The Pelosi scare-graph revisited: Private sector job losses and camel recessions

As some of you may know, Nancy Pelosi has been scaring people with graphs, recently. By her metric, namely the absolute numbers of jobs lost, the current recession is more severe – and faster – than the last couple of regressions.

Naturally, something that high profile gained a lot of attention and ultimately modification. The one people seemed to settle on was one by William Polley, who made some slight modifications and improvements. In particular, he made a greater number of comparisons all the way back to World War II, and also changing it from absolute number of jobs lost to percentage jobs lost, to give some idea of the scale of the recession.

Of course, I could hardly let a good graph pass me by. Below is a slightly different version, with three more tweaks, to tackle some remaining issues:

  • Firstly, I’ve averaged the four recessions between 1948 and 1961, calling them the “1950s recessions” in the absence of a more appropriate nickname. The reason for this is that the four recessions in that period were all remarkable similar. In particular, they all started in Autumn and ended almost two years later in Summer. They had similar length and similar severity, and there was a similar government response each time – increase the number of jobs in the public sector by about 6%.
  • Secondly, I’ve tried to further reduce the ‘clutter effect’ – or at least make the graph more intuitive – by using the colour scheme to indicate passage of time. The darker the colour, the more recent the recession.
  • Lastly, and most substantively, I’ve focussed just on private sector employment. Government employment tends to be acyclical and rising steadily (apart from the early 1980s – perhaps Reagan swinging the axe?), so the focus should be on total private sector (non-farm) employment.
% fall in US private sector employment during recessions, 1945-2009

% fall in US private sector employment during recessions, 1945-2009

It’s hopefully pretty self-explanatory – our recession looks like it’s going to be dead hard! Might as well get the discussion started with a few initial observations on the graph:

  • By this metric – arguably more down-to-earth than fuzzy GDP metrics – recessions have been getting longer, not shorter, since the war. 1950s recessions lasted two years, the last one (2000-2003) stretched to more than four years!
  • The worst point of the recession has been been getting milder and milder – at least until this recession. A good old-fashioned 1950s recession would wipe 6% or more off private sector jobs. The early 2000s recession never even reached 5%. Although it did come close twice, speaking of which…
  • Recessions are like camels. Just as camels can have one hump or more than one, it seems recessions can be Dromedary or Bactrian also and in fact are drifting towards the multi-humped latter species.

Unfortunately, we don’t have the monthly data to do the same for the 1930s recession – or indeed to collate data across a wide spectrum of countries. But, if the USA is a good bellwether for the downturn, whatever about it perhaps being more flexible in the upswing, then it seems that modern (i.e. post-1980) recessions hit a smaller number of workers for longer than their pre-1980 counterparts.

It looks like our current recession is going to mix the worst of old-time recessions, i.e. the 6%+ fall in private sector employment, with the worst of modern recessions, i.e. it’s going to last three years or more and probably come back with a vengeance a couple of times just when we think it’s getting better.

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