Payroll employment highly subdued. 408 thousand workers exit the labour force due to lack of jobs. Overheating potential zero. In last month’s assessment – US labour market – things are getting worse again as the virus spreads (January 18, 2021) – I predicted things would get worse given the trajectory of the virus. I have formed a strong view that nations have to deal with the health issue before they can expect the economy to open up again. No nation can ignore a spiralling death rate and avoid some restrictions which damage the economy. The evidence demonstrates that the nations that have largely suppressed the virus are doing the best in economic terms. Last Friday (February 5, 2021), the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) released their latest labour market data – Employment Situation Summary – January 2021 – which is consistent with my prediction. Payroll employment growth has slowed rapidly (only increasing by 49 thousand). But the labour force survey data is a bit difficult to interpret this month due a population benchmarking changes (see below). In terms of the household survey, employment rose by 201 thousand and the labour force was reduced by 408 thousand, meaning that official unemployment fell by 606 thousand and the unemployment rate fell by 0.4 points. Taking out the population control effect, the labour force shrank by 200 thousand. While the signals are a little confused, the data is showing there is no strong recovery going on at the moment as the health crisis intensifies. There is an elevated degree of excess capacity. I consider that the US will have to stabilise the health situation before they will be able to sustain any economic recovery. And we can disregard New Keynesian macroeconomists who are suffering from attention deficit problems it seems, and claiming that the economy is close to overheating and cannot absorb the proposed stimulus from the new Administration. The stimulus is actually too little!
Last week (February 1, 2021), the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, which represents the business lobby, demanded the Australian government cut the unemployment benefit back to less than $A40 per day but at the same time it also demanded the Government extend wage subsidies to businesses. It is repugnant that the business culture in Australia is so impoverished, that the key business lobby group wants unemployed workers who cannot get a job because there are not enough jobs on offer to be forced to live at income support levels that are well below conventional poverty lines. But, at the same time, it supports businesses putting their own hands out to government for more. It is also stupid. They don’t seem to realise that providing an environment for strong wages growth produces the best conditions for profits. Yet these characters just want to accelerate the ‘race to the bottom’ which is a self-defeating strategy.
The latest data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics – Labour Force, Australia, December 2020 – released today (January 17, 2021), shows that the labour market is still improving but the pace of recovery has slowed considerably.Employment increased by 0.4 per cent (50,000) in the month, which normally is a reasonable result but is nearly half the growth that was recorded in November 2020. Unemployment fell by 30,100 and the unemployment rate fell by 0.2 points even though the participation rate rose by 0.1 points. It is always a good sign when there is both employment and labour force growth with the former stronger than the latter. Underemployment also fell by 0.8 points and the broad labour underutilisation rate (sum of unemployment and underemployment) fell by 0.8 points. The main uncertainty now is that the recovery is slowing and the current (extensive) government support is due to end in the first-quarter of 2021. Given the labour market is still quite a margin from where it was in March 2020, the idea that the government would withdraw its fiscal support is not a compelling option. Overall, the recovery is still too slow and more government support by way of large-scale job creation.
US Department of Labor’s latest unemployment claimant data is worrying with the claimants in the week to January 9, 2021 rising to 1,151,051 a shift of 231,335. This is the highest level since the week ending July 25, 2020 and confirms what we now know – that unless a nation deals with the health crisis and gets the virus infections under control (preferably to the point of zero community transmission), it cannot hope for a sustainable economic recovery. The data is the result of lockdowns leading to layoffs in the hospitality and recreation sectors which has pushed the US economy back into contraction. The rise in new claimants follows the payroll data that revealed that employment had fallen by 140,000 (net) – see this blog post for analysis of that data release – US labour market recovery has ended as health problem intensifies (January 11, 2021). And given the nature of the employment most impacted, you can be sure that socio-economic inequalities will have risen. I will write about that last issue another day.
It has been clear that with the virus infections in the US increasing rapidly and with the lack of fiscal support from government, that the labour market conditions would probably start to deteriorate after a brief period of recovery following the first blush with the virus. I have been predicting that since December 2020. The latest data reveals that assessment was accurate. On January 8, 2021, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) released their latest labour market data – Employment Situation Summary – December 2020 – which reveals a deteriorating or static situation, depending on the weight one gives to the payroll data relative to the household survey. Payroll employment fell by 140 thousand. In terms of the household survey, with employment and the labour force hardly moving, unemployment and the unemployment rate was unchanged. While the signals are a little confused, the data is showing the recovery has ended as the health crisis intensifies. I consider that the US will have to stabilise the health situation before they will be able to sustain any economic recovery. The US appears to be going in the opposite direction to that.
