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Chart Book: The Legacy of the Great Recession

UPDATED
January 9, 2018

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.

Employers Added 188,000 Jobs a Month From March 2010 through December 2017

 

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, but private employers added 17.8 million jobs to their payrolls for 94 consecutive months from March 2010 through December 2017, an average of 189,000 jobs a month. Total employment (private plus government) averaged 188,000 a month over that period, as federal, state, and local government were net job losers.

Total nonfarm employment rose by 148,000 jobs in December, private employment rose by 146,000 in December, federal government employment rose by 1,000, state employment fell by 4,000, and local employment rose by 5,000.

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

GDP Fell Far Below What the Economy Was Capable of Producing

 

In the third quarter of 2017, the demand for goods and services (actual GDP) was roughly $44 billion (about 0.2 percent) greater than the Congressional Budget Office (CBO)’s estimate of what the economy was capable of supplying (potential GDP). This suggests that the output gap between actual and potential GDP, which was manifested in excess unemployment and underemployment and idle productive capacity among businesses, has essentially closed. However, CBO’s estimate predated the annual updating of GDP data that took place in July. GDP data for the previous three years were updated to incorporate more complete and more detailed source data as well as methodological improvements that raised the level of GDP by about $50 billion going into the second quarter of this year. CBO’s estimates of potential GDP do not currently reflect these changes and could change modestly once they are taken into account.

GDP rose at a 3.2 percent annual rate in the third quarter of 2017 and was 2.3 percent higher than in the same quarter a year ago. The latter figure slightly exceeds the 2.2 percent average annual growth since the start of the recovery.

In its June 2017 Update to the Budget and Economic Outlook, issued before the July GDP revisions, CBO projected that the gap between actual and potential GDP would close in 2018. CBO does not try to forecast business-cycle fluctuations, but instead assumes that real GDP growth will reflect underlying trends in the economy’s capacity to produce goods and services and that after 2020, actual GDP will be 0.5 percentage points lower than potential GDP, which is roughly the average historical gap.

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 6.5 percent (9.0 million) higher in December 2017 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. Job creation has averaged 171,000 a month over the past 12 months and 204,000 over the past three months. This pace is well above what’s required to keep up with potential labor force growth (the pace of job creation that’s appropriate once the economy is back to full health).

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 the unemployment rate did not fall to 5.0 percent, where it was at the start of the recession, until late 2015. The unemployment rate has been under 4.5 percent for the last 9 months and has been 4.1 percent for the last three months.

...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. The unemployment rate is much lower now than it was early in the recovery, but there still may be 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 who can be pulled back into the labor market if job creation remains strong.

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. It began to move up in 2014 and 2015 as falling unemployment offset still-falling labor force participation. The labor force participation rate averaged 62.8 percent in 2017 and was 62.7 percent in December; the employment-to-population ratio averaged 60.1 percent in 2017 and was also 60.1 percent in December.

The employment-to-population ratio shown in the chart is for those aged 16 and older and includes an increasing number of retired baby boomers. Thus, a significant percentage of the decline since the start of the recession reflects demographic trends rather than labor market weakness.  While this rate remains 2.6 percentage points lower than it was at the start of the recession, the employment-to-population ratio for those in their prime working years (age 25-54), which fell 4.9 percentage points between the start of the recession and December 2009, has recovered all but 0.6 percentage points of that loss and was 79.1 percent in December. 

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 in June of 2015. That rate has edged down over the past year and was 0.9 percent in December. Still, over a fifth (22.9 percent) of the 6.6 million people who were unemployed — 1.5 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. After falling to 8.0 percent in October — the lowest it’s been since early 2007 — this rate edged up to 8.1 percent in December.  That’s still lower than it was in the year before the Great Recession, but more than a percentage point higher than it was in 2000.

Growth in Workers Earnings Has Been Modest

 

Average hourly earnings of employees on private payrolls grew modestly through much of the recovery, and to date have averaged 2.2 percent annually. Inflation has been modest as well, but over much of the economic recovery, real (inflation-adjusted) wages hardly grew 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 rose 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 roughly 1 percent per year from the end of the recession through the third quarter of 2017 and the cost of a typical worker’s market basket has risen about 1¾ percent per year over the same period.

The pace of wage growth quickened in 2015 and into 2016, but has subsequently slowed. In December 2017, average hourly earnings of all employees on private payrolls were 2.5 percent higher than a year earlier (earnings of non-management employees were up 2.3 percent).  Low inflation in 2015 and 2016 led to solid real wage gains, but strong nominal wage growth will be required to maintain such gains if inflation rises further.

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 and is now near its historic low just before the 2001 recession in data that go back to December 2000. In November 2017, 6.6 million workers were unemployed, compared with 5.9 million job openings (a ratio of 11 job seekers for every 10 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.

 

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