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Tuesday, January 13, 2004

In Good Company

Alerted by Michael in the comments column, I went over and checked out Steven Roach. It appears we are singing from the same hymn book on this: even down to the twin forces behind the productivity surge - outsourcing, and IT enebled connectivity - and the idea that there is a "powerful leakage in the system". And while the leakage continues, of course, Europe continues to be pushed at the sharp end. Bravo, nice to see someone really 'gets it'. Now what is needed is some serious thinking about the global policy implications of all this.

The Great American Job Machine has long powered the US business cycle. It drives the income growth that fuels personal consumption. That internally generated fuel is all but absent in the current upturn. The US economy is mired in a jobless recovery the likes of which it has never seen. This has profound implications for the economic outlook, the political climate, trade policies, and the global business cycle.

Contrary to popular spin, the US labor market is not on the mend. In the final five months of 2003, a total of only 278,000 new jobs were added by nonfarm businesses — a gain that is easily matched in a single month of a typical hiring-led recovery. Moreover, literally all of the job growth that has occurred over this period has been concentrated in three industry segments — temporary staffing, education, and healthcare — which collectively added 286,000 positions in the final five months of last year. The “animal spirits” of a broad-based hiring-led revival by US businesses are all but absent. Jobs may be rising in America’s low-cost contingent workforce (temps) and in high-cost-areas that are shielded from international competition (health and education), but positions continue to be eliminated in manufacturing, retail trade, and financial and information services.

The modern-day US economy has never been through anything like this. Fully 25 months into this so-called economic recovery, private-sector jobs are still about 1% below levels prevailing at the official trough of the last recession in November 2001; at this juncture in the typical recovery, jobs are normally up about 6%. Had Corporate America held to the hiring trajectory of the typical cycle, fully 7.7 million more American workers would be employed today. Moreover, the current hiring shortfall far outstrips that which was evident in America’s only other jobless recovery — the upturn following the recession of 1990–91. In that instance, it took about 12 months for the job machine to kick back into gear. By our calculations, the current job profile in the private economy is now 2.4 million workers below the trajectory of the jobless recovery a decade ago..............

The global labor arbitrage remains at the top of my list of possible explanations.... It depicts the interplay of two brand-new forces — offshore outsourcing in goods and services together with the advent of Internet-driven connectivity. Such IT-enabled outsourcing has taken on new urgency in today’s no-pricing-leverage climate of excess global capacity. The unrelenting push for cost control leaves return-driven US businesses with no choice other than to push the envelope on productivity solutions. The result may well be a new relationship between US aggregate demand and employment

The “imported productivity” provided by offshoring has become especially evident in IT-enabled services — where the knowledge-based output of a remote low-wage white-collar workforce now has real-time, e-based connectivity to production platforms in the developed world. One of the clearest examples of this is a significant shortfall of job creation in America’s IT and information services industry. In the upturn of the early 1990s, employment in this industry had increased nearly 4% by the 25th month of that recovery; by contrast, in the current cycle, such jobs are down over 1% — even though the US economy is far more IT-intensive today than it was back then. At the same time, knowledge professionals’ headcount in India’s IT sector has risen from 50,000 in 1990–91 to an estimated 625,000 workers in 2002–03.

I don’t think these trends are a coincidence. More likely than not, they are the flip sides of the same coin — a shift of comparable-quality labor input from the high-wage US services sector to the low-wage Indian services sector. And, of course, this trend is only the tip of a much bigger iceberg, as offshoring now spreads up the value chain to include professions such as engineering, design, and accounting, as well as lawyers, actuaries, doctors, and financial analysts. Long dubbed the “nontradables” sector, the IT-enabled globalization of services is now in the process of transforming this vast sector into yet another tradable segment of the US economy — posing a formidable challenge to the once unstoppable Great American Job Machine.

There can be no mistaking the important implications of this jobless recovery. Lacking in job creation as never before, it follows that there is equally profound shortfall of wage income generation. Normally, at this juncture in a US business cycle expansion, private wage and salary disbursements — fully 45% of total personal income and easily the largest component of household purchasing power — are up by 8% (in real terms). Yet 24 months into the current expansion, this key slice of income is actually down nearly 1% — the functional equivalent of about a $350 billion shortfall in real consumer purchasing power............

Unfortunately, the theory behind such a cyclical dynamic just isn’t working. Starved of job creation and wage income generation, consumers need supplemental sources of growth. To date, America’s monetary and fiscal authorities have been more than happy to comply. The Fed has provided the interest-rate support to asset markets that drives the wealth effects underpinning consumer demand. Washington’s penchant for deficit spending has also provided an extraordinary boon to household purchasing power. Yet there’s little opportunity for removing these life-support measures. To the contrary, until the economy kicks in on its own, the monetary and fiscal authorities could well be called upon to keep upping the ante. Therein lies the conundrum: With the Fed’s policy rate now near zero and America’s budget deficit at a record, the authorities are all but running out of options.

In the end, America’s protracted shortfall of jobs and internally generated income has created a new and powerful leakage in the system — a leakage that ultimately renders traditional multiplier effects all but inoperative. Not only does that draw into serious question the case for a cumulative and self-sustaining recovery in the US economy, but it could well elicit dangerous policy responses from Washington. Jobless recoveries unmask the false foundations of a cyclical upturn. That’s precisely the risk financial markets are missing.
Source: Morgan Stanley Global Economic Forum

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