Economic Turbulence: Is a Volatile Economy Good for America?

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Every day, in every sector of our economy, a business shuts down while another starts up, jobs are created while others are cut, and workers are hired while others are laid off. This constant flux, or turbulence, is a defining characteristic of our free market system, yet it mostly inspires angst about unemployment, loss of earnings, and the overall competitiveness of corporations. But is this endless cycle of fluctuation really so bad for America? Might something positive be going on in the economy as a result of it?

In this penetrating work, three esteemed economists seek to answer these questions by exploring the real impact of volatility on American workers and businesses alike. According to the authors, while any number of events—shifts in consumer demand, changes in technology, mergers and acquisitions, or increased competition—can contribute to economic turbulence, our economy as a whole is, by and large, stronger for it, because these processes of creation and destruction make it more flexible and adaptable. The authors also acknowledge and document the adverse consequences of this turbulence on different groups of workers and firms and discuss the resulting policy challenges. Basing their argument on an up-close look into the dealings and practices of five key industries—financial services, retail food services, trucking, semiconductors, and software—the authors demonstrate the positive effects of turbulence on career paths, employee earnings, and firm performance.

The first substantial attempt to disentangle and make clear the complexities of this phenomenon in the United States, Economic Turbulence will be viewed as a major achievement and the centerpiece of any discussion on the subject for years to come.

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Editorial Reviews

Ray Marshall
Economic Turbulence improves our understanding of the complexities of turbulence, the defining characteristic of the modern American economy. Providing evidence based on new data sources and interviews, it offers valuable insights into the impact of turbulence on firms’ performance and survival rates, and workers’ job ladders, career paths, and wages. The study’s data confirm that the obvious is often wrong. Turbulence, the authors show, has different effects on various groups of workers and industries. This is an essential book for all decision makers and policy makers operating within our volatile economy.”
William W. Lewis
“One of the central issues facing the American economy is the creative destruction of jobs. The authors of Economic Turbulence do a wonderful job of looking at the real data and demonstrating that there are in fact both winners and losers in our economy. Much of the outcome depends on the flexibility of the companies that employ our workers. The authors are to be commended for tackling this profoundly complex issue and providing readers with clear and thoughtful analysis.”
James J. Heckman
“This book presents important new insights into the dynamics of the American labor market. It documents the consequences of the birth and death of firms on the wages and careers of workers. It examines the effectiveness of alternative personnel strategies by firms and search strategies by workers. A must-read for anyone interested in how the labor market actually works as opposed to popular but misleading journalistic depictions.”
Journal of Regional Science - Mitch Renkow
"A reasoned and comprehensive deconstruciton of the complexities of economic turbulence."
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226076324
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 10/1/2006
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 212
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Clair Brown is professor of economics and director of the Center for Work, Technology, and Society at the University of California, Berkeley. She is the author of American Standards of Living, 1918–1988 and a coauthor of Work and Pay in the United States and Japan. John Haltiwanger is professor of economics at the University of Maryland. He is a coauthor of Job Creation and Destruction and a coeditor of several volumes, including, most recently, Measuring Capital in the New Economy. Julia Lane is senior vice president and director of the Economics, Labor, and Population Department at the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago. She is a coauthor of Moving Up or Moving On and a coeditor of Confidentiality, Disclosure, and Data Access.

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Read an Excerpt

Economic Turbulence

Is a Volatile Economy Good for America?
By Clair Brown John Haltiwanger Julia Lane

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2006 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

Chapter One

Overview of the Book

It's better to be a dog in a peaceful time than be a man in a chaotic period. -Chinese proverb

The U.S. economy is both celebrated and reviled for its dynamism. New jobs are constantly created, new firms replace old, and the American economic model is the one adopted around the world. Yet its unceasing and turbulent change creates enormous angst about the loss of jobs, the loss of earnings, and the loss of competitiveness of American firms. At the same time that employment is at an all-time high, CNN reporter Lou Dobbs captures the national angst in his book, The Exporting of America.

What is the overall impact of this change on jobs, workers, and firms? Every week, in every part of the economy and in every corner of the country, some firms shut down and others start up, some jobs are created and others are destroyed, some workers are hired and others quit or are laid off. Giant Food, a fixture in the Washington, D.C., economy, is one example. It shut down its Maryland headquarters in May 2005 and laid off five hundred workers. The local news was full of stories about the demise of good middle-class jobs and how the local community would be hurt. But almost unnoticed in the verysame week was a small report that MOM (My Organic Market) was creating fifty new jobs by opening a new store in western Maryland. Of course, the nature of the news industry is to report on visible and traumatic events, which tend to be job losses, worker layoffs, and plant closings. Yet maybe small startups like MOM will turn into many more jobs, although added slowly and over time. And maybe workers laid off at Giant will end up with better jobs. It's also possible that MOM will fail and that workers at Giant will never land the kind of jobs that they had before.

