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Magic Numbers

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As soon as I got a look at the March Nonfarm Payrolls Report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics on April 1, I knew that the cheerleaders from the “rose-colored glasses” crowd would be trumpeting the onset of some sort of new era, or “golden age”.  I wasn’t too far off.  My own reaction to the BLS report was similar to that expressed by Bill McBride of Calculated Risk:

The March employment report was another small step in the right direction, but the overall employment situation remains grim:  There are 7.25 million fewer payroll jobs now than before the recession started in 2007 with 13.5 million Americans currently unemployed.  Another 8.4 million are working part time for economic reasons, and about 4 million more workers have left the labor force.  Of those unemployed, 6.1 million have been unemployed for six months or more.

Nevertheless, the opening words of the BLS report, asserting that nonfarm payroll employment increased by 216,000 in March, were all that the cheerleaders wanted to hear.  My cynicism about the unjustified enthusiasm was shared by economist Dean Baker:

Okay, this celebration around the jobs report is really getting out of hand.  Both the Post and Times had front page pieces touting the good news.  The Post gets the award for being the more breathless of the two   .   .   .

Brad DeLong had some fun letting the air out of the party balloons floating around in a brief piece by Gregory Ip of The Economist.  Mr. Ip began with this happy thought:

TURN off the alarms.  After several weeks when the data pointed to a recovery still struggling to achieve escape velocity, the March employment report provided reassuring evidence that, at a minimum, it is still gaining altitude.

After completely deconstructing Mr. Ip’s essay by emphasizing the painfully not-so-happy undercurrents lurking within the piece (apparently included out of concern that the Federal Reserve might take away the Quantitative Easing crack pipe) Professor DeLong re-visited Ip’s initial statement in the sobering light of day:

There is “recovery” in a sense that the output gap and the employment gap are no longer shrinking — and so that real GDP is growing at the rate of growth of potential output.  But this is not reason to “turn off the alarms.”  This is not reason to talk about “pieces [of recovery] … falling into place.”  And I am not sure I would describe this as “gaining altitude” with respect to the state of the business cycle.

The exploitation of the March Nonfarm Payrolls Report for bolstering claims that economic conditions are better than they really are is just the latest example of how the beauty of a given statistic can exist in the eye of the beholder – depending on the context in which that statistic is presented.   Economist David J. Merkel recently wrote an interesting essay, which concluded with this important admonition:

Be wary.  Look at a broader range of statistics, and take apart the existing statistics.  Don’t just take the pronouncements of our government at face value.  They are experts in saying what is technically true, while implying what is false.  Be wary.

David Merkel’s posting focused on the positive spin provided by a representative of Morgan Stanley concerning 4th Quarter 2010 Gross Domestic Product.  Merkel’s analysis of this statistic included some good advice:

In 4Q 2010 real GDP rose 3.1%, while real Gross Domestic Purchases fell 0.2%.  Why?  Energy and other import costs rose which depressed the price indexes for GDP versus Gross Domestic Purchases.

Over the long haul, the two series are close to equal, but when they diverge, they tell a story.  The current story is that average consumers in the US are doing badly, while those benefiting from high corporate profits, and increasing exports are doing well.

In general, I am not impressed with statistics collected by our government, or how they use them.  But it’s useful to understand what they mean — to understand the limitations of the statistics, so that when naive/conniving politicians use them wrongly, one can see through the error.

David Merkel’s point about “understanding the limitations of the statistics” is something that a good commentator should “fess up to” when discussing particular stats.  Michael Shedlock’s analysis of the March Nonfarm Payrolls Report provides a refreshing example of that type of candor:

Given the total distortions of reality with respect to not counting people who allegedly dropped out of the work force, it is hard to discuss the numbers.

The official unemployment rate is 8.8%.  However, if you start counting all the people that want a job but gave up, all the people with part-time jobs that want a full-time job, all the people who dropped off the unemployment rolls because their unemployment benefits ran out, etc., you get a closer picture of what the unemployment rate is.  That number is in the last row labeled U-6.

While the “official” unemployment rate is an unacceptable 8.8%, U-6 is much higher at 15.7%.

Things are much worse than the reported numbers would have you believe.

That said, this was a solid jobs report, not as measured by the typical recovery, but one of the better reports we have seen for years.

On the negative side, wages are not keeping up with the CPI, wage growth is skewed to the top end, and full time jobs are hard to come by.

