Is Offshoring Behind U.S. Employment’s Current Problems?

In a week loaded with important economic news, no piece of data will garner more justifiable attention than Friday’s April employment report. The importance of that report was driven home by Chairman Bernanke’s comments at last week’s press conference (emphasis added):

“REPORTER: Mr. Chairman, given what you know about the pace of the economy now, what is your best guess for how soon the [Committee] needs to begin to withdraw its extraordinary stimulus for the economy.

“CHAIRMAN BERNANKE: Well, currently as the statement suggests, we are in a moderate recovery. We will be looking very carefully first to see if that recovery is indeed sustainable, as we believe it is. We will also be looking very closely at the labor market. We have seen improvement in the labor market in the first quarter relative to last year. We would like to see continued improvement, more job creation going forward. At the same time we are also looking very carefully at inflation. The other part of our mandate.”

In February and March payrolls expanded by an average of 205,000 jobs each month, a pace that is probably sufficient to make progress toward reducing the still-elevated unemployment rate. But at that pace it will take about three years before we see the same number of jobs that existed as of December 2007.

The significant lag between gross domestic product recovery and employment recovery has been particularly extreme in the wake of the most recent recession, but this pattern was a characteristic of the previous two recessions as well. You know the facts: In the post-WWII recessions up to 1989, the average time it took to regain recession-generated job losses was 10 months. The recovery time expanded to 23 months and 38 months in the recoveries following the 1990–91 and 2001 recessions. And we are on track to shoot past those records this time around.

Explanations abound, but one popular belief is that the answer hides somewhere within the somewhat ambiguous phenomenon labeled “globalization.” A few weeks back, David Wessel of the Wall Street Journal provided some pretty compelling facts:

“U.S. multinational corporations, the big brand-name companies that employ a fifth of all American workers, have been hiring abroad while cutting back at home, sharpening the debate over globalization’s effect on the U.S. economy.

“The companies cut their work forces in the U.S. by 2.9 million during the 2000s while increasing employment overseas by 2.4 million, new data from the U.S. Commerce Department show. That’s a big switch from the 1990s, when they added jobs everywhere: 4.4 million in the U.S. and 2.7 million abroad.”

Two obvious questions: What jobs are we talking about, and what is the meaning of the differential in job growth? Is this a story of “offshoring”—the shifting, if you will, of jobs to foreign locales for production that still fundamentally satisfies U.S. demand? Or is it more a reflection of the different pace of growth in foreign markets relative to U.S. markets?

It’s difficult to come to definitive conclusions on these questions, but we do have some information about the types of jobs that underlie the aggregate job-growth picture drawn in Wessel’s statistics. Here’s what we know based on data from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis’s International Economic Accounts from 1999 to 2008:

A couple of things jump out. First, among U.S. multinational employers, some industries added U.S. employees, and some shed them. On net, these corporations lost 1.903 million U.S. jobs from 1999–2008. During this same period, manufacturing multinationals in the United States lost 1.938 million jobs (see the table). Also, foreign employment in manufacturing represented less than 13 percent of U.S. employment losses and only 10 percent of the total foreign employment gains generated by those multinationals.

By industry, the largest U.S. job losses after the manufacturing industries were created by finance and insurance firms. But, as the table shows, foreign employment in these types of firms also fell. In fact, there were only two types of industries listed above—manufacturing and information—in which foreign employment by U.S. multinationals grew while U.S. employment fell.

Finally, the largest category of foreign job gains was “other industries,” which breaks down as follows:

Sixty-nine percent of the foreign employment growth by U.S. multinationals from 1999 to 2008 was in the “other industries” category, and 87 percent of that growth was in three types of industries: retail trade; administration, support, and waste management; and accommodation of food services. Some fraction of these jobs, no doubt, reflect “offshoring” in the usual sense. But it is also true that these are types of industries that are more likely than many others to represent production for local (or domestic) demand as opposed to production for export to the United States.

We certainly don’t present this information as a definitive answer to the question about the role of offshoring in the slow U.S. jobs recovery. But if you forced us to choose between global or domestic factors as the place to look for solutions as we struggle with persistent underperformance in U.S. labor markets, we’d choose the latter.

About David Altig 91 Articles

Affiliation: Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta

Dr. David E. Altig is senior vice president and director of research at the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta. In addition to advising the Bank president on Monetary policy and related matters, Dr. Altig oversees the Bank's research and public affairs departments. He also serves as a member of the Bank's management and discount committees.

Dr. Altig also serves as an adjunct professor of economics in the graduate school of business at the University of Chicago and the Chinese Executive MBA program sponsored by the University of Minnesota and Lingnan College of Sun Yat-Sen University.

Prior to joining the Atlanta Fed, Dr. Altig served as vice president and associate director of research at the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland. He joined the Cleveland Fed in 1991 as an economist before being promoted in 1997. Before joining the Cleveland Fed, Dr. Altig was a faculty member in the department of business economics and public policy at Indiana University. He also has lectured at Ohio State University, Brown University, Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland State University, Duke University, John Carroll University, Kent State University, and the University of Iowa.

Dr. Altig's research is widely published and primarily focused on monetary and fiscal policy issues. His articles have appeared in a variety of journals including the Journal of Money, Credit, and Banking, the American Economic Review, the Journal of Economic Dynamics and Control, and the Journal of Monetary Economics. He has also served as editor for several conference volumes on a wide range of macroeconomic and monetary-economic topics.

Dr. Altig was born in Springfield, Ill., on Aug. 10, 1956. He graduated from the University of Iowa with a bachelor's degree in business administration. He earned his master's and doctoral degrees in economics from Brown University.

He and his wife Pam have four children and three grandchildren.

Visit: David Altig's Page

1 Comment on Is Offshoring Behind U.S. Employment’s Current Problems?

  1. There is one thing that will always increase job hiring…………..low cost labor…….this is true at all levels of the business world. The last national level demonstration of this theory was when NAFTA opened the doors of Mexico and Canada to emigrants both legal and illegal. This open door policy brought hoards of eager workers across the border which created one of our nation’s largest housing boom. However, being uncontrolled, an excess of building caused an unnatural demands on our banking system. And to make it worst, 10 million workers and their families remained in the US compounding our problems. So, where am I going with this article? It just might be possible to turn this negative into a positive………….. What if we were able to take this alienated labor force and use it to stimulate the job market! Think about it …… we can’t effectively export 15 million people after the barn door was left open by greedy business practices for so long……. Why not use this work force to make our country as strong if not stronger than it ever was? These are not undesirable people. They are industrious, basically honest and law biding, and want a better life than they were born into. These are the type of people that can put a backbone in our economy! They are willing to sacrifice to better themselves and their family. Sure they work for less than we are accustomed to. What’s wrong with that? Every business needs a majority of ground level employees for manufacturing and processes. With the hiring of these ground level employees the business will need higher level employees at the supervision and administrative levels. So, how do we make this happen? By developing a program that allows these alienated people to sign up for the right to work in our country as long as they : register , pay taxes to our government, and obey all laws while they are here. We don’t have to give them Citizenship, just a right to work! If we do this, we will add 10 million workers to our economy, reap the benefit of taxes from 10 million workers, bring millions of unemployed US citizen into the labor force because of business growth, and have these alienated people pay for the many citizen benefits they are using such as: schools, medical, and social services. They might not be given Voting rights , and all the Protection that a Citizen processes, but I know they would be satisfied to have a job and the ability to provide for their family in the World’s greatest country!

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