Finding out what happens to jobs, workers, and firms-like Giant workers and workers at MOM's new store-is what this book is about. While stories point out the successes and traumas for individual businesses and in individual lives, decisions need to be based on facts. This book does just that. It uses new information to go beyond anecdotes and establish some facts about economic turbulence and its impact on things that people, and their politicians, worry about: firm survival, worker job ladders and career paths, and the future of middle-class incomes.

The book focuses on five industries that are familiar to all Americans: semiconductors, software, financial services, retail food, and trucking. These industries have been affected by the same sets of forces that have affected all industries in the economy, but to different degrees. The semiconductor industry has experienced rapid technological change combined with restructuring caused by the rise of foundries and startup fabless companies-semiconductor companies that outsource the actual manufacturing-combined with the proliferation of product markets. In software, small startup firms also have played a critical role in the explosion of new products and applications, and these startups are closely linked to dominant firms like Microsoft. In financial services, the range of changes has also been staggering. Regulatory restructuring increased competition both within and between sub-industries and led to industry consolidation during a period of massive technological change, including the introduction of the ATM, widespread use of call centers, and the introduction of online services. In food stores, changes in market structure have been enormous, with power retailers like Wal-Mart playing an increasingly large role. In trucking, deregulation has led to tremendous heterogeneity across firms as they pursue different business strategies and seek to serve different segments of the for-hire transportation market.

The five industries studied here include a wide range of different human resource practices. High-tech, high-skill industries such as semiconductors and software should have more skill development with lower turnover and higher wages than a low-skill service industry such as food stores and a low-skill infrastructure industry such as trucking, which differs again from a high-skill infrastructure service industry such as financial services.

The analysis in this book combines facts gleaned from studying millions of data points on millions of firms and workers, as well as from interviews with firms in each industry to answer some key questions.

1. How much turbulence is there and why does it happen?

2. What is the impact of economic turbulence on:

a. Firm performance and survival: What is the relationship between workforce quality, turnover, and firm survival?

b. Firm job ladders: What has happened to jobs within a firm? Is it still possible to land a good job that pays good initial earnings with good raises? What kinds of firms offer the best job ladders?

c. Worker career paths: What impact has economic turbulence had on workers' lifetime earnings and employment? How much impact does job loss have on a worker's earnings?

d. Wage distribution: What has happened to middle-, low-, and high-income jobs? Are there still "good" jobs? Do new firms pay more or less than the firms that fail?

The next sections provide a brief preview of the answers to these questions, which are discussed in much more detail in later chapters.

What is turbulence, why does it happen, and what is the impact?

Turbulence is the entire process of economic change: worker reallocation as workers change jobs and job reallocation from firms contracting and shutting down, to firms expanding and starting up. Chapter 2 spells this out in more detail, but the sheer amount of turbulence is staggering. In any given quarter, about one in four job matches either begins or ends, one in thirteen jobs is created or destroyed, and one in twenty establishments closes or is born. Why does it happen? Some turbulence reflects the natural selection processes, and some reflects the fundamental changes in the economy, like globalization, technological change, and deregulation.

Dynamic Selection of Workers

The refrain to a well-known song begins "Take this job and shove it," and one of the most famous lines in television is "You're fired." Put more prosaically, turbulence can be caused by a shuffling of workers across jobs. Firms will hire workers, and workers will accept jobs, but then one or both sides will decide that the job match isn't right. The worker then leaves and is replaced by someone else. In a lot of low-wage industries, like the retail food industry, this worker reallocation is quite high because the skills required are easily learned and it is easy to replace workers once they leave. In a lot of high-wage industries, like the semiconductor industry, worker reallocation is lower because the costs of replacement are high.

Wal-Mart has made headlines both because of its low prices and because of its low wages. Other firms, like Costco, have workers lining up to work for them. Different firms, even within the same industry, can have different levels of worker turnover simply because firms choose different personnel strategies. This means that different firms have different levels of wages and different amounts of worker turnover. An article in the Seattle Times pointed out the differences between Costco and Wal-Mart:

A cashier at Costco can make more than $40,000 annually within four years. The average store manager makes $107,000, with a crack at $40,000 in performance bonuses on top. The company also pays hourly workers annual bonuses from $4,000 to $7,000. No wonder they stick around: Turnover at Costco is less than a third the industry average.

Costco follows a high-wage, low-turnover strategy, while Sam's Club, owned by Wal-Mart, has substantially higher turnover and lower wages. The net impact on overall economic turbulence can be substantial: Costco has become one of the ten largest retailers worldwide and has outstripped Sam's Club in terms of employment, which has had the result of lowering worker turnover in the industry.

Dynamic Selection of Firms

PanAm, Montgomery Ward, Bethlehem Steel. There is a long list of firms that have gone out of business in recent years, with an equally long list of new ones. Turbulence can result from new, more productive firms replacing old, less productive ones, even within the same industry. This process, which Joseph Schumpeter called "creative destruction," means that jobs get reallocated from one set of firms to another, and accounts for a large fraction of aggregate (industry) productivity growth. In a vivid example of this, some call centers can be closed by firms like Capital One and JPMorgan Chase in the very same city-Tampa Bay-at the very same time that firms like HSBC are opening them.