At the current pace, the unemployment number would ordinarily drop, but not fast.  However, many of those millions who dropped out of the workforce could start looking if they think jobs may be out there.  Should that happen, the unemployment rate could rise, even if the economy adds jobs at this pace.  It is very questionable if this pace of jobs keeps up.

In other words, if a significant number of those people the BLS has ignored as having “dropped out of the workforce” prove the BLS wrong by actually applying for new job opportunities as they appear, the BLS will have to reconcile their reporting with that “new reality”.  Perhaps many of those “phantom people” were really there all along and the only thing preventing their detection was the absence of job opportunities.  As those “workforce dropouts” return to the BLS radar screen by applying for new job opportunities, the BLS will report it as a “rise” in the unemployment rate.  In reality, that updated statistic will reflect what the unemployment rate had been all along.  An improving job market will just make it easier to face the truth.




Maria Cantwell For President

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I was going to hold off on this and give President Obama the benefit of a doubt – at least for a few months.  Nevertheless, after reading the magnificent piece by Barry Ritholtz, entitled:  “The Tragedy of the Obama Administration”, I decided that it was time to start discussing leadership alternatives for the next Presidential term.

On October 30, the Associated Press published the results of a poll it conducted with Knowledge Networks.  Forty-seven percent of the Democrats surveyed expressed the opinion that Obama should be challenged for the 2012 Democratic Presidential nomination.  In the wake of the mid-term election massacre, I expect that more Democrats will be anxious to find a new standard-bearer for their party in 2012.  The AP article concerning the AP-KN poll, mentioned the theory that the public’s opinion of Obama could change if the economy improves.  Unfortunately, most American consumers will not observe any significant improvement in the economy during the next two years.  There is a greater likelihood that the Chicago Cubs will win next year’s World Series.

We currently find ourselves bombarded with a wide spectrum of opinions, which purport to explain what the results of the 2010 elections really mean.  The most obvious conclusion to be drawn from this event is that the voters resent being taken for chumps.  Obama’s supporters were promised change they could believe in by a President and a party that sold its soul to the Wall Street megabanks at the cost of America’s future economic health.  When he had the opportunity to do so in early 2009, Obama refused to put those too-big-to-fail, zombie banks through temporary receivership.  As a result, we are now approaching a situation which – according to financial risk management expert Chris Whalen – will necessitate another round of bank bailouts.  When President Obama had the opportunity and the public support (not to mention Democratic control over both houses of Congress) to enact an adequate stimulus program to save the economy from a decade(s) – long, Japanese-style recession, he refused to so.  If an extra $600 billion had been added to the $787 billion in 2009 (as part of a better-thought-out, infrastructure-based stimulus program) we would be experiencing significant economic growth and a recovering job market right now.  Australia keeps reminding us of this.  (Oops!  Australia just did it again!)  Instead, America finds itself in a situation wherein the Fed is now appropriating that $600 billion toward another round of quantitative easing, which will serve no other purpose than to push investors into the stock market.  According to economist Andy Xie, those stock investors will have an unpleasant experience when Chairman Bernanke’s latest asset bubble pops in 2012.

While many Senate Democrats (along with operatives from the Treasury Department) were busy removing all of the teeth from the financial reform bill, Maria Cantwell was fighting those efforts as one of the few advocates for the American taxpayers.  Back on May 19, Arthur Delaney and Ryan Grim of The Huffington Post described how Senator Cantwell stood up to the efforts of Harry Reid to use cloture to push the financial reform bill to a vote before any further amendments could have been added to strengthen the bill.  Notice how “the usual suspects” – Reid, Chuck Schumer and “Countrywide Chris” Dodd tried to close in on Cantwell and force her capitulation to the will of the kleptocracy:

There were some unusually Johnsonian moments of wrangling on the floor during the nearly hour-long vote.  Reid pressed his case hard on Snowe, the lone holdout vote present, with Bob Corker and Mitch McConnell at her side.  After finding Brown, he put his arm around him and shook his head, then found Cantwell seated alone at the opposite end of the floor.  He and New York’s Chuck Schumer encircled her, Reid leaning over her with his right arm on the back of her chair and Schumer leaning in with his left hand on her desk.  Cantwell stared straight ahead, not looking at the men even as she spoke.  Schumer called in Chris Dodd, who was unable to sway her.  Feingold hadn’t stuck around.  Cantwell, according to a spokesman, wanted a guarantee on an amendment that would fix a gaping hole in the derivatives section of the bill, which requires the trades to be cleared, but applies no penalty to trades that aren’t, making Blanche Lincoln’s reform package little better than a list of suggestions.

