Opinion

Felix Salmon

Why financial reform won’t hurt employment

By Felix Salmon
May 17, 2010

Meredith Whitney is trying to make an updated case that we can’t pass financial reform because it would cost jobs. I don’t buy it, partly because I simply don’t believe her numbers, which kick off with two interlinked claims:

States will approach their June fiscal year-ends and, as a result of staggering budget gaps, soon announce austerity measures that by my estimates will cost between one million to two million jobs for state and local government workers over the next 12 months.

Typically, government hiring provides a nice tailwind at this point in an economic recovery. Governments have employed this tool through most downturns since 1955, so much so that state and local government jobs have ballooned to 15% of total U.S. employment.

First, there hasn’t been much ballooning going on. Let’s look at the numbers here: there were 17.3 million state and local government workers counted in the latest jobs report. That’s down from 17.6 million a year ago. In terms of percentages, state and local government now accounts for 13.3% of total nonfarm employment, unchanged from a year ago.

Does Whitney really believe that these very stable numbers are suddenly going to be upended over the next 12 months? Yes, many states have announced job cuts — but announcing job cuts is vastly easier than actually implementing them. To get a good idea of how difficult it is to shrink a mammoth bureaucracy, look at Citigroup, which has a storied history of announcing enormous job cuts only to see its total headcount rise: it took a good five or six attempts before it actually managed to shrink its total payroll. It’s simply not credible that state and local governments are going to reduce their total job count by between 6% and 11% over the next year.

Whitney then goes on to say, quite rightly, that small businesses are the best engine of job creation. But then her logic goes a bit skewy again:

Small businesses fund themselves exactly the way consumers do, with credit cards and home equity lines. Over the past two years, more than $1.5 trillion in credit-card lines have been cut, and those cuts are increasing by the day. Due to dramatic declines in home values, home-equity lines as a funding option are effectively off the table. Proposed regulatory reform—specifically interest-rate caps and interchange fees—will merely exacerbate the cycle of credit contraction plaguing small businesses.

If banks are not allowed to effectively price for risk, they will not take the risk. Right now we need banks, and particularly community banks, more than ever to step in and provide liquidity to small businesses. Interest-rate caps and interchange fees will more likely drive consumer credit out of the market and many community banks out of business.

Essentially, Whitney is saying that small businesses fund themselves with credit cards; that financial regulation will reduce the amount of credit-card credit; and that therefore financial regulation is bad for small businesses. What’s more, she applies this argument specifically to community banks.

It’s true that small businesses fund themselves with credit cards. But it’s not true that exorbitant interest rates of 30% or more are a result of “effectively pricing for risk” — instead, they’re a way of trying to extract as much profit as possible out of every cardholder. And it’s trivially true that a small business funding itself at an interest rate of something over 30%, where the proposed caps are going to kick in, is not going to be doing a lot of new hiring.

And while it’s also true that we need community banks to provide funding to small businesses, the fact is that the overwhelming majority of credit cards come from the giant too-big-to-fail banks. If a small business wants to get a loan from a community bank, it can and should do so the old-fashioned way, by getting a loan from its local community bank. Local banks have very little dependence on small-business credit-card revenue, and in fact if the big banks cut their credit card lines further, that might serve only to drive ever more small businesses to get loans from their local institutions. Community banks, in other words, have nothing to fear from financial reform: in fact, they have quite a lot to gain. And small businesses, too, should welcome anything which keeps their funding costs down and stops them being ripped off by their banks.

Comments
4 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

On the first point, at least, you read Whitney differently from how I do. I believe her point is, indeed, that *typically* government hiring provides a tailwind at this point, but *now* it is not doing so. The ballooning has taken place over 55 years, as — again, this is my reading — government hiring has boosted the number over a portion of each business cycle and the number hasn’t then returned to its previous level before the next business cycle.

Also, I bet small business credit cards are a more competitive part of the market than the underclass consumer part of the market. A small business will be more willing to switch to find a lower rate. I’m not sure a close tie between costs and prices is even that important to her assertion that a cap on prices will reduce credit availability, but I’ll leave that alone for now.

Posted by dWj | Report as abusive
 

I think Whitney’s point is that credit will contract further. Admittedly the types of credit that are contracting are the more risky credits. But any kind of credit contraction will tighten liquidity conditions, a deflationary wind blowing toward higher unemployment.

Posted by DanHess | Report as abusive
 

Great post Felix,

As a local community banker I’m thrilled at the prospect of winning more customers from large multi-national banks who often overcharge customers.

I do question how much credit community banks are willing to extend in this enviroment. I know at my bank we are targeting loan growth in the low single digits. This at a time when we have EXCESS capital and funding costs at litterally all time lows.

I do think that at the margin some credit worth businesses are finding themselves short of credit right now.

Keep up the great writing!

Posted by y2kurtus | Report as abusive
 

I get slightly different numbers than you do. Using seasonally adjusted data (fromt he BLS), I have state & local employment at 15.1% of total nonfarm employment in April, essentially unchanged from April 2009 (15.0%), with state and local employment down 170,000 from a year ago. On the other hand, I think the argument, that the growth in state & local government employment (up from about 9.3% in 1955) is attributable to employment expansions during recessions/recoveries, made by Whitney, is nonsense. State and local government employment has grown over this time period, but if that growth ins more rapid in recessions or early in recoveries, it’s certainly not apparent in the data. In fact, if anything, growth in state and local government employment tends to slow down or fall in recessions and early in recoveries. The budget squeeze being experienced now is, in fact, quite tyical, and the quite typical response has been cutbacks. Not large–certainly nothing as large as she suggests–but this time is certainly not an exception.

Posted by DACoffin | Report as abusive
 

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