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Chart Book: The Legacy of the Great Recession

October 2, 2015

The United States went through its longest, and by most measures worst economic recession since the Great Depression between December 2007 and June 2009. This chart book documents the course of the economy following that recession against the background of how deep a hole the recession created – and how much deeper that hole would have been without the financial stabilization and fiscal stimulus policies enacted in late 2008 and early 2009.

Part I: Recovery Began in June 2009

The Economy Began Growing in Mid-2009



Economic activity as measured by real (inflation-adjusted) gross domestic product (GDP) was contracting sharply when policymakers enacted the financial stabilization bill (TARP) and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The economy began growing in 2009, and has averaged 2.2 percent annual growth since then.

(In July 2015, the Bureau of Economic Analysis released its regular revisions to GDP for the most recent three years and the first quarter of 2015.  These revisions changed the pattern of quarterly growth in 2012-2014 and lowered the average annual rate of growth from the fourth quarter of 2011 to the fourth quarter of 2014 from 2.2 percent to 2.0 percent.)

Private Payroll Employment Has Grown For 67 Months



The pace of monthly job losses slowed dramatically soon after President Obama and Congress enacted the Recovery Act in February 2009. The trend in job growth in 2010 was obscured by the rapid ramp-up and subsequent decline in government hiring for the 2010 Census (which is now over), but private employers have added 13.2 million jobs to their payrolls in the 67 months since February 2010, an average of 197,000 jobs a month. Total employment (private plus government) has averaged 190,000 over that period, as federal, state, and especially local government were net job losers.  In September private employers added 118,000 jobs, federal government employment dropped by 2,000, state government employment rose by 17,000, and local government employment rose by 9,000.



Part II: The Recession Put the Economy in a Deep Hole

GDP Fell Far Below What the Economy Was Capable of Producing



In the second quarter of 2015, the demand for goods and services (actual GDP) was roughly $570 billion (about 3.1 percent) less than what the economy was capable of supplying (potential GDP). This output gap, which is manifested in excess unemployment and idle productive capacity among businesses, is the legacy of the Great Recession. Congressional Budget Office projections show the gap closing over the next few years as actual GDP grows somewhat faster than potential GDP.

GDP rose at a 3.9 percent annual rate in the second quarter of 2015 and was 2.7 percent higher than in the same quarter a year ago.  That’s better than the 2.2 percent average annual growth since the start of the recovery, which has been insufficient to close the output gap.

In its August 2015 Economic and Budget Outlook, CBO estimates that potential GDP will grow at an average annual rate of 2.1 percent from 2015 to 2025. The faster actual GDP grows, the faster the output gap will be eliminated and full employment restored.


Job Losses Were Unprecedented



Employers began to add jobs in 2010. Progress erasing the jobs deficit was slow for some time, but the economy has now recovered the 8.7 million jobs lost between the start of the recession in December 2007 and early 2010 and continued to add jobs since. Nonfarm payroll employment was 2.9 percent (4.0 million jobs) higher in September 2015 than it was at the start of the recession.

Surpassing the pre-recession peak was a milestone on the way to a full jobs recovery, but population growth over the past several years means the potential labor force is larger than it was then. Continued job growth at the average pace of 229,000 a month achieved over the past 12 months would restore healthy labor market conditions in a reasonable period of time.

The Unemployment Rate Rose to Near Its Postwar High...



The unemployment rate rose far higher than in the previous two recessions and far faster than (though not quite as high as) in the deep 1981-82 recession. Technically, the recession that began in December 2007 ended in June 2009 as the economy began growing again, but at 5.1 percent in September, unemployment is still slightly higher than it was at the start of the recession -- and would be higher still if, as discussed below, labor force participation had not declined as much as it has.

...And Stayed High Long After the End of the Recession



The relatively modest pace of job growth in the first years of the recovery kept the unemployment rate high long after the end of the recession. This is similar to what happened in the previous two recessions, and does not resemble the fairly rapid decline that followed the severe 1981-82 recession. While the unemployment rate is much lower now than it was early in the recovery, other indicators like those discussed below suggest there is still "slack" (people who are not working but want to be or people who would like to be working full time but can only find part-time jobs) in the labor market.

