The Coming Budget Battle over TARP and Jobs

The House and Senate appear to be on a collision course about how to pay for a new jobs bill (aka a stimulus bill). The issue? Whether Congress can pay for new jobs programs by cutting back on TARP.

The House embraced that approach in the bill it passed before Christmas. That bill–H.R. 2847, the Jobs for Main Street Act–would cut TARP authority by $150 billion. For reasons I’ve discussed before, the Congressional Budget Office scores that cut as generating $75 billion in net budget “savings.” The House bill then uses those “savings” to offset $75 billion in new spending on transportation infrastructure, support to state and local governments, and other measures.

I put “savings” in quotes because no one believes that the TARP reduction would help taxpayers by anything close to $75 billion. Back in December, Treasury Secretary Geithner estimated that TARP would use at most $550 billion of its $699 billion in existing authority. As a result, Congress can cut at least $149 billion from TARP without having any effect whatsoever on the budget. In other words, the House’s TARP rescission would reduce TARP activities by at most $1 billion (and, in practice, probably by $0). So there aren’t any real budget savings here.

But that’s not the only problem with using TARP as an offset. As I noted in another post, the drafters of TARP tried to prohibit future Congresses from using TARP rescissions to pay for new spending. That prohibition is spelled out in Section 204 of the law:


All provisions of this Act are designated as an emergency requirement and necessary to meet emergency needs pursuant to section 204(a) of S. Con. Res 21 (110th Congress), the concurrent resolution on the budget for fiscal year 2008 and rescissions of any amounts provided in this Act shall not be counted for purposes of budget enforcement.

The House vs. Senate debate comes down to the interpretation of that section. The House apparently does not believe that Section 204 applies. As a result, it believes that TARP rescissions can be used to “pay for” other spending increases. The Senate, however, disagrees. It believes that Section 204 forbids the use of TARP rescissions to pay for other spending.

That conflict hasn’t flared up in public yet, but it is apparent in a carefully-worded footnote in CBO’s cost estimate of the House bill:

The House Committee on the Budget does not consider the original TARP authority to have been designated as an emergency requirement. Persuant [sic] to Sec. 204 of the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008 (Division A, P.L. 110‐343), the Senate Committee on the Budget does consider the TARP authority to have been designated as an emergency requirement.

Under congressional budget rules, emergency spending gets special treatment: it doesn’t need to be paid for (a fact that the House bill uses, by the way, since it designates about $79 billion as emergency spending that needn’t be offset). To avoid some obvious abuses, the budget rules therefore specify that rescissions of emergency spending can’t be used to pay for increases in regular spending (or regular tax cuts). Based on Section 204, the Senate believes that TARP is emergency spending and therefore can’t be used to pay for new jobs programs. For reasons I don’t yet understand [readers?], the House disagrees.

An Encouraging Jobs Report

This morning’s jobs report was encouraging not only in its headline figures, but also in its details:

  • Payrolls fell by 11,000 in November, the smallest decline since the recession began.
  • The unemployment rate declined to 10.0%, down from 10.2% in October.
  • Jobs losses in September and October were smaller than previously reported (by a combined 159,000).
  • Average weekly hours increased from 33.0 to 33.2.
  • Temporary help services, often viewed as leading indicator, added more than 52,000 jobs.
  • The underemployment rate (U-6) dropped from 17.5% to 17.2%.

In short, almost all the key measures moved in the right direction in November (the one disappointing figure was average hourly earnings, which increased only a penny in November).

It’s possible that some of these figures were helped by seasonal factors (last November was so bad that the seasonal adjustment process might give a little extra boost to this November’s figures). But the breadth of better news–including the revisions and the hours–gives me some confidence that these data do reflect real improvements in the labor market.

Still, we shouldn’t get too excited. We need the economy to add jobs–preferably 100s of thousands–each month if we are ever going to get unemployment down, so losing 11,000 is still bad news in an absolute sense. But today’s report is a step in the right direction.

8 Million Jobs Lost

Kudos to Floyd Norris over at the New York Times for characterizing total job losses to date as 8 million jobs, not “just” 7.2 million. As I discussed on Friday, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that the number of jobs in March 2009 was 824,000 lower than it previously thought. But BLS won’t include this adjustment in its official data until early February.

The official, as-yet-unadjusted data indicate that 7.2 million jobs have been lost since the recession started in December 2007. The future revision to March figures, however, implies that a better estimate would be 8 million.

We can now expect several months in which commentators use different figures for total job losses. Those steeped in the details, like Norris, will use the 8 million figure. Those less-attuned to the details, like the authors of the NYT’s lead editorial (just four pages after Norris’s article), will use the 7.2 million figure.

Norris also addresses the obvious question: Why did BLS miss the March level of jobs by such a large amount? The answer is that BLS has to estimate jobs gained and lost at certain employers, and their model is not doing as well as we (or it) would hope:

The official job numbers are based on a monthly survey of employers, augmented by something called the “birth-death model,” which factors in jobs assumed to have been created by employers who are too new to have been included in the survey, and subtracts jobs from employers assumed to have failed and therefore not responded to the latest survey.

