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Just In Time For Labor Day

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September 7, 2009

Friday’s report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, concerning non-farm payrolls for the month of August, left many people squirming.  The “green shoots” crowd usually has no trouble cherry-picking through the monthly BLS reports for something they can spin into happy-sounding news, utilizing the “not as bad as expected” approach.  Nevertheless, the August BLS report portrayed unpleasant conditions, not only for the unemployed but for those currently working full-time in the labor force, as well.

The current unemployment level is a living nightmare for the unemployed individuals and their families.  It also brings some degree of discomfort (although less significant) to those people with money to invest, who are waiting for signs of a sustainable economic upturn before heading back out from the sidelines and into the equities markets.  Both groups got an unvarnished look at the latest BLS data from Dave Rosenberg, Chief Economist at Gluskin Sheff in Toronto.  His September 4 economic commentary: Lunch with Dave, gave us a thorough analysis of the BLS report:

While the Obama economics team is pulling rabbits out of the hat to revive autos and housing, there is nothing they can really do about employment; barring legislation that would prevent companies from continuing to adjust their staffing requirements to the new world order of credit contraction. While nonfarm payrolls were basically in line with the consensus, declining 216,000 in August, there were downward revisions of 49,000 and the details were simply awful.  The fact that 65% of companies are still in the process of cutting their staff loads is quite disturbing — even manufacturing employment fell 63,000 in August, to its lowest level since April 1941 (!), despite the inventory replenishment in the automotive sector and all the excitement over the recent 50+ print in the ballyhooed ISM index.  The fact that temp agency employment is still declining, albeit at a slower pace, alongside the flat workweek and jobless claims stuck at 570,000, are all foreshadowing continued weakness in the labour market ahead.  Until we see signs of a sustained turnaround in the jobs market all bets are off over the sustainability of any economic recovery.

Looking at the details of the Household Survey, Rosenberg found “a rather alarming picture” of what is happening in the labor market:

First, employment in this survey showed a plunge of 392,000, but that number was flattered by a surge in self-employment (whether these newly minted consultants were making any money is another story) as wage & salary workers (the ones that work at companies, big and small) plunged 637,000 — the largest decline since March (when the stock market was testing its lows for the cycle).  As an aside, the Bureau of Labor Statistics also publishes a number from the Household survey that is comparable to the nonfarm survey (dubbed the population and payroll-adjusted Household number), and on this basis, employment sank — brace yourself — by over 1 million, which is unprecedented.  We shall see if the nattering nabobs of positivity discuss that particular statistic in their post-payroll assessments; we are not exactly holding our breath.

Second, the unemployment rate jumped to 9.7% from 9.4% in July, the highest since June 1983 and at the pace it is rising, it will pierce the post-WWII high of 10.8% in time for next year’s midterm election.  And, this has nothing to do with a swelling labour force, which normally accompanies a turnaround in the jobs market — the ranks of the unemployed surged 466,000 last month.

The language of the BLS report itself on this subject demonstrates how the current unemployment crisis is not an “equal opportunity” phenomenon:

Among the major worker groups, the unemployment rates for adult men (10.1 percent), whites (8.9 percent), and Hispanics (13.0 percent) rose in August.  The jobless rates for adult women (7.6 percent), teenagers (25.5 percent), and blacks (15.1 percent) were little changed over the month.  The unemployment rate for Asians was 7.5 percent, not seasonally adjusted. (See tables A-1, A-2, and A-3.)The civilian labor force participation rate remained at 65.5 percent in August.  The employment population ratio, at 59.2 percent, edged down over the month and has declined by 3.5 percentage points since the recession began in December 2007.

Dave Rosenberg added the painful reminder that the unemployment picture always lags behind the end of a recession.  How far behind?  Look at this:

Jobless claims started off August at 554k and closed the month at 570k.  So it seems as though we enter September with the prospect of yet another month of declining payrolls because claims have to break decisively below 500k before jobs stop vanishing and below 400k before the unemployment rate stops rising.  Remember, in the early 1990s credit crunch the recession ended in March 1991 and yet the unemployment rate did not peak until June 1992; and in the last cycle, which was an asset deflation phase, the recession ended in November 2001 and yet the jobless rate did not peak until June 2003. So in the last two cycles, it took 15-20 months for the unemployment rate to peak even after the economic downturn officially ended.

At least Mr. Rosenberg had some constructive criticism for the current administration’s efforts at job creation.  It’s one thing to just yell:  “FAIL” and yet, quite another to put some thought into what needs to be done:

Our advice to the Obama team would be to create and nurture a fiscal backdrop that tackles this jobs crisis with some permanent solutions rather than recurring populist short-term fiscal goodies that are only inducing households to add to their burdensome debt loads with no long-term multiplier impacts.  The problem is not that we have an insufficient number of vehicles on the road or homes on the market; the problem is that we have insufficient labour demand.

As for those who are still in the labor force, the situation is also deteriorating, rather than improving.  A report by Carlos Torres for Bloomberg News noted that the “real number” for unemployment is 16.8 percent.  Beyond that, the work week for factory employees is currently 39.8 hours.  It will have to reach 41 hours before we even get a chance to see some changes:

The index of total hours worked, which takes into account changes in payrolls and the workweek, fell 0.3 percent last month to the lowest level since 2003.

