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Visualizing the Link Between Unemployment and Recessions

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history of unemployment and recessions

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The Surprising Link Between Unemployment and Recessions

The U.S. labor market is having a strong start to 2023, adding 504,000 nonfarm payrolls in January, and 311,000 in February.

Both figures surpassed analyst expectations by a wide margin, and in January, the unemployment rate hit a 53-year low of 3.4%. With the recent release of February’s numbers, unemployment is now reported at a slightly higher 3.6%.

A low unemployment rate is a classic sign of a strong economy. However, as this visualization shows, unemployment often reaches a cyclical low point right before a recession materializes.

Reasons for the Trend

In an interview regarding the January jobs data, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen made a bold statement:

You don’t have a recession when you have 500,000 jobs and the lowest unemployment rate in more than 50 years

While there’s nothing wrong with this assessment, the trend we’ve highlighted suggests that Yellen may need to backtrack in the near future. So why do recessions tend to begin after unemployment bottoms out?

The Economic Cycle

The economic cycle refers to the economy’s natural tendency to fluctuate between periods of growth and recession.

This can be thought of similarly to the four seasons in a year. An economy expands (spring), reaches a peak (summer), begins to contract (fall), then hits a trough (winter).

With this in mind, it’s reasonable to assume that a cyclical low in the unemployment rate (peak employment) is simply a sign that the economy has reached a high point.

Monetary Policy

During periods of low unemployment, employers may have a harder time finding workers. This forces them to offer higher wages, which can contribute to inflation.

For context, consider the labor shortage that emerged following the COVID-19 pandemic. We can see that U.S. wage growth (represented by a three-month moving average) has climbed substantially, and has held above 6% since March 2022.

The Federal Reserve, whose mandate is to ensure price stability, will take measures to prevent inflation from climbing too far. In practice, this involves raising interest rates, which makes borrowing more expensive and dampens economic activity. Companies are less likely to expand, reducing investment and cutting jobs. Consumers, on the other hand, reduce the amount of large purchases they make.

Because of these reactions, some believe that aggressive rate hikes by the Fed can either cause a recession, or make them worse. This is supported by recent research, which found that since 1950, central banks have been unable to slow inflation without a recession occurring shortly after.

Politicians Clash With Economists

The Fed has raised interest rates at an unprecedented pace since March 2022 to combat high inflation.

More recently, Fed Chairman Jerome Powell warned that interest rates could be raised even higher than originally expected if inflation continues above target. Senator Elizabeth Warren expressed concern that this would cost Americans their jobs, and ultimately, cause a recession.

According to the Fed’s own report, if you continue raising interest rates as you plan, unemployment will be 4.6% by the end of the year.
– Elizabeth Warren

Powell remains committed to bringing down inflation, but with the recent failures of Silicon Valley Bank and Signature Bank, some analysts believe there could be a pause coming in interest rate hikes.

Editor’s note: just after publication of this article, it was confirmed that U.S. interest rates were hiked by 25 basis points (bps) by the Federal Reserve.

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U.S. Debt Interest Payments Reach $1 Trillion

U.S. debt interest payments have surged past the $1 trillion dollar mark, amid high interest rates and an ever-expanding debt burden.

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This line chart shows U.S. debt interest payments over modern history.

U.S. Debt Interest Payments Reach $1 Trillion

This was originally posted on our Voronoi app. Download the app for free on iOS or Android and discover incredible data-driven charts from a variety of trusted sources.

The cost of paying for America’s national debt crossed the $1 trillion dollar mark in 2023, driven by high interest rates and a record $34 trillion mountain of debt.

Over the last decade, U.S. debt interest payments have more than doubled amid vast government spending during the pandemic crisis. As debt payments continue to soar, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) reported that debt servicing costs surpassed defense spending for the first time ever this year.

This graphic shows the sharp rise in U.S. debt payments, based on data from the Federal Reserve.

A $1 Trillion Interest Bill, and Growing

Below, we show how U.S. debt interest payments have risen at a faster pace than at another time in modern history:

DateInterest PaymentsU.S. National Debt
2023$1.0T$34.0T
2022$830B$31.4T
2021$612B$29.6T
2020$518B$27.7T
2019$564B$23.2T
2018$571B$22.0T
2017$493B$20.5T
2016$460B$20.0T
2015$435B$18.9T
2014$442B$18.1T
2013$425B$17.2T
2012$417B$16.4T
2011$433B$15.2T
2010$400B$14.0T
2009$354B$12.3T
2008$380B$10.7T
2007$414B$9.2T
2006$387B$8.7T
2005$355B$8.2T
2004$318B$7.6T
2003$294B$7.0T
2002$298B$6.4T
2001$318B$5.9T
2000$353B$5.7T
1999$353B$5.8T
1998$360B$5.6T
1997$368B$5.5T
1996$362B$5.3T
1995$357B$5.0T
1994$334B$4.8T
1993$311B$4.5T
1992$306B$4.2T
1991$308B$3.8T
1990$298B$3.4T
1989$275B$3.0T
1988$254B$2.7T
1987$240B$2.4T
1986$225B$2.2T
1985$219B$1.9T
1984$205B$1.7T
1983$176B$1.4T
1982$157B$1.2T
1981$142B$1.0T
1980$113B$930.2B
1979$96B$845.1B
1978$84B$789.2B
1977$69B$718.9B
1976$61B$653.5B
1975$55B$576.6B
1974$50B$492.7B
1973$45B$469.1B
1972$39B$448.5B
1971$36B$424.1B
1970$35B$389.2B
1969$30B$368.2B
1968$25B$358.0B
1967$23B$344.7B
1966$21B$329.3B

Interest payments represent seasonally adjusted annual rate at the end of Q4.

At current rates, the U.S. national debt is growing by a remarkable $1 trillion about every 100 days, equal to roughly $3.6 trillion per year.

As the national debt has ballooned, debt payments even exceeded Medicaid outlays in 2023—one of the government’s largest expenditures. On average, the U.S. spent more than $2 billion per day on interest costs last year. Going further, the U.S. government is projected to spend a historic $12.4 trillion on interest payments over the next decade, averaging about $37,100 per American.

Exacerbating matters is that the U.S. is running a steep deficit, which stood at $1.1 trillion for the first six months of fiscal 2024. This has accelerated due to the 43% increase in debt servicing costs along with a $31 billion dollar increase in defense spending from a year earlier. Additionally, a $30 billion increase in funding for the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation in light of the regional banking crisis last year was a major contributor to the deficit increase.

Overall, the CBO forecasts that roughly 75% of the federal deficit’s increase will be due to interest costs by 2034.

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