Archive for Saturday, December 27, 2008

Widespread pain

This recession has more casualties than previous ones

December 27, 2008


— Recessions can be notoriously uneven. They can wreak havoc with the livelihood of factory workers but not that of bank tellers or nurses. Whole industries can see jobs washed away forever, while others hum along and even grow.

This time, however, the pain is more widespread, economists say, affecting the investment banker, the auto worker, the warehouse manager and the toy store clerk.

So far this year, companies have announced layoffs that affect more than 1 million jobs, according to jobs placement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas. Bank of America, the Dow Chemical Company, Anheuser-Busch Inbev, General Motors and Circuit City are among the growing number of companies that are letting people go.

Another key difference with past recessions has been the downturn’s “serial nature,” said Jerry Nickelsburg, an economist with the UCLA Anderson School of Management.

In other words, the recession did not affect industries and regions at once, but rolled out in spurts.

Industries that have seen some of the steepest job losses include construction, financial services, retail, and manufacturing. The regional differences in job losses reflect how large a role those industries play in a given area’s economy.

In California, for example, a major site of the housing bubble, the construction business began shedding jobs in 2006. The unemployment rate rose to 8.4 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Residential building-related job losses in California had actually begun to slow down this fall, said Nickelsburg. Thanks to the drop in consumer spending, three-quarters of the jobs California lost in November were tied to the retail sector, he said.

The state government is the latest casualty of the recession. Smaller tax receipts and tighter credit have left California strapped for cash and last week the governor announced mass layoffs and furloughs.

Perhaps the only region hurting more is the industrial Midwest. Michigan, home of the Big Three U.S. automakers, for example, leads the nation in unemployment with a rate of 9.6 percent, BLS data show. The national average is 6.7 percent. The U.S. economy has lost 604,000 manufacturing jobs over the past year, BLS said.

The states that are having a better time weathering the storm benefited from record prices for energy and agricultural commodities earlier this year.

Texas, for example, is likely to end the year with about 1.5 percent job growth, said Keith Phillips, an economist with the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas. High prices for natural gas over the summer is one reason. Another is that Texas didn’t experience the large swings in home values that some other states did.

But Texas is not immune to the downturn. Prices for natural gas have come down and the state is expected to lose jobs at a rate of 1.5 percent next year, Phillips said.

That’s still good relative to other parts of the country. Wachovia analyst John Silvia, who tracks the Texas economy, said a drop in energy prices is not likely to trigger mass layoffs on the scale of the auto or construction industries because of the nature of the business.

“Given that it takes so long to produce energy, especially oil, you’re not going to lay off workers for a short-term weakness in the economy,” he said.

Many of those who have been or are about to be laid off will have to find a new line of work, several economists said, because they won’t be able to go back to their old one.

The construction industry has shed 780,000 jobs since September 2006 according to the BLS, and it isn’t likely to go back to bubble-like levels any time soon, experts said. Further, an anticipated decline in the construction of office buildings, apartments and shopping centers is likely to spur more layoffs in 2009.

Rebecca Blank, an economist at the Brookings Institution, said she expects manufacturing jobs to keep vanishing steadily from the U.S. economy, including in the auto industry. “It’s been a downward trend since the late 1970s,” she said. “They are not coming back, by and large.”

What is less clear is what will happen in the financial services sector, which since September has experienced the demise of venerated firms such as Lehman Brothers, a wave of consolidation and in some cases wholesale government takeover.

More than 250,000 layoffs have been announced by financial services companies this year, according to Challenger, Gray & Christmas. Some of those layoffs will be spread out over several years.


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