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What history tells us about the aftermath of a financial crisis

The Reinhart couple sounds the alarming bell (article from FT):

The landscape of Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where central bankers gathered at their annual conference last week, is spectacular and forbidding. Jagged peaks and vast empty spaces stretch across the horizon. For the attendees, however, it was both a vista and a metaphor. Having lived through a precipitous global economic drop, they now must forecast how steep or flat will be the incline of recovery.

Ben Bernanke, chairman of the Federal Reserve, painted a sober but reassuring picture of US prospects. The basis for sustained recovery is in place, and canny Fed officials are now alive to the dangers of both deflation and inflation. Similarly Jean Claude Trichet, head of the European Central Bank, spoke about how the dust had begun to settle on the crisis. Policymakers and financial markets seem to be looking at what comes next.

We have analysed data on numerous severe economic dislocations over the past three-quarters of a century; a record of misfortune including 15 severe post-second world war crises, the Great Depression and the 1973-74 oil shock. The result is a bracing warning that the future is likely to bring only hard choices.

Our research found real per capita gross domestic product growth tends to be much lower during the decade following crises. Unemployment rates are higher, with the most extreme increases in the most advanced economies that experienced a crisis. In 10 of the 15 episodes we studied, unemployment never fell back to its pre-crisis level, not in the following decade nor right up to the end of 2009.

It gets worse. Where house price data are available, 90 per cent of the observations over the decade after a crisis are below their level the year before the crisis. Median prices are 15 to 20 per cent lower too, with cumulative declines as large as 55 per cent. Credit is also a problem. It expands rapidly before crises, but post-crash the ratio of credit to GDP declines by an amount comparable to the pre-crisis surge. However, this deleveraging is often delayed and protracted.

Our review of the historical record, therefore, strongly supports the view that large destabilising economic events produce big changes in long-term indicators, well after the upheaval of the crisis. Up to now we have been traversing the tracks of prior crises. But if we continue as others have before, the need to deleverage will dampen employment and growth for some time to come.

Is unemployment insurance to blame?

Robert Barro thinks the expanded unemployment insurance (to 99 weeks) is the culprit for nation's high unemployment rate.

I want to focus here on another dimension of the Obama administration's policies: the expansion of unemployment-insurance eligibility to as much as 99 weeks from the standard 26 weeks.

The unemployment-insurance program involves a balance between compassion—providing for persons temporarily without work—and efficiency. The loss in efficiency results partly because the program subsidizes unemployment, causing insufficient job-search, job-acceptance and levels of employment. A further inefficiency concerns the distortions from the increases in taxes required to pay for the program.

In a recession, it is more likely that individual unemployment reflects weak economic conditions, rather than individual decisions to choose leisure over work. Therefore, it is reasonable during a recession to adopt a more generous unemployment-insurance program. In the past, this change entailed extensions to perhaps 39 weeks of eligibility from 26 weeks, though sometimes a bit more and typically conditioned on the employment situation in a person's state of residence. However, we have never experienced anything close to the blanket extension of eligibility to nearly two years. We have shifted toward a welfare program that resembles those in many Western European countries.

The administration has argued that the more generous unemployment-insurance program could not have had much impact on the unemployment rate because the recession is so severe that jobs are unavailable for many people. This perspective is odd on its face because, even at the worst of the downturn, the U.S. labor market featured a tremendous amount of turnover in the form of large numbers of persons hired and separated every month.

For example, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that, near the worst of the recession in March 2009, 3.9 million people were hired and 4.7 million were separated from jobs. This net loss of 800,000 jobs in one month indicates a very weak economy—but nevertheless one in which 3.9 million people were hired. A program that reduced incentives for people to search for and accept jobs could surely matter a lot here.

Moreover, although the peak unemployment rate (thus far) of 10.1% in October 2009 is very disturbing, the rate was even higher in the 1982 recession (10.8% in November-December 1982). Thus, there is no reason to think that the United States is in a new world in which incentives provided by more generous unemployment-insurance programs do not matter much for unemployment.

Another reason to be skeptical about the administration's stance is that generous unemployment-insurance programs have been found to raise unemployment in many Western European countries in which unemployment rates have been far higher than the current U.S. rate. In Europe, the influence has worked particularly through increases in long-term unemployment. So the key question is what happened to long-term unemployment in the United States during the current recession?

To begin with a historical perspective, in the 1982 recession the peak unemployment rate of 10.8% in November-December 1982 corresponded to a mean duration of unemployment of 17.6 weeks and a share of long-term unemployment (those unemployed more than 26 weeks) of 20.4%. Long-term unemployment peaked later, in July 1983, when the unemployment rate had fallen to 9.4%. At that point, the mean duration of unemployment reached 21.2 weeks and the share of long-term unemployment was 24.5%. These numbers are the highest observed in the post-World War II period until recently. Thus, we can think of previous recessions (including those in 2001, 1990-91 and before 1982) as featuring a mean duration of unemployment of less than 21 weeks and a share of long-term unemployment of less than 25%.

These numbers provide a stark contrast with joblessness today. The peak unemployment rate of 10.1% in October 2009 corresponded to a mean duration of unemployment of 27.2 weeks and a share of long-term unemployment of 36%. The duration of unemployment peaked (thus far) at 35.2 weeks in June 2010, when the share of long-term unemployment in the total reached a remarkable 46.2%. These numbers are way above the ceilings of 21 weeks and 25% share applicable to previous post-World War II recessions. The dramatic expansion of unemployment-insurance eligibility to 99 weeks is almost surely the culprit.

To get a rough quantitative estimate of the implications for the unemployment rate, suppose that the expansion of unemployment-insurance coverage to 99 weeks had not occurred and—I assume—the share of long-term unemployment had equaled the peak value of 24.5% observed in July 1983. Then, if the number of unemployed 26 weeks or less in June 2010 had still equaled the observed value of 7.9 million, the total number of unemployed would have been 10.4 million rather than 14.6 million. If the labor force still equaled the observed value (153.7 million), the unemployment rate would have been 6.8% rather than 9.5%.

Consider how the prospects for Democrats in the November elections would look if the unemployment rate were now only 6.8%. Obviously, this change would make all the difference, and President Obama can reasonably blame his economic advisers. They should have protected their boss by standing firm and arguing that a reckless expansion of unemployment-insurance coverage to 99 weeks was unwise economically and politically. Congressman Boehner's advice to Mr. Obama seems correct, though possibly too late to matter.