This turbulent selection process means that economic growth in the U.S. is unsteady and complex. There is much trial and error in companies searching for the "right" way of doing business-the right technology, the right market niche, and the right workforce. As a result, most turbulence occurs within industries: even though more than one in ten jobs are created and destroyed every year in the U.S. economy, only about 10 percent result in employment growing or shrinking across industries.

However, there are big differences across industries. In the software industry, for example, businesses enter and exit quite quickly, but entry and exit rates are much lower in the semiconductor industry.

External Shocks

CNN reporter Lou Dobbs's book Exporting America (2004) paints a vivid picture of the third reason for economic turbulence: there are fundamental changes in the way in which goods and services are produced. He focuses on globalization, but others have lamented the impact of technological change and deregulation. Changes like these are much harder to measure in a systematic way, which is why our book focuses on an industry-by-industry analysis. As will become clear in chapter 3, globalization is a driving force in the software, semiconductor, and financial services industries with the relocation abroad of some design, manufacturing, and back office activities; technological change has been important in financial services industry, retail food, and semiconductors as is clear from the advent of ATM machines, scanning technology, and smaller, faster chips. And deregulation has had a major impact in the trucking and financial services industries.

A good way to understand how dramatic economic changes like these affect how business is done is to go and directly talk to firms in the industry. That is precisely what the researchers who contributed to this book did. They talked to dozens of firms in each industry using case study techniques that permitted them to describe very specifically the nature and type of external shocks in each industry.

The combination of this approach and the direct measurement of job and worker reallocation and firm entry and exit can lead to a very different view of the world than one gets by reading the newspaper. To take one example, Austin, Texas, has been featured as an example of the negative impact of globalization because semiconductor employment in that city dropped in four years by about sixteen thousand workers, and one-half of its major semiconductor factories closed. However, the facts do not show that Austin's experience is representative of the industry. The data show that the number of jobs in the semiconductor industry has actually increased, and case study evidence suggests that Austin's job loss was other cities' job gain because the structure of the industry changed substantially.

The Impact

Some things are known about the impact of economic turbulence, but much is not. To start with, not much is known about the relationship between economic turbulence and economic growth. Is the shuffling of jobs across firms and workers across jobs efficient? Does it contribute to economic growth? Chapter 4 begins to answer this question by showing the relationship between the reallocation of workers with varying levels of skill to different types of firms and workers' earnings and firms' performance.

Not much is known about the relationship between economic turbulence and either the job ladders provided by firms or the career paths of workers. Chapter 5 examines the impact of economic turbulence on job ladders by examining the impact of working for high-turnover and low-turnover firms, or for expanding and shrinking firms, on workers' earnings and earnings growth. Chapter 6 looks at how much job change there is in different industries and examines the impact of job change on worker career paths.

Finally, not much is known about the impact of economic turbulence on the earnings distribution, particularly what has happened to low-income, middle-income, and high- income jobs. A popular concern is that "good" jobs have been lost because the old high-paying firms have been replaced by new firms that pay much less. Chapter 7 examines the evidence on this.

A Preview of the Rest of the Book

Chapter 2 provides an overview of the amount of economic turbulence in the economy,) and chapter 3 surveys the economic change sweeping the five industries. Chapters 4 through 7 are analytical; they discuss the impact of economic turbulence on firms, on firm job ladders, on worker career paths, and on the earnings distribution, respectively. Chapter 8 gives an idea of how the information in the book, and the sources that are used here, can be used in policy analysis. The data appendices provide the background material, including information about the new and rich databases linking outcomes for firms and workers, that underlies the analysis and discussion in this book.

THE IMPACT OF ECONOMIC TURBULENCE ON FIRMS. Firms' survival depends on how they organize themselves. Firms behave differently, and these differences matter for their performance and survival. Different firms organize themselves differently, have different levels of workforce quality and workforce turnover, and these differences have significant effects on firm performance. High-productivity businesses have a large share of high-skill workers, with either general skills or experience, and also have low turnover, or churning, of workers. All of these factors independently affect firm survival-businesses with high productivity, low churning, and high skill (especially general skills) are more likely to survive. There are substantial differences across industries-one size does not fit all. For example, low worker turnover is especially important in the semiconductor industry, and having a highly skilled workforce is especially important in the trucking industry. New businesses have a disproportionately important impact in changing production methods, which deserves an important role in the study of entrepreneurship.


Excerpted from Economic Turbulence by Clair Brown John Haltiwanger Julia Lane Copyright © 2006 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Table of Contents

1. Overview of the Book
2. Economic Turbulence: What, Who, and How Much?
3. The Industries
4. Firms, Their Workers, and Their Survival
5. Firm Turbulence and Job Ladders
6. Turbulence and Worker Career Paths
7. Economic Turbulence and Middle-Income Jobs
8. Conclusions and Implications for Policy
Appendix A: The Data
Appendix B: Chapter 4 Background
Appendix C: Chapters 5 and 6 Background
Appendix D: Chapter 7 Background

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