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Markets in a Minute

Charted: Unemployment and Recessions Over 70 Years



This infographic is available as a poster.

Unemployment and Recessions

Unemployment and Recessions

This infographic is available as a poster.

Charting Unemployment and Recessions Over 70 Years

As of August 2022, the U.S. unemployment rate sits at 3.7%, below its 74-year average of 5.5%.

Why does this matter today? Employment factors heavily into whether economists determine the country is in a recession. In fact, in the last several decades, employment-related factors have some of the heaviest weightings when a recession determination is made.

In this Markets in a Minute from New York Life Investments, we look at unemployment and recessions since 1948.

Why Is the Unemployment Rate Important?

To start, let’s look at how unemployment affects the economy.

During low unemployment and a strong labor market, wages often increase. This is a central concern to the Federal Reserve as higher wages could spur more spending and notch up inflation.

To curb inflation, the central bank may increase interest rates. As the economy begins to feel the effects of rising interest rates, it may fall into a recession as the cost of capital increases and consumer spending slows.

Who Determines It’s a Recession?

A committee of eight economists at the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) in Massachusetts make the call, although often several months after a recession has happened. As a result, employment data often acts as a lagging indicator.

This committee of academics looks at a number of variables beyond two consecutive quarters of negative GDP growth. Other factors include:

  • Nonfarm payroll employment
  • Real personal income less transfers
  • Real personal consumption expenditures
  • Industrial production
  • Wholesale retail sales adjusted for price changes
  • Real GDP

A widespread decline in economic activity across the economy, as opposed to just one sector, is also considered.

Unemployment and Recessions Over History

Over the last 12 business cycles, the unemployment rate averaged 4.7% at the peak and 8.1% during the trough. The below table shows how the unemployment rate changed over various U.S. business cycles, with data from NBER:

Peak Month Unemployment RateTrough Month Unemployment Rate
Nov 19483.8%Oct 19497.9%
Jul 19532.6%May 19545.9%
Aug 19574.1%Apr 19587.4%
Apr 19605.2%Feb 19616.9%
Dec 19693.5%Nov 19705.9%
Nov 19734.8%Mar 19758.6%
Jan 19806.3%Jul 19807.8%
Jul 19817.2%Nov 198210.8%
Jul 19905.5%Mar 19916.8%
Mar 20014.3%Nov 20015.5%
Dec 20075.0%Jun 20099.5%
Feb 20203.5%Apr 202014.7%

In 1953, following post-WWII expansion, the unemployment rate fell to 2.6%, near record lows.

During this time, the economy faced strong consumer demand and high inflation after a period of prolonged low interest rates. To combat price pressures, the Federal Reserve increased interest rates in 1954, and the economy fell into recession. By May 1954, the unemployment rate more than doubled.

In 1981, the unemployment rate was high during both the peak of the cycle (7.2%) and the trough (10.8%) by late 1982. This marked the end of the 1970s stagflationary era, characterized by slow growth and high unemployment.

More recently, at the peak of the business cycle in 2020 the unemployment rate stood at 3.5%, closer to levels seen today.

Unemployment Today: A Double-Edged Sword

As of July 2022, the number of job vacancies is at 11.2 million, near record highs.

To reign in the inflationary pressures of the current job market—which saw year-over-year wage increases of 5.2% in both July and August—the Federal Reserve may take a more aggressive stance on interest rate hikes.

The good news is that labor force participation is increasing. As of August, labor force participation was within 1% of pre-pandemic levels, offering relief to the labor market supply. Higher labor force participation could lessen wage growth without unemployment levels having to rise. Since more people are competing for jobs, there is less leverage for salary negotiation.

Going further, one study shows that since the Great Financial Crisis, labor market participation has had a greater influence on wage growth than unemployment levels or job openings.

Against these opposing forces of higher job vacancies and higher labor market participation, the outlook for unemployment, along with its wider effects on the economy, remain unclear.

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Markets in a Minute

What is the Success Rate of Actively Managed Funds?

For actively managed funds, the odds of beating the market over the long run are like finding a needle in a haystack.



Actively Managed Funds

What is the Success Rate of Actively Managed Funds?

Over a 20-year period, 95% of large-cap actively managed funds have underperformed their benchmark.

The above graphic shows the performance of actively managed funds across a range of fund types, using data from S&P Global via Charlie Bilello.

Missing the Mark: Actively Managed Funds

Several factors present headwinds to actively managed funds.

  • Trading costs: First, fund managers will trade more often than passive funds. These in turn incur costs, impacting returns.
  • Cash holdings: Additionally, many of these funds hold a cash allocation of about 5% or more to capture market opportunities. Unlike active funds, their passive counterparts are often fully invested. Cash holdings can have the opposite effect than intended—dragging on overall returns.
  • Fees: Active funds can charge up to 1-2% in investment manager fees while funds that tracked an index passively charged just 0.12% on average in 2022. These additional costs add up over time.

Below, we show how active funds increasingly underperform against their benchmark over each time period.

Fund Type1 Year
% Underperformed
5 Year
% Underperformed
10 Year
% Underperformed
20 Year
% Underperformed
All Large-Cap 51879195
All Small-Cap 57718994
Large-Cap Growth 74869698
Large-Cap Value 59698587
Small-Cap Growth 80598597
Small-Cap Value 41819192
Real Estate 88627487

As we can see, 51% of all large-cap active mutual funds underperformed in a one-year period. That compares to 41% of small-cap value funds, which had the best chance of outperforming the benchmark annually. Also, an eye-opening 88% of real estate funds underperformed.