“It tells us payrolls aren’t turning positive any time soon,” Joseph LaVorgna, chief  U.S.  economist at Deutsche Bank Securities Inc. in New York, said on a conference call yesterday, referring to the workweek figures. “This wasn’t a friendly report.”

A measure of unemployment, which includes the part-time workers who would prefer a full-time position and people who want work but have given up looking, reached 16.8 percent last month, the highest level in data going back to 1994.

The workweek for factory employees, which held at 39.8 hours last month, leads total payrolls by about three months, LaVorgna said.  Once it reaches at least 41 hours and once payrolls for temporary workers stabilize, then an increase in total employment can be expected months later, he said.

Payrolls for temporary workers started turning down in January 2007, 11 months before the recession began.  They dropped by another 6,500 workers in August, the government’s report showed yesterday.

In other words, the decline in temporary worker payrolls preceded the recession by 11 months!  Worse yet, the payrolls for temporary workers must stabilize before an increase in total employment comes along “months later”.

Meanwhile, at the Financial Times, Sarah O’Connor reports that many people who have jobs must still rely on food stamps to survive:

The number of working Americans turning to free government food stamps has surged as their hours and wages erode, in a stark sign that the recession is inflicting pain on the employed as well as the newly jobless.

*   *   *

The food stamp data suggest that “the labour market problems are more significant than you would expect, given just the unemployment rate”, said John Silvia, chief economist at Wells Fargo.  “For me it suggests the consumer is not going to rebound or contribute to economic growth for the next year, as the consumer would in a traditional economic recovery.”

Consumer spending has traditionally been the engine of the US economy, making up about two thirds of GDP.  Economists fear that people may be unwilling to resume that role.

That conclusion is exactly what the “green shoots” enthusiasts don’t seem to understand.  Those who are well-off enough to pay for their groceries with real money will be focused on paying down their credit cards and saving money before they go out to buy another television or jet ski.  If these people have little or no “discretionary income”, then the High Frequency Trading computers on Wall Street can talk to each other all they want — but the stock values will not go up.

Happy Labor Day!

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Jobs And Propaganda

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August 10, 2009

On Friday, Wall Street celebrated a “less bad” Employment Situation Report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.  Although the consensus estimate for jobs lost during the month of July was 345,000 — the report from the BLS on Friday recited that non-farm payrolls decreased by 247,000.  You may have heard the BLS referred to as the “Bureau of Lies and Statistics” by those who see BLS reports as “cooked data” for propaganda purposes.  Criticism of the spin given to the report could be found at the Zero Hedge website, which featured an entry with the title:  “The Truth Behind Today’s BLS Report” with quotes from such authorities as consulting economist John Williams and economist David Rosenberg.  Mr. Rosenberg was quoted as providing this caveat:

It may be dangerous to extrapolate today’s report into a view that we are about to turn the corner on the job market front.

At The Atlantic Online, Daniel Indiviglio wrote a piece entitled:  “Did the Unemployment Rate Really Go Down?”  Among his points were these:

As a recession drags on for this long, and people are unable to find jobs, they begin leaving the workforce.  They become discouraged regarding job prospects.  BLS offers an unemployment rate that includes these discouraged workers.  In June 2009, that was 10.1%.  For July, it was 10.2%.

Given this change in unemployment including discouraged workers, I think it’s pretty clear that the 0.1% decrease in the reported unemployment rate can be misleading.  In reality, those who would like a job but don’t have one increased by 0.1% up to10.2%.

*   *   *

I just think we need to be careful not to get too excited about today’s numbers.  Although they appear to show a decrease in the unemployment rate, the deeper numbers show the contrary.  We may see the light at the end of the tunnel, but we’ve got a ways to go.

Claims of “good news” about the unemployment picture are regularly contradicted, if not by our own personal experiences, then by those of our relatives and friends.  Beyond that, we see daily reports of middle-class families using food stamps for the first time in their lives and we read about escalating bankruptcy filings.

One article I found particularly interesting was written by Nancy Cook for Newsweek on August 7.  It concerned the problems faced by teenagers this year, who sought summer jobs.  They weren’t able to get those jobs because they found themselves “competing with unemployed adults who are now willing to take positions that were considered entry-level in prerecessionary times.”  Ms. Cook discussed how the inability of teenagers to obtain summer jobs impairs their personal and professional development:

Where does that leave high-school- and college-age students, apart from spending their summers lying on the couch?  It leaves them with little income and, worse, few job skills, says Andrew Sum, director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University in Boston.  “It hurts their ability to get jobs in the future,” he says.  Teens who work in high school and college on average earn salaries 16 percent higher than teens who don’t work, according to the center’s research.

*   *   *

Working summer jobs certainly translates into higher earning power in the long term, but more important, it gives teens “soft skills.”  Those skills teach them to be punctual, write professional e-mails, and work well in teams.  “There’s lots of evidence that shows that employers place a high premium on those skills,” Sum says.  “If you don’t work, you develop cultural signals from other kids, from the streets, or from sitting at home in front of a computer, which is the worst way to learn how to get along with people.”

I find it difficult to believe that normal, human, retail investors would find so much encouragement from reading about the BLS report.  The use of the BLS data to justify Friday’s market pop appears as just another excuse to explain the ongoing inflation of equities prices, caused by banks playing with TARP and other bailout money for their own benefit.