The Share of the Population with a Job Fell to Levels Not Seen Since the Mid-1980s



The sharp rise in the unemployment rate and discouragement over the prospects of finding a job caused a decline in the percentage of the population in the labor force (those either working or looking for work). As a result of rising unemployment and declining labor force participation, the percentage of the population with a job fell sharply in the recession and stayed low through much of the recovery.  Labor force participation has been relatively stable (albeit at a depressed level) over the past year as unemployment has continued to decline, and the share of the population with a job has begun to edge up. 

Long-Term Unemployment Rose to Historic Highs



Long term unemployment reached much higher levels and persisted much longer in the Great Recession and subsequent jobs slump than in any previous period in data that go back to the late 1940s. The worst previous episode was in the early 1980s, when the long-term unemployment share peaked at 26.0 percent and the long-term unemployment rate peaked at 2.6 percent. Moreover, in the earlier episode, a year after peaking at 2.6 percent, the long-term unemployment rate had dropped to 1.4 percent.  It took six years from the end of the Great Recession to reach that rate, which it did this June. That rate dropped to 1.3 percent in September and roughly a quarter (26.6 percent) of the 7.9 million people who were unemployed -- 2.1 million people -- had been looking for work for 27 weeks or longer.  

Labor Market Slack Reached a Record High



The Labor Department's most comprehensive alternative unemployment rate measure -- which includes people who want to work but are discouraged from looking and people working part time because they can't find full-time jobs -- recorded its highest reading on record in November 2009 in data that go back to 1994. In September 2015, this rate was 10.0 percent, which for the first time was below its peak in the prior recession.

Growth in Workers’ Earnings Has Been Modest



Average hourly earnings of employees on private payrolls have been growing modestly throughout the recovery, averaging about 2 percent annually.  Inflation has been modest as well, but over the course of the economic recovery, real (inflation-adjusted) wages have hardly grown and have failed to keep up with increases in workers' productivity (output produced per hour of work). As a result, the share of national income going to profits has increased relative to that going to wages.

Both inflation and productivity have fluctuated more than nominal earnings during this period, but, on average, productivity has risen at about 1 percent per year since the end of the recession and the cost of a typical worker’s market basket has risen about 1.8 percent a year over the same period.

The Number of People Looking for Work Swelled Compared with the Number of Job Openings



At one point at the beginning of the recovery there were 7 people looking for work for every job opening. That ratio has declined substantially but has room to fall further in an improving labor market. In July 2015, 8.3 million workers were unemployed, compared with 5.8 million job openings. That ratio of 14 job seekers for every 10 job openings is approaching the lows achieved prior to the 2001 recession. If labor markets continue to tighten, employers are likely to fill open positions more quickly, reducing the number of job seekers relative to the number of job openings.


Part III: The Great Recession Would Have Been Even Worse without Financial Stabilization and Fiscal Stimulus Policies

GDP Would Have Been Lower Without the Recovery Act...



The Recovery Act was designed to boost the demand for goods and services above what it otherwise would be in order to preserve jobs in the recession and create them in the recovery. The Congressional Budget Office finds that GDP has been higher each year since 2009 than it would have been without the Recovery Act (with the largest impact in 2010 when GDP was between 0.7 and 4.1 percent higher than it otherwise would have been). The impact diminished, as expected, as the economy recovered, but CBO estimates that even at the end of 2012 GDP was between 0.1 and 0.6 percent larger than it would have been without the Recovery Act.

...And Unemployment Would Have Been Higher



The Congressional Budget Office estimated that because of the Recovery Act, the unemployment rate has been lower each year since 2009 than it otherwise would have been. The maximum effect was in 2010, but CBO estimates that even in the fourth quarter of 2012 the unemployment rate was 0.1 to 0.4 percentage points lower than it otherwise would have been and employment was between 0.1 million and 0.8 million jobs greater than it otherwise would have been.