Weak Growth, Tight Job Markets Are a Global Phenomenon
Economists cite ageing populations and relatively low immigration as factors that became more pronounced during the pandemic
Economists cite ageing populations and relatively low immigration as factors that became more pronounced during the pandemic
From Berlin to Tokyo to Sydney, economic growth is slowing or turning negative across advanced economies, yet labour markets remain historically tight.
Talk of a “jobful recession” has centred on the U.S., where payrolls grew by more than half a million in July and the unemployment rate declined to its prepandemic low of 3.5% even as economic output contracted in the three months through June. The same conundrum crops up around the world.
In Germany, growth stalled in the three months through June, and the country faces imminent recession as its energy supplies dry up. But the unemployment rate remains close to a 40-year low, and almost half of companies say worker shortages are hampering production. The jobless rate in the wider eurozone is at a record low. New Zealand’s economy shrank in the first three months of the year, but its jobless rate, at 3.3%, has stayed close to a multidecade low.
It is the opposite of the “jobless recovery” diagnosed after the 2008 global financial crisis, when economic growth in the U.S. and parts of Europe picked up but unemployment remained painfully high for years.
The current dichotomy might not last. Central banks are raising interest rates to rein in high inflation, which could in time undercut labour demand. The Bank of England on Thursday raised its policy rate by 0.5 percentage point, to 1.75%, and forecast a lengthy recession that would likely boost unemployment to 5.5% from its current 3.8%, which matches the prepandemic low.
Still, subdued growth may coincide with ultralow unemployment more often in coming years, judging by the country that experienced it first. For three decades Japanese growth has been low or negative, averaging 0.8%, but its unemployment rate has never been more than 5.5% and has ratcheted steadily lower since 2010 to stand at 2.6% now—close to its prepandemic low of 2.2%.
The reason, economists say, is a tight labour market because of an aging population and relatively few immigrants, features that have become more pronounced in other advanced economies during the pandemic.
In the years before the pandemic, Japan took steps to make it easier for mothers of small children to work, keep older workers on the job, and loosen restrictions on migrant labour, such as allowing foreign students to work 28 hours a week. But just as those measures were making an impact, the pandemic hit and Japan closed its borders to most new workers.
A shortage of workers forced Masaya Konno, a business owner in Tokyo, to temporarily close his Japanese-style pub last month. Even after he increased pay to ¥1,300 an hour, which is ¥100 to ¥200 above the wages prevailing a year ago, he still can’t find enough workers. “We couldn’t overcome a labour shortage,” Mr. Konno said.
Unemployment and growth usually show a predictable relationship known as Okun’s Law, named for the Yale University economist Arthur Melvin Okun, who first proposed it in 1962. In the U.S., Okun’s law predicts that a 1% decline in output below its potential causes an increase in unemployment of half a percentage point.
However, that relationship can shift depending on factors such as workers‘ output per hour and labour-force growth, said Laurence Ball, an economics professor at Johns Hopkins University. If there are fewer workers and job seekers, the labour market can remain tight even if growth is weak.
Since February 2020, the U.S. labour force has shrunk by about half a million. In Germany, the labour force shrank by about 350,000 over the same period, while in the U.K. it shrank by about 550,000.
Migration has slowed across advanced economies as governments restricted entry to keep out Covid-19 and its variants. In New Zealand, the number of people arriving with work visas shrank from about 240,000 in the year through June 2019, to just 5,000 in the year through June 2021, government data show. In the U.S., the slowdown in immigration began in 2017, when the Trump administration adopted a range of policies to curb both illegal and legal immigrants. The annual net inflow has fallen from more than one million in 2015-16 to about a quarter of a million in 2020-21, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Meanwhile, older workers dropped out of the workforce, in some cases to avoid exposure to Covid-19. Some younger adults quit work to care for children or other family members.
There are signs that as vaccines cut the risk of severe illness or death from Covid, workers have returned to the labour force and migration has resumed. In New Zealand, the number of people arriving with work visas surged to almost 5,000 this past June. That suggests unemployment may start to respond more to changes in economic output.
Other forces might be more durable, however. Older people aren‘t yet returning to work in the U.S.: The labour-force participation rate of workers aged 65 or older has fallen to about 23% from 26% in early 2020. Rapidly aging Germany and Italy are expected to lose millions of workers to retirement over the next decade, which suggests labour shortages will persist.
While sustained low unemployment is generally a boon, Japan’s experience also shows the downsides: It means that the economy isn’t able to quickly direct workers to growth areas, which can limit “creative destruction”—the elimination of obsolete industries so that new industries can grow.
Takahide Kiuchi, an economist at Nomura Research Institute and former Bank of Japan policy board member, said, “Japan’s economy may look more stable with mild inflation. But the flip side of a stable economy is the negative impact of slow changes in the industrial structure.”
