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The nature of countercyclical income risk

  • Fatih Guvenen
  • Serdar Ozkan
  • Jae Song

This paper studies the nature of business cycle variation in individual earnings risk using a confidential dataset from the U.S. Social Security Administration, which contains (uncapped) earnings histories for millions of individuals. The base sample is a nationally representative panel containing 10 percent of all U.S. males from 1978 to 2010. We use these data to decompose individual earnings growth during recessions into “between-group” and “within-group” components. We begin with the behavior of within-group shocks. Contrary to past research, we do not find the variance of idiosyncratic earnings shocks to be countercyclical. Instead, it is the left-skewness of shocks that is strongly countercyclical. That is, during recessions, the upper end of the shock distribution collapses—large upward earnings movements become less likely—whereas the bottom end expands—large drops in earnings become more likely. Thus, while the dispersion of shocks does not increase, shocks become more left-skewed and, hence, risky during recessions. Second, to study between-group differences, we group individuals based on several observable characteristics at the time a recession hits. One of these characteristics—the average earnings of an individual at the beginning of a business cycle episode—proves to be an especially good predictor of fortunes during a recession: prime-age workers that enter a recession with high average earnings suffer substantially less compared with those who enter with low average earnings (which is not the case during expansions). Finally, we find that the cyclical nature of earnings risk is dramatically different for the top 1 percent compared with all other individuals—even relative to those in the top 2 to 5 percent.

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Paper provided by Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis in its series Staff Report with number 476.

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Date of creation: 2012
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Handle: RePEc:fip:fedmsr:476
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  1. Almut Balleer & Thijs van Rens, 2008. "Skill-biased technological change and the business cycle," Economics Working Papers 1079, Department of Economics and Business, Universitat Pompeu Fabra, revised May 2012.
  2. Bönke, Timm & Giesecke, Matthias & Lüthen, Holger, 2015. "The dynamics of earnings in Germany: Evidence from social security records," Discussion Papers 2015/26, Free University Berlin, School of Business & Economics.
  3. Katharine G. Abraham & Lawrence F. Katz, 1984. "Cyclical Unemployment: Sectoral Shifts or Aggregate Disturbances?," NBER Working Papers 1410, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  4. Constantinides,George & Duffie,Darrel, 1992. "Asset pricing with heterogeneous consumers," Discussion Paper Serie A 381, University of Bonn, Germany.
  5. Mankiw, N. Gregory, 1986. "The equity premium and the concentration of aggregate shocks," Journal of Financial Economics, Elsevier, vol. 17(1), pages 211-219, September.
  6. CASTRO, Rui & COEN-PIRANI, Daniele, 2005. "Why Have Aggregate Skilled Hours Become So Cyclical Since the Mid-1980's?," Cahiers de recherche 2005-19, Universite de Montreal, Departement de sciences economiques.
  7. Rui Castro & Daniele Coen-Pirani, . "Why Have Aggregate Skilled Hours," GSIA Working Papers 2006-E27, Carnegie Mellon University, Tepper School of Business.
  8. Sam Schulhofer-Wohl, 2011. "Heterogeneity and tests of risk sharing," Staff Report 462, Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis.
  9. Karen E. Dynan & Douglas W. Elmendorf & Daniel E. Sichel, 2007. "The evolution of household income volatility," Finance and Economics Discussion Series 2007-61, Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (U.S.).
  10. Lilien, David M, 1982. "Sectoral Shifts and Cyclical Unemployment," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 90(4), pages 777-93, August.
  11. Kjetil Storesletten & Chris I. Telmer & Amir Yaron, 2004. "Cyclical Dynamics in Idiosyncratic Labor Market Risk," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 112(3), pages 695-717, June.
  12. Sabelhaus, John & Song, Jae, 2010. "The great moderation in micro labor earnings," Journal of Monetary Economics, Elsevier, vol. 57(4), pages 391-403, May.
  13. Wojciech Kopczuk & Emmanuel Saez & Jae Song, 2010. "Earnings Inequality and Mobility in the United States: Evidence from Social Security Data Since 1937," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 125(1), pages 91-128.
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