Mitchell’s Musings 4-16-2018: Labeling What is Abnormal as the New Normal

11 Apr 2018 4:07 PM | Daniel Mitchell (Administrator)

Mitchell’s Musings 4-16-2018: Labeling What is Abnormal as the New Normal


Daniel J.B. Mitchell


In recent weeks, there have been some very large swings in the stock market. So what do we read about these developments?


…The era of calm markets and small price swings is over. The new normal on Wall Street is all about wild fluctuations, mammoth moves like the Dow Jones industrial average's 1,000-point drops earlier this year, and rapid-fire price reversals that can shift the mood of the market from optimism to pessimism in a matter of minutes — and sometime seconds…[1]


The implication of the phrase “new normal” as used in the quote above is that the big fluctuations, which seem to be a departure from what has been the case in the past, will go on indefinitely or at least for a long time. And that proposition raises a question: Whatever happened to such notions as regression to the mean? Regression to the mean suggests that things that deviate from the way they have been in the past are just aberrations that will disappear. Why not assume that the recent “wild fluctuations” on Wall Street are destined to diminish?


I have no special insight as to whether there is or isn’t a new normal on Wall Street, but my predilection would be that the current fluctuations will not go on indefinitely. Of course, there are breaks in history in which things that seem unusual based on past history in fact herald a new situation that will endure. But my sense is that the “payoffs” for predicting a break in trend that actually occurs are large compared to the payoff for calling an abnormal development a blip. There is a bigger payoff in predicting a new normal, and then hoping that your prediction turns out to be true.


It’s like the reward system in economic forecasting. If you predict a recession – and one actually develops – you will be remembered as the genius who called it correctly, at least until the next recession. On the other hand, saying quarter after quarter that there won’t be a recession will be correct most of the time, but not something that will enhance your reputation for prognostication. Breaks in trend are unusual (or we wouldn’t call what was happening before a trend). So there are only a few opportunities to be seen as a genius. Getting it right most of the time – saying that there won’t be a recession – is easy and boring and not notable. It won’t get headlines and recognition.


Now let’s think back about the labor market discussion that characterized the aftermath of the Great Recession. We were told that high unemployment was the new normal. All kinds of explanations were offered for that conclusion. Employers wanted skills that the workforce didn’t offer, so the unemployment was largely structural. Exactly why the burst in a structural problem just happened to coincide with a financial crisis was never entirely clear. The fact that the recovery was slow – so the unemployment rate remained high relative to trend – gave the new normal stories some surface validity. Here’s an example from 2012 (when the unemployment rate averaged over 8%):


Bill Gross, manager of the world’s largest mutual fund, said U.S. unemployment is now a structural, and not cyclical, problem stemming from technology advances and the lack of retraining. “Jobs are being structurally destroyed,” Gross said in an interview today with Ken Prewitt and Tom Keene on Bloomberg Radio’s “Bloomberg Surveillance.” Employment figures released today reflect “the inability of the U.S. economy to provide jobs...”[2]


But now the unemployment rate has somehow arrived at a low level, a little over 4%, despite the structural/new normal stories. And what do we read about employer behavior? Here’s a recent anecdote from Springfield, Massachusetts:


Long before MGM Resorts International got the green light to build a nearly $1 billion casino and hotel downtown, it analyzed the local labor market to figure out what it would take to fill 3,000 jobs in a state new to gambling. The socioeconomic snapshot that emerged became a road map for creating a workforce from scratch.


Census data and labor reports revealed a higher-than-average number of single parents and former offenders. So MGM Springfield added federally funded day care to the resort and lobbied to loosen a state law that restricts casinos from hiring people with criminal records. A lack of experienced blackjack and poker dealers in the area led to the creation of a gaming school.


Managers also fanned out to senior centers, veterans clubs, vocational high schools, even churches to talk up casino jobs. They pored over layoff data from the state, including from a Springfield hospital and a nearby Sam’s Club that had recently closed, to pursue workers who might be good fits.


Now, months before its scheduled opening in late summer, MGM Springfield is embarking on a major hiring spree to staff its hotel, restaurants, bowling alley, movie theater, spa, retail shops, and 125,000 square feet of gambling space, all of which take up three city blocks.


On Monday, the resort is set to announce openings for about 1,000 of its 3,000 jobs, mainly in food and beverage service. Just over 100 employees have been hired so far.


Overall, roughly 80 percent of MGM’s jobs will be full time, with the company helping to provide local training for many of them. Given MGM’s good relationship with organized labor at its other resorts, a fair share will probably have union protections.


Wynn Boston Harbor has been undertaking similar workforce development efforts, including analyzing demographics and partnering with nonprofits and community colleges, as it looks toward opening in Everett next year…[3]


The current story is that with low unemployment, employers are being less picky about who they choose to hire than they were in 2012, and are providing training for those whose skills are lacking. Is this a surprise? It is a new normal? Not really. Brookings economist Arthur M. Okun described what happens in such circumstances back in 1972. He also noted then that when unemployment is high (as it was for several years after the Great Recession), “society (is able to) salve its conscience by concluding that the fault of the unemployed and the underemployed lay in themselves and not in the economic system.”[4]


In short, what happened after the Great Recession wasn’t the new normal. It was the old normal. When the unemployment rate is high and has been so for a few years, experts will declare it to be structural. The potential payoff was small at that time for saying that eventually the unemployment rate would fall and that when that that day arrived, employers would cease to be picky about who they hired. Making a more dramatic prediction and structural interpretation of what had happened got the headlines. Nothing new about that result, either.

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Footnotes:

[1] https://www.usatoday.com/story/money/2018/04/08/stock-market-2018-expect-dow-jones-volatility-trade-war-trump-talk/493234002/

[2] http://www.atlantatribune.com/2012/10/02/bill-gross-u-s-economy-suffering-from-structural-unemployment/

[3] https://www.bostonglobe.com/business/2018/04/01/mgm-springfield-embarks-hiring-spree/fLAXdBSOIul4ydsobAfKqK/story.html

[4] https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/1973/01/1973a_bpea_okun_fellner_greenspan.pdf. The quote is from p. 245. 

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