Reprinted by permission of The Wall Street Journal, Copyright 2021 Dow Jones & Company. Inc. All Rights Reserved Worldwide. Original date of publication: August 7, 2022.
Chris Dixon, a partner who led the charge, says he has a ‘very long-term horizon’
Americans now think they need at least $1.25 million for retirement, a 20% increase from a year ago, according to a survey by Northwestern Mutual
Investors are taming impulsive money moves by adding a little friction to financial transactions
To break the day-trading habit that cost him friendships and sleep, crypto fund manager Thomas Meenink first tried meditation and cycling. They proved no substitute for the high he got scrolling through investing forums, he said.
Instead, he took a digital breath. He installed software that imposed a 20-second delay whenever he tried to open CoinStats or Coinbase.
Twenty seconds might not seem like much, but feels excruciating in smartphone time, he said. As a result, he checks his accounts 60% less.
“I have to consciously make an effort to go look at stuff that I actually want to know instead of scrolling through feeds and endless conversations about stuff that is actually not very useful,” he said.
More people are adding friction to curb all types of impulsive behaviour. App-limiting services such as One Sec and Opal were originally designed to help users cut back on social-media scrolling.
Now, they are being put to personal-finance use by individuals and some banking and investing platforms. On One Sec, the number of customers using the app to add a delay to trading or banking apps more than quintupled between 2021 and 2022. Opal says roughly 5% of its 100,000 active users rely on the app to help spend less time on finance apps, and 22% use it to block shopping apps such as Amazon.com Inc.
Economic researchers and psychologists say introducing friction into more apps can help people act in their own best interests. Whether we are trading or scrolling social media, the impulsive, automatic decision-making parts of our brains tend to win out over our more measured critical thinking when we use our smartphones, said Ankit Kalda, a finance professor at Indiana University who has studied the impact of mobile trading apps on investor behaviour.
His 2021 study tracked the behaviour of investors on different platforms over seven years and found that experienced day traders made more frequent, riskier bets and generated worse returns when using a smartphone than when using a desktop trading tool.
Most financial-technology innovation over the past decade focused on reducing the friction of moving money around to enable faster and more seamless transactions. Apps such as Venmo made it easier to pay the babysitter or split a bill with friends, and digital brokerages such as Robinhood streamlined mobile trading of stocks and crypto.
These innovations often lead customers to trade or buy more to the benefit of investing and finance platforms. But now, some customers are finding ways to slow the process. Meanwhile, some companies are experimenting with ways to create speed bumps to protect users from their own worst instincts.
When investing app Stash launched retirement accounts for customers in 2017, its customer-service representatives were flooded with calls from panicked customers who moved quickly to open up IRAs without understanding there would be penalties for early withdrawals. Stash funded the accounts in milliseconds once a customer opted in, said co-founder Ed Robinson.
So to reduce the number of IRAs funded on impulse, the company added a fake loading page with additional education screens to extend the product’s onboarding process to about 20 seconds. The change led to lower call-centre volume and a higher rate of customers deciding to keep the accounts funded.
“It’s still relatively quick,” Mr. Robinson said, but those extra steps “allow your brain to catch up.”
Some big financial decisions such as applying for a mortgage or saving for retirement can benefit from these speed bumps, according to ReD Associates, a consulting firm that specialises in using anthropological research to inform design of financial products and other services. More companies are starting to realise they can actually improve customer experiences by slowing things down, said Mikkel Krenchel, a partner at the firm.
“This idea of looking for sustainable behaviour, as opposed to just maximal behaviour is probably the mind-set that firms will try to adopt,” he said.
Slowing down processing times can help build trust, said Chianoo Adrian, a managing director at Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association of America. When the money manager launched its online retirement checkup tool last year, customers were initially unsettled by how fast the website estimated their projected lifetime incomes.
“We got some feedback during our testing that individuals would say ‘Well, how did you know that already? Are you sure you took in all my responses?’ ” she said. The company found that the delay increased credibility with customers, she added.
For others, a delay might not be enough to break undesirable habits.
More people have been seeking treatment for day-trading addictions in recent years, said Lin Sternlicht, co-founder of Family Addiction Specialist, who has seen an increase in cases since the start of the pandemic.
“By the time individuals seek out professional help they are usually experiencing a crisis, and there is often pressure to seek help from a loved one,” she said.
She recommends people who believe they might have a day-trading problem unsubscribe from notifications and emails from related companies and change the color scheme on the trading apps to grayscale, which has been found to make devices less addictive. In extreme cases, people might want to consider deleting apps entirely.
For Perjan Duro, an app developer in Berlin, a 20-second delay wasn’t enough. A few months after he installed One Sec, he went a step further and deleted the app for his retirement account.
“If you don’t have it on your phone, [that] helps you avoid that bad decision,” he said.
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