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Nouriel Roubini

The joblessness threat Add to ...

Recent data suggest that job market conditions are not improving in the United States and other advanced economies. In the U.S., the unemployment rate, currently at 9.5 per cent, is poised to rise above 10 per cent by the fall. It should peak at 11 per cent in 2010 and remain well above 10 per cent for a long time. The rate will peak above 10 per cent in most other advanced economies, too.

These raw figures on job losses, bad as they are, actually understate the weakness in world labour markets. If you include partially employed workers and discouraged workers who have left the U.S. labour force, the unemployment rate is already 16.5 per cent. Monetary and fiscal stimulus in most countries has done little to slow down the rate of job losses. As a result, total labour income - the product of jobs times hours worked times average hourly wages - has fallen dramatically.

Moreover, many employers, seeking to share the pain of recession and slow down layoffs, are now asking workers to accept cuts in both hours and wages. British Airways, for instance, has asked employees to work for a month without pay. Thus, the total effect of the recession on labour income of jobs, hours and wage reductions is much larger.

A sharp contraction in jobs and labour income has many negative consequences on both the economy and financial markets. First, falling labour income implies falling consumption for households, which have already been hard hit by a massive loss of wealth (as the value of equities and homes has fallen) and a sharp rise in their debt ratios. With consumption accounting for 70 per cent of GDP in the U.S., and a similar percentage in other advanced economies, this implies that the recession will last longer, and that recovery next year will be anemic (less than 1 per cent growth in the U.S. and even lower rates in Europe and Japan).

Second, job losses will lead to a more protracted and severe housing recession, as joblessness and falling income are key factors in determining delinquencies on mortgages and foreclosure. By the end of this year, more than eight million Americans with mortgages will be unemployed.

Third, if you plug an unemployment rate of 10 per cent to 11 per cent into any model of loan defaults, you get ugly figures not just for residential mortgages but also for commercial real estate, credit cards, student loans, auto loans, etc. Thus, banks' losses on their toxic assets and their capital needs will be much larger than estimated, which will worsen the credit crunch.

Fourth, rising job losses lead to greater demands for protectionist measures, as governments are pressed to save domestic jobs. This threatens to aggravate the damaging contraction of global trade.

Fifth, the higher the unemployment rate, the wider the budget deficit, as automatic stabilizers reduce revenue and increase spending (on unemployment benefits, say). Thus, an already unsustainable U.S. fiscal path, with budget deficits above 10 per cent of GDP and public debt expected to double as a share of GDP by 2014, becomes even worse.

This leads to a policy dilemma: Rising unemployment rates are forcing politicians in the U.S. and other countries to consider additional fiscal stimulus programs to boost sagging demand and falling employment. But, despite persistent deflationary pressure through 2010, rising budget deficits, high financial-sector bailout costs, continued monetization of deficits and, eventually, unsustainable levels of public debt will ultimately lead to higher expected inflation - and thus to higher interest rates, which would stifle the recovery of private demand.

So, while further fiscal stimulus seems necessary to avoid a more protracted recession, governments can ill afford it: They are damned if they do and damned if they don't. If, like Japan in the late 1990s and the U.S. in 1937, they take the threat of large deficits seriously and raise taxes and cut spending too much too soon, their economies could fall back into recession. But recession could also result if deficits are allowed to fester, or are increased with additional stimulus to boost jobs and growth, because bond-market vigilantes might push borrowing costs higher.

Thus, even as mounting job losses undermine consumption, housing prices, banks' balance sheets, support for free trade, and public finances, the room for further policy stimulus is becoming narrower. Indeed, not only are governments running out of fiscal bullets as debt surges, but monetary policy is having little short-run traction in economies suffering insolvency - not just liquidity - problems. Worse still, the monetary overhang may lead to significant inflationary risks.

Little wonder, then, that we are now seeing a significant correction in equity, credit and commodities markets. The irrational exuberance that drove a three-month bear-market rally in the spring is giving way to a sober realization that the global recession will not be over until year-end, that the recovery will be weak, and that the risks of a double-dip W-shaped recession are rising.

Nouriel Roubini is professor of economics at New York University's Stern School of Business and chairman of RGE Monitor.

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