Victoria Battista, an economist at the Bureau of Labor Statistics, said the bureau was looking at whether that model needed to be changed, as well as at other possible issues, such as changing response rates to the questionnaire sent out to employers each month.

The newest revision is called a “benchmark revision.” Such revisions are disclosed each October, and led to reductions in job totals in both 2007 and 2008. But the changes those years were tiny when compared with the changes this year.

For the 12 months through last March, the birth-death model added 717,000 jobs to what the bureau would have reported had it relied solely on its survey.

While the government uses the survey of employers to estimate the number of jobs, the benchmark revisions are based on reports from states on the number of employees for whom unemployment insurance premiums are paid. Those numbers take longer to be available, but are considered to be more reliable.

1.1 Million More Jobs Lost

Today’s jobs report was weak across the board: September payrolls fell by 263,000, the unemployment rate rose to 9.8%, the underemployment rate (U-6) rose to 17.0%, and average weekly hours fell to 33.0, tying the record low set in June.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics also reported that payrolls declined by 13,000 more in July and August than it had previously estimated.

And if that weren’t enough, BLS also estimates the number of jobs back in March was actually 824,000 lower than previously reported (this is an estimate of the “benchmark revision” that BLS will make to the data early next year).

Putting these figures together, we find that the number of jobs has now declined by 1.1 million (263,000 + 13,000 + 824,000) more than we previously knew.

I have always found it frustrating that the BLS reports an estimate of the benchmark revision each October, but doesn’t incorporate that revision until the following February. That means that many analysts will be using incorrect data over the next few months.

If you want to know the number of jobs lost during the recession, for example, you might think you could get that number by clicking over to the BLS and comparing the number of jobs in September 2009 to the number of jobs in December 2007. That comparison would show total job losses of 7.2 million. Based on today’s estimate of the benchmark revision, however, it’s likely that the actual figure is more than 8.0 million.

Update: The original post had a typo for the average weekly hours; as noted above, the correct figure is 33.0, not 30.0.

Voyaging Through U.S. Jobs

In honor of Labor Day, you may want to check out Job Voyager by Flare. It provides a graphical history of the rise and fall of different types of jobs in the United States from 1850 to 2000.

Here’s what you get for “Farmer”:

Farmer Jobs

Back in 1850, farmers accounted for more than 40% of reported jobs. Today, less than 1%.

If you click around, you will find that the decline in farmers has been offset by growth in a host of jobs, including clerical, retail, and nurses.

And economists? Well, we grew rapidly until 1990, and then tailed off. Perhaps the would-be economists ran off to Wall Street instead?

Economist Jobs

P.S. The Job Voyager charts were inspired by the famous Name Voyager charts that let you track the popularity of first names.

Unemployment Still Rising

Today’s jobs report didn’t deliver any real surprises. The number of payroll jobs fell by 216,000 in August, slightly less than expectations, but revisions to earlier months subtracted an additional 49,000 jobs. The unemployment rate rose to 9.7%, more than expected and consistent with the consensus view that unemployment will exceed 10% in coming months.

In short, we are still losing jobs, but at a much slower pace than earlier in the year.

Looking further into the details, there are two things I’d highlight. First, the U-6 measure of unemployment, which includes workers who are discouraged or working part-time for economic reasons, increased even more than the regular unemployment rate, rising from 16.3% to 16.8%:

Unemployment August 2009

Second, unemployment among teenagers in August was the highest ever recorded. More than 25% of teenage workers were unemployed in August, topping the previous peak of 24.1% set in late 1982:

Teen Unemployment August 2009

Teenage unemployment jumped sharply from July to August, rising from 23.8% to 25.5%, an increase of 1.7 percentage points. In comparison, unemployment among adult men increased by “only” 0.3 percentage points and among adult women by 0.1 percentage point.

I predict that the econo-blogosphere will feature some healthy debate about whether the sharp increase among teenagers has anything to do with the most recent increase in the minimum wage that went into effect toward the end of July (and, therefore, after the July unemployment data were collected). As you would expect, teenagers are more likely to earn the minimum wage than are adult workers. If the latest minimum wage increase had immediate, negative effects on employment, you might therefore expect to see it among teenagers.

On the other hand, the chart shows that teenage unemployment can be quite volatile from month to month; as a result, analysts should be humble about what they can infer from the changes observed during a single month. Moreover, teenage unemployment has been rising rapidly throughout the downturn, which may reflect the intensity of the economic weakness rather than a series of increases in the minimum wage.

My advice: Before accepting or rejecting the idea that the recent minimum wage hike has hurt teen employment, wait to see whether any enterprising economists come up with compelling data that go beyond the month-to-month pattern. For example, it would be interesting to see comparisons among states. Some states had minimum wages above the federal level, and thus were unaffected by the recent increase.

Google Is Still Wrong About Unemployment

Everyone who follows the U.S. economy closely knows that the unemployment rate was 9.4% in July, down 0.1% from June.

Everyone, that is, except Google.

