The soaring U.S. unemployment rate might not match the peak of 25% seen during the Great Depression of the 1930s, but it could come uncomfortably close in the next few months.
More than 10 million people applied for unemployment benefits in the last two weeks of March after being thrown out of work by the business shutdowns due the coronavirus pandemic. And the numbers are expecting to keep surging, with some economists predicting the loss of 20 million jobs — or more.
It will be at least another month or two, however, before the official unemployment rate starts to reflect the full devastation in the labor market.
The unemployment rate in March rose to 4.4% from a 50-year low of 3.5% in February, but about 1.4 million people told the Labor Department they were employed but not at work “for other reasons.” Adjusted for inaccuracies in how some households responded to the government’s monthly survey the jobless rate climbed to about 5.4%.
Yet if all the recent job losses were factored in, the unemployment rate was probably twice as high.
“If we assume that every person who was laid off or furloughed over those two weeks immediately applied for unemployment insurance, then the unemployment rate at the beginning of this week was around 10.5%,” said economist Michael Farren, a research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.
A rate that high would already exceed the 10% peak during the worst of the 2007-2009 Great Recession. And it wouldn’t be long before it topped the previous post-World War Two high of 10.8% in 1982. Accurate records only go back to 1948.
How high can it go?
If 20 million to 25 million people lost their jobs in the next two months, the unemployment rate could climb to around 16%, some economists estimate, but others think that figure would be too low.
“We can expect the nadir for unemployment will be a jobless rate of 20% or more,” said a pessimistic Robert Frick, corporate economist at Navy Federal Credit Union.
There is one big caveat, though.
The official unemployment rate, even one that rises to 15% or higher, might actually underestimate how many people are really out of work. That’s because millions of workers might continue to collect checks from their employers even though they aren’t doing anything.
How come? The recently passed $2.2 trillion federal-rescue package effectively pays many companies, particularly small businesses, to keep employees on payrolls and pay them accordingly. Businesses that do so would be allowed to receive government loans they don’t need to pay back.
The goal: Allow companies to restart quickly as the coronavirus pandemic starts to fade.
Still, the federal bailout “artificially lowers the number of people unemployed and the unemployment rate,” said economist Joel Naroff of Naroff Economic Advisors. “[W]e need a new ‘real unemployment rate measure.”
Expect economists to come up ways to guestimate the “real” unemployment rate, but it doesn’t really matter. Millions of Americans have lost their jobs and soon unemployment will reach historic levels.