Guest Post: Bernanke’s Jobs Estimate

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Submitted by John Aziz of Azizonomics

Bernanke’s Jobs Estimate

Ben Bernanke at Jackson Hole:

If we are willing to take as a working assumption that the effects of easier financial conditions on the economy are similar to those observed historically, then econometric models can be used to estimate the effects of LSAPs on the economy. Model simulations conducted at the Federal Reserve generally find that the securities purchase programs have provided significant help for the economy. For example, a study using the Board’s FRB/US model of the economy found that, as of 2012, the first two rounds of large scale asset purchases may have raised the level of output by almost 3 percent and increased private payroll employment by more than 2 million jobs, relative to what otherwise would have occurred.

Bernanke’s estimate of two million jobs created as a result of his policy appears to be a stitched-together estimate based on two research papers: Fuhrer which estimated a gain of 700,000 jobs from QE1, and Chung et al which estimated 1,800,000 jobs.

The methodology here is interesting, to say the least. From the (unfortunately titled) Fuhrer paper:

Given the range of estimated effects on real spending (GDP), the translation to employment effects is accomplished by use of an Okun’s Law relationship that links GDP growth and changes in the unemployment rate. The typical relationship expressed in quarterly changes is summarized as: Change in unemployment = -0.125 (GDP growth – potential GDP growth).

 

GDP growth for one-quarter that exceeds potential GDP growth by 1 percentage point results in a one-eighth (0.125) percentage point decline in the unemployment rate. Equivalently, quarterly growth in GDP that exceeds potential growth by 1 percentage point for a year typically lowers the unemployment rate by about one-half percentage point.

 

Combining this simple Okun’s Law with the estimated effects on GDP discussed in the preceding section implies a decline in the unemployment rate of 30-45 basis points over the 2-year period it takes for the spending rate change to feed through the economy. With the U.S. labor force currently at just over 150 million people, this translates to an increase of about 700,000 jobs, a figure quoted by Boston Fed President Eric Rosengren in his speech of November 17, 2010.

The number of layers of uncertainty is problematic. First we have uncertainty over the level of GDP growth provoked by QE. Second we have uncertainty as to the reliability of the measure and concept of potential GDP growth. And third we have uncertainty as to the extent of the relationship between GDP growth, potential GDP growth and unemployment in this specific case.

Essentially, the equation assumes that because GDP growth has historically resulted in job growth, we should assume it will do so in the future. But this is a very different economy to the one we had fifty years ago. Today it’s possible for the financial sector to generate profits (and thus, GDP) by passing liquidity around the financial sector. And today, any American demand boom will create jobs in China and Mexico (etc), because that’s where the industrial and manufacturing jobs have been shipped to.

So Bernanke’s figure is a guess based on a guess based on a guess based on old data. Maybe 2 million. Maybe, maybe, maybe, maybe.

How do we know that after a big, painful bust that after a short burst of deflationary pain that job growth wouldn’t have come roaring back? After all that happened multiple times in the 19th century.

Hank Paulson might claim that he saved the world from a thousand year nuclear winter by bailing out his former employee Goldman at par on its credit default swaps. You can claim anything about what might have happened otherwise. Maybe, maybe, maybe. Such claims are junk science because they are unfalsifiable.

Yet the reality is very clear — either people have jobs or they don’t. That’s what the regime will be judged on.

The present policy of tripling the monetary base via monetary easing hasn’t solved the jobs problem, because we’re still in the woods. Trillions of easing — which we can say quite confidently has enriched the financial sector far more than any other sector of the economy — and yet we still have a jobs depression (of course, financial sector profits have come roaring back). This is the prime age employment-population ratio:

Quantitative easing hasn’t been about jobs. If this was about jobs or stimulating demand, Bernanke would have aimed the helicopter drops at the wider public, as many economists have suggested. This policy of dropping cash directly to the banks is bailing out a dangerous and morally-hazardous financial sector and too-big-to-fail megabanks that remain dangerously overleveraged and under-capitalised, needing endless new liquidity just to keep past debts serviceable. There has been plenty of cash helicopter-dropped onto Wall Street, but nobody on Wall Street has gone to jail for causing the 2008 crisis. Criminal banksters get the huge liquidity injections they want, and the rest get less than crumbs.