Stick yourself in a room with Bill Gates, and the room's average net worth will be around $25 billion. This, though, tells you nothing useful.
Yet we do this kind of stuff all the time. A failure of journalism, particularly business journalism, is the tendency to lump complex things into singular groups, as if everything were a monolith. We talk about the economy. The stock market. The unemployment rate. The consumer.
There's really no such thing. All of these topics are made up of incredibly diverse parts so skewed that averages become misleading.
The different faces of unemployment
Take unemployment. When we talk about unemployment, we typically look at the average rate -- currently 9.4%. This, though, doesn't tell us much. When broken up into different groups by, say, the duration of unemployment, a more accurate -- and fascinating -- view of the jobless emerges.
Sources: Bureau of Labor Statistics, author's calculations.
Two points should stick out:
- For those out of work less than five weeks, unemployment is actually lower today than it was in 2000, when the economy was booming and average unemployment was at a generational low.
- For those out of work for more than 26 weeks, unemployment is eight times as high today as it was in 2000.
This adds an important caveat to the average unemployment rate that we so frequently reference: The rate is heavily skewed by the chronically unemployed -- a relatively small group, most of who lost their jobs in 2008 and 2009 and have remained unemployed since. The majority of those who have become jobless more recently are finding new work fairly quickly, just as they would in a normal economy. If you survived the brief layoff massacre of 2008-2009, odds are your job prospects are quite good today.
That isn't usually how it works. Consider what New York Times columnist David Leonhardt found last summer: "Over the course of 1980, 18.1 percent of the labor force was unemployed at some point. In 2008, the first year of this slump, only 13.2 percent was."
Or look at wages. Wages normally drop during recessions as job seekers lose bargaining power over employers. Not this time. Real average hourly pay is up over 5% since 2007. Nominal wages are up, too. Not only did a large majority experience uninterrupted employment during the recession, but most did so while receiving a raise. As a result, real consumer spending recently hit an all-time high even as unemployment and the savings rate have surged.
Or even look at geography. The average unemployment rate is 9.4%, but the variance by state ranges from 3.8% in North Dakota to 14.3% in Nevada. Looking at the state-by-state breakdown of unemployment tells a clear story: States that went berserk in residential real estate and those reliant on the ever-downsizing General Motors (NYSE: GM ) are doing abysmally, while a good portion of everyone else isn't doing half bad.
The same is true for corporate earnings. From mid-2009 to mid-2010, about half of the S&P 500 posted higher -- much higher -- earnings than before the recession began in 2007. Earnings for the other half fell off a cliff.
A tale of two labor markets
What this all shows is an overlooked feature of the past three years: The economy became bifurcated. Most people survived the recession just fine, but a relatively small group of folks have been hit unimaginably hard. The averages that we pay so much attention to have become meaningless, as the majority of us are clustered on polar ends of the scale.
There are two ways to look at this. One is to focus on the 10% to 20% of those whom the recession has been particularly harsh on. The other is to focus on the 80% to 90% who are doing pretty well -- maybe even better than ever. When we do manage to look away from the averages, most of our attention is on the former group -- if only because it's exciting and emotional. It's common for bears to then anchor to this group and question the recovery's legitimacy. How can the stock market be rising and corporate profits booming when I just read a story about a guy who's been unemployed for two years?
This view is both wrong and unhealthy. The strong 80% to 90% are working, earning, spending, saving, innovating, and healing the economy, and they're doing a good job of it. They're the ones driving the recovery. Focus on these folks, and things aren't nearly as bad as they look.
Check back every Tuesday and Friday for Morgan Housel's columns on finance and economics.