Why the Next Recession will be a Doozie for Consumers

by Wolf Richter, Wolf Street: Tougher for workers, rougher for the economy.

The employment data released today beat expectations nicely. In June the economy added 222,000 civilian jobs. April and May numbers were revised up. In total, over the past three months, nonfarm payrolls rose by 581,000 jobs.

This data will do nothing to deter the Fed from proceeding with its tightening plans. The Fed should never have cut its policy rate to zero, or kept it down that long, and it should have never engaged in QE. However, acting as lender-of-last-resort when credit froze during the Financial Crisis — when even GE and IBM had trouble borrowing to meet payroll — was essential to keep the system from collapsing. These short-term loans were not part of QE and were paid back. But the hangover of QE is still on the Fed’s balance sheet.

So I support whatever “normalization” efforts the Fed might undertake. They should have happened years ago.

Among the reasons the Fed wants to “normalize” policy now is to put aside some dry powder for the next recession or crisis. And it will come. Recessions are an essential part of the business cycle. If allowed to proceed, they’ll blow the cobwebs from the system, remove excess debts, and clean out the misallocation of capital – at the expense of creditors and investors. It’s a fresh start for the economy.

But here is the thing about employment and recessions: Something big changed since 2000. It can be seen in the employment-population ratio, which tracks people over 16 years of age who have jobs, as defined by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. From the 1960s until 2000, the ratio fell during recessions, but then during the recovery regained all the lost ground plus some, ratcheting up to new records after each recession. Some of this had to do with women entering the work force in large numbers.

But since the ratio’s peak in April 2000 at 64.7%, a new pattern has developed. As before, the ratio drops before the official recession begins and keeps dropping until after the recession has ended. But when employment recovers, the ratio ticks up only slowly, recovering only a fraction of the ground lost, before the next recession hits. This has happened over the last two recessions.

For the 2001/2002 recession, the ratio started falling in May 2000 and continued falling until September 2003. During those 3.5 years, it fell 2.7 percentage points from 64.7% to 62%. Over the next three-plus years of the “recovery,” the ratio rose to 63.4% by December 2006, having regained only half of the lost ground, before the next downturn set in.

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