Comparing Current Payroll Employment Changes with Past Recessions

Article excerpt

11.06.08

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The labor market has now lost jobs for nine straight months, with September's recent loss of 159,000 being the worst yet of the streak. The "R" word has been tossed around plenty this year, although the National Bureau of Economic Research has not declared that a recession has started (which it typically doesn't do until well after a recession has begun). But now seems a good time to ask how employment behavior so far this year sizes up to that of recent recessions.

Since January, the U.S. economy has shed 760,000 jobs. During the four previous official recessions net employment losses were higher: 837,000 in the 1980 recession; 2,172,000 in the 1981-1982 recession; 1,282,000 in 1990-1991; 1,629,000 in 2001. The magnitude of job losses depended on the duration of each recession. For example, the 1980 recession lasted just seven months, while the 1981-1982 recession lasted seventeen and the 1990-1991 and 2001 recessions were each nine months long.

To compare across recessions, we can compensate for differences in recession length by looking at the average monthly payroll loss over these periods. The average monthly job loss in each of the four recessions was 120,000, 160,000, 142,000, and 181,000. While the average monthly loss of 84,0000 that we have experienced so far in 2008 looks rather moderate by comparison, last quarter's monthly average loss of 100,000 is closer to those recessions' averages.

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The behavior of employment around the past four recessions can be seen in the quarter-by-quarter percent employment change in the charts below. Note that neither the onset of job losses in a recession nor their reversal necessarily coincides with the official start and end dates of the recession. For example, job losses did not begin until the fourth month of the 1980 recession, as the 1.4 percent growth in the recession's first quarter shows. Interestingly, employment growth in the recession's first quarter actually exceeds growth in the quarter immediately preceding the recession. Job losses did not start until the second month of the 1981-1982 recession, and this delay again helps the first recessionary quarter to be in positive territory. …