Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Households Continue to Suffer

I’m trying to make sense out of the economic recovery. According to a growing number of people the Great Recession ended in July 2009 or, at least, somewhere in the third quarter. There continue to be “green shoots” that are popping up here and there.

Still, I am uncomfortable. I’m usually a pretty optimistic guy and I don’t like being considered as a “gloomy Gus”. But, some things in the economy continue to nag at me.

Households, at least how we used to know them, are having a difficult time. The major issue remains employment…or unemployment. However, another issue that can’t be ignored and that will impact employment patterns over the next five to ten years is the restructuring of industry and commerce. Restructuring often requires changes in skill sets and changes in geographic location.

In terms of employment we have just learned that companies in the United States cut an estimated 22,000 jobs in January, according to ADP Employer Services, the smallest decline in two years, and much lower than the recorded 61,000 decrease in December. The January result showed that 60,000 jobs were lost in the goods-producing area but in service industries 38,000 jobs were added to payrolls, the second consecutive increase. This was not a bad result, but employment is still declining. (

Most estimates for the unemployment rate in January remain in the 10% range. Very little improvement is expected in this measure in the first six months of this year. Furthermore, the projections of the unemployment rate used by the Obama administration in the budget proposals released this week are anything but encouraging.

These figures do not include numbers on discouraged workers who have left the labor force or those individuals that are working part-time but would like full-time employment. The rate of underemployment in the United States is in the neighborhood of 17% and is expected to remain around this level for the foreseeable future.

One of the reasons for underemployment to remain this high is the restructuring of industry and commerce that is going on in this country. As I have reported, capacity utilization in the manufacturing industries remains quite low and has not even come close to returning to 1960s levels in the past 40 years. (

The trend in United States manufacturing has been downward for a long time as industry has shifted from the heavy sectors to areas that produce higher-tech products. Some industries, like the auto makers, have had to decline due to diminished demand in the United States. Other industries, like chemicals, are relocating labor-intensive operations to other countries.

From December 2008 to December 2009 there have been large declines in capacity in the United States in areas such as textiles, printing, furniture, and plastics and rubber products. Industries where substantial increases in capacity have taken place are the producers of semiconductors, of communication equipment, and of computers. Shifts like these have major impacts on labor skills and the location of employees. (

It is important that these shifts take place. One of the problems with job stimulus packages sponsored by the federal government is that they tend to ‘force’ people back into the jobs that these unemployed have lost. This is not good because it reduces the incentives for industries to change even though it generates revenues for producers, like car manufacturers, and income for workers, like autoworkers. However, industries that need to change must change some time and postponing the change only exacerbates the magnitude and pain of adjustment. Need I mention the United States auto industry again?

This change is being reflected elsewhere and it has an influence on how political power is distributed in a country. The number of American workers that are in labor unions has been experiencing a downward trend that mirrors the decline in United States manufacturing. What is additionally interesting is the shift that has taken place within the overall union workforce: in 2009, public employees that are members of a union rose to more than 50% of total of all union workers. The decline in union membership connected to the manufacturing sector has been hidden because of the rapid growth in those connected with government employment. This is just another indication of the restructuring of the labor force. (

Added to this is the large shift that has taken place in home ownership in the United States. Home ownership peaked in the United States in 2004 when 69% of all Americans owned their own home. This peak was reached through the emphasis placed on home ownership in the United States, government programs to get people into their own homes, and low interest rates.
However, this rate has fallen to 67% at the end of 2009 and is expected to continue to decline as people lose their homes through foreclosure or bankruptcy. The rate of home ownership could fall into a range of 62% to 64% that was the case in the early 1990s. This represents a massive shift in the asset holdings of United States households for homes are still, by far, the largest asset held by households in America. (

This continued decline does not seem unreasonable given the hard facts facing many homeowners in the United States. In the third quarter of 2009, 4.5 million homeowners had seen the value of their homes drop below 75% of their mortgage balance. This figure is projected to hit 5.1 million, or 10% of all homeowners, by June. Research has indicated that this 75% figure is the level at which people really consider walking away from their home. (

These numbers make me feel uneasy…and that is an understatement. The basic reason for feeling uneasy is that I don’t see a “normal” economic recovery reversing these trends. The United States is restructuring from the excesses of the past, of “forcing” industry to not modernize, of “forcing” people to become homeowners, and so forth and so on. It is always the case that restructuring takes place: sooner or later. Now, seems to be OUR time!

The problem is that this restructuring has ramifications for other areas of the economy. Small- and medium-sized banks have lent money to these home owners and they are the ones that these households will walk away from if they leave. Commercial real estate developers will also walk away from the banks, maybe more easily, as we have seen, than the households themselves. Many businesses that are restructuring or downsizing will not be borrowing from the banks so business loan demand will stay low. And, one can think of many other areas in which repercussions may be felt.

I like to be optimistic about things, but I can’t get these “less-than-happy” conditions out of my mind.

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