In many industries, sharp employment cuts during the recession cannot be attributed to a lack of demand.
The standard narrative of the 2008-9 recession and lack of recovery has been that the financial crisis, housing crash, excessive debt and other factors caused consumers to spend less, and businesses to invest less. With the private sector spending less, employers had a hard time selling their products, so they had to lay workers off, cut back on new hiring, or both.
As Paul Krugman put it, “Businesses aren’t hiring because of poor sales, period, end of story.”
Yes, consumer spending dropped sharply, as did business investment, in 2008 and 2009. But that observation does not tell us whether low employment is a result of low spending or if the reverse is true.
I agree that a few important industries, including manufacturing, home construction and much of the retail sector, did, and still do, suffer from significantly low demand. Those industries vividly illustrate the demand narrative — but they are only a minority of the overall private sector.
The lack-of-demand hypothesis is incorrect for a large fraction of the economy. The chart below illustrates output, revenue and employment from the United States wireless telecommunications industry (that is, cellphones). This industry has clearly not been suffering from a drop in customer demand.
Since 2007, the number of mobile connections has increased almost 20 percent, to 303 million from 255 million. The Bureau of Economic Analysis estimates that consumer spending on mobile communications increased 15 percent (not inflation adjusted) over that time frame.
Despite continued demand growth, employers in the wireless telecommunications industry sharply cut employment, at an even greater rate than employers in other industries. After growing 6 percent from 2005 to 2007, the industry’s employment had fallen 14 percent by 2010.
There is no way to blame that sharp employment drop on “poor sales.”
This pattern is not limited to the cellphone industry. Other industries sharply cut back their employment even while their revenues were falling little, if at all; the employment loss from such industries numbers in the millions.
To examine this issue more systematically, I used the industry economic accounts published by the Bureau of Economic Analysis. Industries can be examined at varying levels of detail: I divided the private sector into 21 industries and classified them according to the percentage change in their revenue between 2007 and 2009. The table below shows the results.
In two of the industries, education and health care, revenues grew more than 2 percent (in fact, their increase was about 10 percent), and their employment increased, as is shown in the table’s top row. Five other industries summarized in the next row had a revenue increase but still sharply cut their employment. Four others had minor revenue declines and cut their hiring sharply, too.
The number of full-time equivalent employees declined 2.2 million in those nine industries combined, even though it seems that those industries had enough sales to maintain their employment. Something else motivated them to cut employment and motivated them to forgo an opportunity to hire some of the many workers laid off by declining industries.
As I wrote before much of the employment decline happened, I think “some employees face financial incentives that encourage them not to work, and some employers face financial incentives not to create jobs.”
That’s why even growing business are now getting by with substantially fewer employees.