If you ask Google (by searching for “unemployment rate United States“), it will tell you the unemployment rate in July was 9.7%.

What’s going on? Well, it turns out that Google is directing users to the wrong data series. As I discussed last month, almost everyone who talks about unemployment is using (whether they know it or not) data that have been adjusted to remove known seasonal patterns in hiring and layoffs (e.g., many school teachers become unemployed in June and reemployed in August or September). Adjusting for such seasonal patterns is standard protocol because it makes it easier for data users to extract signals from the noisy movements in data over time.

For unknown reasons, Google has chosen not to direct users to these data. Instead, Google reports data that haven’t been seasonally adjusted and thus do not match what most of the world is using.

This is troubling, since I have high hopes for Google’s vision of bringing the power of search to data sets. The ability of users to find and access data lags far behind their ability to find and access text. I am hopeful that Google will solve part of this problem.

But data search is not about mindlessly pointing users to data series. You need to make sure that users get directed to the right data series. So far, Google is failing on that front, at least with unemployment data.

 P.S. As I discussed in a follow-up post last month, Wofram Alpha has an even more ambitious vision for making data — and computation — available through search. I like many of the things Alpha is trying to do, but they are lagging behind Google in several ways. For example, as I write this, they haven’t updated the unemployment data yet to reflect the new July data. (Click here for Alpha results.)

Bing isn’t trying yet.

A Less-Bad Jobs Report

The headlines in today’s jobs report were better than expected:

  • Payrolls fell by “only” 247,000 in July, somewhat smaller than the 325,000 that analysts had anticipated.
  • The unemployment rate ticked down to 9.4%.

If you dig into the numbers a bit further, you find some other encouraging nuggets:

  • Job losses in May and June were 43,000 smaller than BLS had previously estimated.
  • The average work week ticked up from 33.0 hours in June to 33.1 hours in July. That may seem like a small change, but it’s a good sign that hours have bounced off the record low recorded in June.
  • Average hourly earnings increased 0.2%. Again not a huge change, but clearly pointing in the right direction.
  • The U-6 measure of unemployment, which includes workers who are discouraged or working part-time for economic reasons, declined from 16.5% to 16.3%:

UE July

Losing 247,000 jobs is not a good month in the job market. But it is the best month since last August, before the fall of Lehman.

Counting Stimulus Efforts

Today, the Washington Post has a letter to the editor about counting stimulus efforts. I think the letter is pithy and on-point, but that might be because I wrote it. Anyway, my conclusion is:

[T]here have already been two rounds of stimulus since the recession started in December 2007. The first, enacted in February 2008 (when I served at the President’s Council of Economic Advisers), provided $168 billion in tax cuts for families and businesses. The second, enacted in February of this year, provided $787 billion in various spending programs and tax cuts. The question we face today is whether to enact a third stimulus, not a second one.

The letter was a response to an editorial the Post ran last Friday.

Stimulus aficionados will recognize that, in the interest of brevity, I used dollar amounts that aren’t completely apples-to-oranges. As noted in my previous post on this topic, the $168 billion amount for the first stimulus reflects the gross amount of stimulus in the first couple of years; the long-run, net cost budget cost of the bill is lower. The $787 billion amount for the second stimulus is the ten-year net cost; the initial stimulus is a bit larger. I think the gross impact is a better way to characterize the stimulus effort, but I didn’t want to confuse anyone by referring to an $800+ billion stimulus, when everyone knows it as $787 billion.

Health Insurance and Labor Markets

Health insurance is not just a health issue. It’s also a jobs issue. Why? Because about 60% of non-elderly Americans get their health insurance through an employer or a labor union. As a result, health insurance and employment are closely related.

As lawmakers consider changes to our system of health insurance, they should therefore keep an eye on the potential implications for jobs and wages. To help them do so, the Congressional Budget Office yesterday released a very helpful brief (see also the accompanying blog entry) that discusses many of the linkages between health insurance and the labor market.

Among other things, CBO reiterates a point I’ve made previously: that the costs of health insurance are ultimately born by workers through lower wages and salaries:

Although employers directly pay most of the costs of their workers’ health insurance, the available evidence indicates that active workers—as a group—ultimately bear those costs. Employers’ payments for health insurance are one form of compensation, along with wages, pension contributions, and other benefits. Firms decide how much labor to employ on the basis of the total cost of compensation and choose the composition of that compensation on the basis of what their workers generally prefer. Employers who offer to pay for health insurance thus pay less in wages and other forms of compensation than they otherwise would, keeping total compensation about the same.

CBO then goes on to discuss a range of potential policies, including ones that would impose new costs on employers. Such policies might require employers to provide health insurance to their workers (an employer mandate), for example, or might levy a fee on employers who don’t provide health insurance (play or pay). CBO concludes that, consistent with the argument above, employers would generally pass the costs of such measures on to their employees through lower wages and salaries. Such adjustments won’t happen instantly, so there may be some short-term effect on employment, but over time the cost will primarily be born by workers through lower compensation.

One exception, however, would be workers who currently earn low wages. As noted on the blog:

Continue reading “Health Insurance and Labor Markets”