130 to $135 bbl.  But that changes depending on economic conditions and is also a function of the energy intensity of each state.   Strong economies can take more shocks without falling into recession.  In a weak economy it takes a smaller oil price increase to induce recession.  In NH, the breaking point price is now probably closer to $125 – $130 bbl, and in Maine a bit lower, while in Massachusetts, the price that would induce recession is probably closer to $140.

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