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The Employment Outlook Debate

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March 10. 2010

The February non-farm payrolls report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics boosted the optimism of many commentators who follow the unemployment crisis.  Nevertheless, predictions about the employment outlook for the remainder of 2010 are extremely conflicting.  Surfing around the web will give you completely divergent prognostications, usually depending on the locale.  Here are some examples:  Los Angeles job outlook expected to improve (Los Angeles Times); Atlanta employers expect to hold payrolls steady — neither hiring nor firing (Atlanta Journal-Constitution) Boston employers expected to add jobs (The Boston Globe — quoting a Manpower report); Employers still skittish on hiring (CNNMoney.com); Columbus hiring prospects for upcoming quarter weaken slightly (ledger-inquirer.com).

In an essay for the istockanalyst.com website, Ockham Research began by pointing out that 8.4 million jobs have been lost since the recession began in December of 2007.  The fact that the S&P 500 has advanced 70% during this time has encouraged pundits to believe in a jobless recovery.  After noting Senator Harry Reid’s odd reaction to the February non-farm payrolls report:  “Only 36,000 people lost their jobs today, which is really good” — the piece continued:

After that blunder, the report on Bloomberg.com struck us in just how optimistic it is towards March’s employment data, thanks in part to temporary hiring for census workers which could add more than 100,000 jobs this month.  However, a strategist for Goldman Sachs (GS) estimated 275,000 job gains; another economist predicted “easily” reaching 300,000.  Chief  US economist at Deutsche Bank (DB) took the prize though, saying that a gain of 450,000 “can’t be ruled out.”

The Ockham Research piece again emphasized that many of the optimistic views are based on the addition of census workers to the rolls of the employed, despite the fact that these are temporary positions, eventually disappearing in mid-summer.  Ockham Research was also dismissive of the inclusion of workers added to payrolls simply because of summertime seasonal employment opportunities.  They concluded on this note:

Of course, no one can predict the future and predictions about macroeconomic data points are extremely thorny.  As much as we would like to believe they are correct and job growth will return in robust fashion, we are a bit skeptical.  They have raised the bar for expectations, so it will be extremely interesting to see the market’s reaction when the data comes in.

The Seeking Alpha website featured a posting by David Goldman which began with these remarks:

.  .  .  it would be hard to envision significant declines in payroll employment from already miserable levels.  But the sort of things that generate jobs — venture capital investments, small business expansion, and so forth — are as dead as the Monty Python parrot.

Mr. Goldman focused on the February Small Business Confidence report by Discover Card, which revealed that America’s small business owners remained cautious about the economy during February as they expected economic conditions to stay largely the same during the coming months.  At the close of the piece, we are reminded of its title, “Where Will the Jobs Come From?”   —

With the continuing catastrophe in both the residential and commercial real estate markets, small business capital has imploded.  And small business surely isn’t getting help from the banking system, where loans still are contracting at the fastest pace on record.

Two economists for the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, Mary Daly and Bart Hobijn, recently published a research paper addressing the surprisingly high unemployment rate for 2009, based on a principle known as Okun’s Law.  They explained it this way:

Okun’s law tells us that, for every 2% that real GDP falls below its trend, we will see a 1% increase in the unemployment rate.  Since real GDP was almost flat in 2009 while its trend level increased by 3%, the unemployment rate under Okun’s law should have increased by 1.5 percentage points.  Instead it rose by 3 percentage points, more than twice the predicted increase.

I will now fast-forward to their conclusion:

The data presented here consistently point to unusually strong productivity growth as the main driver of the departure from Okun’s law in 2009.  A key question that remains unanswered by this analysis is whether this pattern will continue in 2010.  Most forecasters assume that the economy will return to its historical path this year, following Okun’s two-to-one ratio of changes in GDP and changes in unemployment.  Under this scenario, unemployment would begin to edge down this year as the economy recovers and gains momentum.  But there are clearly risks to this view.            .  .   .

Anecdotal evidence suggests that efforts to contain costs and remain nimble in the face of uncertainty have become a fixture in business strategy.  If productivity keeps on growing at an above-average pace, then unemployment forecasts based on Okun’s law could continue to be overly optimistic.

So there you have it.  Pick your favorite prediction and run with it.  The Manpower Employment Outlook Survey seems to have a reasonable take on expectations for the second quarter of 2010:

“U.S. hiring activity is still in neutral, but revving toward first gear,” said Jonas Prising, Manpower president of the Americas.  “It’s moving in the right direction, but it will take some time, with no major speed bumps, before it can accelerate.”

Let’s just hope the road ahead doesn’t have any sinkholes.



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