For context, Warren Buffett’s firm Berkshire Hathaway has beat the S&P 500 two-thirds of the time. Even the world’s top stock pickers have a hard time beating the market’s returns.

2020 Market Crash: A Case Study

How about active funds’ performance during a crisis?

While the case for actively managed funds is often stronger during a market downturn, a 2020 study shows how they continued to underperform the index.

Overall, 74% of over 3,600 active funds with $4.9 trillion in assets did worse than the S&P 500 during the 2020 market plunge.

Stage of 2020 CycleTime Period% Underperforming S&P 500
CrisisFeb 20 - Apr 30, 202074.2
CrashFeb 20 - Mar 23, 202063.5
RecoveryMar 24 - Apr 30, 202055.8
Pre-CrisisOct 1 2019 - Jan 31, 202067.1

Source: NBER

In better news, roughly half underperformed through the recovery, the best out of any market condition that was studied.

The Bigger Impact

Of course, some actively managed funds outperform.

Still, choosing the top funds year after year can be challenging. Also note that active fund managers typically only run a portfolio for four and a half years on average before someone new takes over, making it difficult to stick with a star manager for very long.

As lower returns accumulate over time, the impact of investing in active mutual funds can be striking. If an investor had a $100,000 portfolio and paid 2% in costs every year for 25 years, they would lose about $170,000 to fees if it earned 6% annually.

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Markets in a Minute

Ranked: The Largest Bond Markets in the World

The global bond market stands at $133 trillion in value. Here are the major players in bond markets worldwide.



The Largest Bond Markets in the World

The Largest Bond Markets in the World

In 2022, the global bond market totaled $133 trillion.

As one of the world’s largest capital markets, debt securities have grown sevenfold over the last 40 years. Fueling this growth are government and corporate debt sales across major economies and emerging markets. Over the last three years, China’s bond market has grown 13% annually.

Based on estimates from the Bank for International Statements, this graphic shows the largest bond markets in the world.

ℹ️ Total debt numbers here include both domestic and international debt securities in each particular country or region. BIS notes that international debt securities are issued outside the local market of the country where the borrower resides and cover eurobonds as well as foreign bonds, but exclude negotiable loans.

Ranked: The World’s Top Bond Markets

Valued at over $51 trillion, the U.S. has the largest bond market globally.

Government bonds made up the majority of its debt market, with over $26 trillion in securities outstanding. In 2022, the Federal government paid $534 billion in interest on this debt.

China is second, at 16% of the global total. Local commercial banks hold the greatest share of its outstanding bonds, while foreign ownership remains fairly low. Foreign interest in China’s bonds slowed in 2022 amid geopolitical tensions in Ukraine and lower yields.

Bond Market RankCountry / RegionTotal Debt OutstandingShare of Total Bond Market
1🇺🇸 U.S.$51.3T39%
2🇨🇳 China$20.9T16%
3🇯🇵 Japan$11.0T8%
4🇫🇷 France$4.4T3%
5🇬🇧 United Kingdom$4.3T3%
6🇨🇦 Canada$4.0T3%
7🇩🇪 Germany$3.7T3%
8🇮🇹 Italy$2.9T2%
9🇰🇾 Cayman Islands*$2.7T2%
10🇧🇷 Brazil*$2.4T2%
11🇰🇷 South Korea*$2.2T2%
12🇦🇺 Australia$2.2T2%
13🇳🇱 Netherlands$1.9T1%
14🇪🇸 Spain$1.9T1%
15🇮🇳 India*$1.3T1%
16🇮🇪 Ireland$1.0T1%
17🇲🇽 Mexico*$1.0T1%
18🇱🇺 Luxembourg$0.9T1%
19🇧🇪 Belgium$0.7T>1%
20🇷🇺 Russia*$0.7T>1%

*Represent countries where total debt securities were not reported by national authorities. These figures are the sum of domestic debt securities reported by national authorities and/or international debt securities compiled by BIS.
Data as of Q3 2022.

As the above table shows, Japan has the third biggest debt market. Japan’s central bank owns a massive share of its government bonds. Central bank ownership hit a record 50% as it tweaked its yield curve control policy that was introduced in 2016. The policy was designed to help boost inflation and prevent interest rates from falling. As inflation began to rise in 2022 and bond investors began selling, it had to increase its yield to spur demand and liquidity. The adjustment sent shockwaves through financial markets.

In Europe, France is home to the largest bond market at $4.4 trillion in total debt, surpassing the United Kingdom by roughly $150 billion.

Banks: A Major Buyer in Bond Markets

Like central banks around the world, commercial banks are key players in bond markets.

In fact, commercial banks are among the top three buyers of U.S. government debt. This is because commercial banks will reinvest client deposits into interest-bearing securities. These often include U.S. Treasuries, which are highly liquid and one of the safest assets globally.

As we can see in the chart below, the banking sector often surpasses an economy’s total GDP.

Banking Sector

As interest rates have risen sharply since 2022, the price of bonds has been pushed down, given their inverse relationship. This has raised questions about what type of bonds banks hold.

In the U.S., commercial banks hold $4.2 trillion in Treasury bonds and other government securities. For large U.S. banks, these holdings account for almost 24% of assets on average. They make up an average 15% of assets for small banks in 2023. Since mid-2022, small banks have reduced their bond holdings due to interest rate increases.

As higher rates reverberate across the banking system and wider economy, it may expose further strains on global bond markets which have expanded rapidly in an era of dovish monetary policy and ultra-low interest rates.

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