The answer to the question posed in the title is No! Lawrence Summers’ macroeconomic assessment does not stack up. In – Is the $US900 billion stimulus in the US likely to overheat the economy – Part 1? (December 30, 2020) – I developed the framework for considering whether it was sensible for the US government to provide a $US2,000 once-off, means-tested payment as part of its latest fiscal stimulus. Summers was opposed to it claiming that it would push the economy into an inflationary spiral because it would more than close the current output gap. Today, I do the numbers. The conclusion is that there is more than enough scope for the Government to make the transfers without running out of fiscal space.
I provide a lot of research support for trade unions in wage determination cases in Australia, where wage agreements are uniquely decided in judicial processes. The cases are onerous and highly contested and as an expert witness I am often grilled for lengthy periods by the employers’ barristers in the evidential phase. One of the things that has been relevant in the last year or so has been the wage caps and freezes that government employers are placing on their workforce as a way of ‘saving money’. Prior to the pandemic they were forcing real wage cuts or zero real wages growth on workers under their wage cap strategies as part of their pursuit of fiscal surpluses. Now they are imposing freezes to reduce the size of their deficits. And, the same is happening in other jurisdictions such as the UK. Not only were the wage caps in the public sector damaging the well-being of public workers, in some cases, the lowest paid (cleaners etc), but they were also providing ‘wage guidance’ to the private sector, at a time when household debt is at record levels and consumption growth wage faltering. At a time when consumers are already wary and saving higher proportions of their disposable income, freezing wages is not a responsible thing to do in a pandemic. The UK government, for example, does not need to ‘save money’. But as part of the recovery from the pandemic, the government will benefit from households having been able to pay down debt while saving more and from the maintenance of their real purchasing power. There are no grounds for freezing wages – public or private.
Yesterday, I discussed the results of recent research that demonstrated the ‘trickle down’ hypothesis, which has been used to justify the sequence of tax cuts for high income recipients, was without any empirical foundation. While mainstream economists have been enchanted with that hypothesis, heterodox (including Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) economists have never considered it had any validity – neither theoretical nor empirical. But it is good that mainstream researchers are now ratifying that long-held view. Today, I am discussing another case of the mainstream catching up. When I say catching up, the implications of these new empirical studies are devastating for key propositions that the mainstream macroeconomists maintain. The ECB Working Paper series published an interesting paper (No. 2509) yesterday (December 21, 2020) by an Italian economist from the Bank of Italy – Losers amongst the losers: the welfare effects of the Great Recession across cohorts. In brief, the research found that younger people bear disproportionate burdens during recession in the short-run, but also, face diminished prospects over the longer-term. The paper bears on some of the major fictions that have been propagated to disabuse governments of using fiscal deficits to smooth out the economic cycle – namely, the alleged burden that is created by the current generation’s excesses (the deficit) for their children and grandchildren (who according to the narrative have to pay back the debt incurred by the excesses). This is another case of evidence being produced that ratify the analysis that MMT economists have been advancing for the last 25 years.
The latest data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics – Labour Force, Australia, November 2020 – released today (December 17, 2020), shows that the labour market has improved largely due to the recent easing of the lockdowns in Victoria after its devastating second virus wave. Employment increased by 0.7 per cent (90,000) in the month (which is a fairly strong result) and outstripped the growth in the labour force (0.5 per cent), which means that unemployment fell (0.1 points) or 17.3. Underemployment also fell by 1 point and the broad labour underutilisation rate (sum of unemployment and underemployment) fell by 1.2 points. But the recovery is still too slow and more government support by way of large-scale job creation is required given total employment is still 233 thousand below the level in March 2020 and unemployment is 245 thousand higher.
Today, we have a guest blogger in the guise of Professor Scott Baum from Griffith University who has been one of my regular research colleagues over a long period of time. He indicated that he would like to contribute occasionally and that provides some diversity of voice although the focus remains on advancing our understanding of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) and its applications. It also helps me a bit and at present I have several major writing deadlines approaching as well as a full diary of presentations, meetings etc. Travel is also opening up a bit which means I can now honour several speaking commitments that have been on hold while we were in lockdown. Anyway, over to Scott …