America’s jobs crisis

By Felix Salmon
June 1, 2012

This is about as bad as the jobs report could possibly be: just 69,000 jobs created, split between 95,000 new jobs for women and 26,000 fewer jobs for men. The market reaction has been swift and merciless, with stocks and bond yields plunging: the 10-year Treasury bond now yields less than 1.45%. When stock prices fall, of course, the earnings yield on the S&P 500 goes up, even as bond yields go down. Which means that the numbers on this chart are now even more extreme than at the close yesterday:

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The green line, here, should not be able to simply go up and to the right indefinitely. While market failures clearly happen all the time, things are really bad when they persist for this long. And what you’re looking at, here, is a market failure, as Brad DeLong explains: what we’re seeing, he says, is nothing less than “a massive failure of our economic institutions”.

The first reason betrays a lack of trust that governments can and will do the job that they learned how to do in the Great Depression: keep the flow of spending stable so that big depressions with long-lasting, double-digit unemployment do not recur. The second reveals the financial industry’s failure adequately to mobilize society’s risk-bearing capacity for the service of enterprise.

Basically, we have low bond yields because the Fed has failed to do its job, and persuade the markets that it is capable of engineering a healthy economy over the long run. And we have high stock yields because the market has failed to do its job, which is to treat high corporate earnings as a fantastic opportunity to invest in the economy and build something even greater in the future. Just look at the amount of money which is flowing straight to corporations’ bottom lines, and not being put to good, productive work. Corporate profits now account for significantly more than 10% of GDP: that’s never happened before.

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To spell this out: high corporate profits and low levels of job growth are two sides of the same coin. If things were working properly right now, companies would take their excess revenues and use them to hire more people. Instead, they’re basically just letting those excess revenues sit on their balance sheets as cash because they’re scared to invest in themselves. It’s frankly pathetic.

The solution to this problem is nothing complex — the arbitrage is sitting there in the first chart, plain for all to see. The government can borrow at 1.45%: it should do so, in vast quantities, and invest that money back into the economy itself. Take a few hundred billion dollars and use it to fix our broken infrastructure, to re-hire all those laid-off teachers and firefighters, to provide some kind of safety net for the millions of Americans who have been out of work for more than a year. Even if the real long-term return on any stimulus package was zero, the nominal long-term return would be well over 1.45%, making the investment worthwhile.

To put it another way, not all crises look the same. Back in 2008-9, the fact that we were in a crisis was obvious, and it resulted in unprecedented levels of enormous coordinated actions between Treasury and the Fed. Now, however, when we look at the crisis-level spreads in the first chart, we don’t think “crisis” any more — and the sense of urgency that everybody felt in 2008-9 is long gone. How many more dreadful jobs reports do we need before it returns?

The 2012 election should be a referendum between two visions of America. On the left, Obama should say that we’re in a jobs crisis, and that he’s going to do everything in his power to get people back to work — by employing them directly, if need be. On the right, Romney can say that job creation should be left to US companies, despite the fact that those companies are signally failing to increase their payrolls despite their record-high profits. And then the public can choose which side they want to vote for.

Sadly, the lines won’t be drawn nearly that cleanly: Obama is bizarrely reluctant to talk about anything which rhymes with “stimulus”. As a result, the current dysfunction — and horribly weak jobs market — is likely to persist for far too long.

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