The Anatomy of Slow Recovery

What America needs now is not just a recovery in demand, but also structural adjustment. Unfortunately, the market cannot produce a demand recovery rapidly by itself, and it cannot produce structural adjustment at all until a demand recovery is well under way.

BERKELEY – Between 1950 and 1990 – the days of old-fashioned inflation-fighting downturns engineered by the United States Federal Reserve – America’s post-recession unemployment rate would fall on average 32.4% over the course of a year from its initial value toward its natural rate. If the US unemployment rate had started to follow such a path after peaking in the second half of 2009, it would now stand at 8.3%, rather than 8.9%.

Unfortunately, none of the net reduction in the US unemployment rate over the past year came from increases in the employment-to-population ratio; all of it came from declining labor-force participation. Unemployment has fallen from 10.1% over the course of the past 18 months, but the employment-to-population ratio has remained stuck at 58.4%. Perhaps it would be better if unemployed people who could have jobs – and who at full employment would have them – were actively looking for work rather than out of the labor force completely.

If you take that view, between 1950 and 1990, the US employment-to-population ratio would rise an extra 0.227% annually on average for each year that the unemployment rate was above its natural rate. If the US employment-to-population ratio had started to follow such a path after its 2009 peak, the current ratio would be 59.7%, rather than 58.4%. (In that case, we would be experiencing “morning in America,” rather than the current state of economic malaise.)

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