Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Labor market flexibility and employment during crisis

The global employment level is set to remain stagnant for 2010 before recovering in 2011, so say the authors of this note. They argue that trade openness leads to faster rises in unemployment, but also faster recovery. Also, high severance pay reduces unemployment and high unemployment benefits actually increases it. Their analysis shows that reduction in unemployment growth is more pronounced under a domestic banking or debt crisis than in countries that are only exposed to the global demand shock. The impact of global downturn persisted longer on average while employment growth reverted faster after domestic crisis.

They evaluate the average response to a crisis for countries with low levels of trade [with a trade (imports + exports) to GDP ratio of 25%] and compare the response to countries with a high openness level [of 130%]. For labor market institutions, they use a measure of the severance pay associated with laying-off workers. They compare the responses to a crisis when severance pay is one standard deviation below and above the mean. Their conclusion is that higher openness to trade led to a stronger reduction in employment growth in the initial phase of the crisis, but also allowed for a faster recovery.

The initial negative impact of openness in the case of a debt and banking crisis is consistent with findings on the importance of access to finance for exporters (see Iacovone and Zavacka 2009 or Berman 2009). Unlike a global economic downturn, banking and debt crises have a direct impact on the availability of credit for firms. Since exporters are more sensitive to changes in external finance conditions given their high up-front costs, the higher the openness-to-GDP ratio the stronger is the importance of the financial constraint and the more pronounced the impact on employment.

Countries with higher unemployment benefits suffered on average a more severe reduction in employment growth. One potential reason for this finding is that unemployment benefits can cause downward real wage rigidity (Campolmi and Faia 2005, Zanetti 2007) – if unemployment benefits are high, workers are more likely to resist a downward adjustment of wages. Another possible explanation is the role of informal employment. In poor countries with no or very low unemployment benefits and small welfare systems, workers who lose a formal job are often forced to take up informal activities instead. Thus, they do not appear as unemployed in our data, but typically suffer a substantial deterioration in their incomes and working conditions. Robustness checks revealed that the results for unemployment benefits are strongly driven by countries which have unemployment benefits in the upper 20th percentile. Thus, moderate unemployment benefits that provide a safety net for workers do not appear to be detrimental to employment growth during times of crisis.