Is the Labor Market Back?

Last month I asked if travel was back. Air travel has recovered a lot from the depths of the pandemic, but it was still only about 80-85% of pre-pandemic levels.

Labor markets also plummeted during the worst of the pandemic, and have slowly (and sometimes quickly) clawing their way back. But are we back to pre-pandemic levels?

The national unemployment rate is now under 4%, a level which is rarely reached even in the best of times. But there is considerable variation across states.

The latest BLS release of state unemployment data shows that some states are at their historic lows, with one state standing out: Nebraska currently has the lowest unemployment rate a state has ever recorded at 1.7% in December 2021 (the data go back to 1976). Utah is also just below 2% in December — at 1.9% it’s the 2nd lowest in history (after Nebraska, of course).

Of course, all is not well everywhere. California and Nevada have the highest unemployment rates, at around 6.5%. This is well above their pre-pandemic levels of about 4%, and also well above what you would expect during normal times, other than during and immediately following at recession.

So is the labor market back in Nebraska, Utah, and other similar states? Not so fast.

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The Recession Is Over! (15 months ago)

Lately there has been lots of both good and bad news about the pandemic and its impact on the economy. But here’s once piece of good news you might have missed: the recession which began in February 2020 ended in April. And not April 2021… it ended in April 2020. At least, that’s according to the NBER Business Cycle Dating Committee, which made the announcement last week.

The 2020 recession of just 2 months is by far the shortest on record. NBER maintains a list of recessions with monthly dates going back to 1854 (there are annual business cycles dates before that, including important modern revisions of the original estimates, but the monthly series starts in 1854). In that timeframe, there have been 7 recessions in the 6-8 month range, but nothing this short. Still, it was mostly definitely a recession, as unemployment briefly spiked to levels not seen since the Great Depression. But only for 2 months. Keep in mind that the first part of the Great Depression last 43 months.

Unemployment Rate, 1948-present

But how can this be? Is the recession really over? There are still about 6-7 million fewer people working than before the pandemic began. Lots of businesses are still hurting. The unemployment rate is still 2 full percentage points above pre-pandemic levels. How in the world can we say the recession ended 15 months ago?

To answer that question, it helps to know what NBER and most macroeconomists mean by a “recession” — essentially, it is used interchangeably with “contraction.” It means the economy, by a broad array of measures (NBER uses about 10 measures), is shrinking — or we might say, going in the wrong direction. The only other option, at least in the NBER chronology, is an expansion — when the economy is going in the right direction.

Does an economic expansion mean that everything is fine the economy?

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