*   *   *

“I don’t think it’s a good idea to cut off good consumer amendments because of cloture,” said Cantwell on Tuesday night.

Senator Cantwell has proven herself worthy of our trust.  Her nomination as the 2012 Democratic Presidential candidate will revive the excitement and voter enthusiasm witnessed during the 2008 campaign.  On the other hand, if President Obama decides to seek a second term and wins the nomination, we will likely find a greater enthusiasm gap than the example of November 2.  As a result, by January of 2013 we could have a new administration in the White House, espousing what economist Nouriel Roubini describes as “the economic equivalent of creationism”.

Here’s to a bright future!


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Reality Check

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July 13, 2009

Have you become sick of hearing about the “green shoots”?   Back on March 15, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke appeared on 60 Minutes and made the self-serving, self-congratulatory claim that “green shoots” could be found in the economy.  I guess we’re supposed to thank him for all the extra money printing he had mandated, to facilitate this claimed result.  While we normal people continued to cope with ongoing job losses, an almost nonexistent job market, unavailable mortgages, a constipated real estate market and fear about the future   . . .   Chairman Bernanke was trying to sell us on some good news.  Since that time, the expression “green shoots” has been the mantra for those pundits who, for whatever reason, want the naive public to believe in the emperor’s new clothes.  The usual motive for chatting up the “green shoots” is to encourage a widespread popular return to investing in the stock market and by so doing, make life more rewarding for those at brokerage firms.

This week brings us a “reality check” that will come in the form of earnings reports from the second quarter of 2009, required for disclosure by publicly-held corporations, traded on our nation’s stock exchanges.  Recent news reports have focused on the fact that despite the “bear market rally” that began in May, last week’s drop in stock prices revealed widespread investor concern that the truth will not support all the hype they have been reading since the spring.  Here’s what E.S. Browning had to say in the July 8 edition of The Wall Street Journal:

Expectations for the current earnings season are very low, and investors are worried companies will give weak outlooks for the second half of the year.

“We kind of think the market got ahead of itself.  It ran too fast, too hard, and we are soon going to be staring at second-quarter earnings reports that are not going to be pretty,” said Janna Sampson, who helps oversee $1.3 billion as co-chief investment officer of OakBrook Investments in Lisle, Ill.

After the market bottomed March 9, investors increasingly embraced risky assets, bidding up stocks, especially those of smaller companies with little or no profit.

Those unfortunate investors were hit by two “sucker punches”.  The first was the often-repeated claim that “stocks are now a bargain  . . .  we’ve hit the bottom so now is the time to BUY!”  The second sucker punch involved the use of high-speed trading programs (such as the one recently stolen from Goldman Sachs) to run up the prices on stocks and exploit “retail investors” such as you and me.  An astute explanation of this process was recently published by Sal Arnuk and Joseph Saluzzi of Themis Trading.  You can read that report here.  What’s even more interesting about the computer program used by (and stolen from) Goldman Sachs, is the statement made by Assistant U.S.Attorney Joseph Facciponti, as quoted in the July 6 article by David Glovin and Christine Harper for Bloomberg News:

“The bank has raised the possibility that there is a danger that somebody who knew how to use this program could use it to manipulate markets in unfair ways,” Facciponti said, according to a recording of the hearing made public today.

So Goldman Sachs has a computer program that allows the user to “manipulate the markets in unfair ways”?  That’s quite a revelation!  If that weren’t bad enough  . . .  according to a recent report by Tyler Durden at Zero Hedge, Goldman Sachs is not the only kid on the block with a high-frequency trading program.

Alexendra Twin of CNN (in addition to providing us with a schedule of earnings reports and other important economic data to be released over this week and next) pointed out another important reason for last spring’s stock market rally, which is not likely to be a factor this month:

Last quarter, analysts and corporations alike ratcheted down forecasts, setting up a period in which a greater percentage of companies than usual beat forecasts.  But this quarter could be different.  Fewer companies have been cutting forecasts and analysts haven’t budged as much either, giving corporations less of an opportunity to defy expectations.

“The question is whether we’ll see a similar surprise factor this time,” said John Butters, senior research analyst at Thomson Reuters. “If companies haven’t cut and analysts haven’t cut, can results beat forecasts?”

My take on this process is a bit more cynical:  the system is being “gamed” by companies’ providing artificially low estimates for future earnings, in order to win at what commentator Bill Fleckenstein calls “beat the number”.

Once we have read about all these reports  —  will we finally stop hearing about “green shoots”?  I have my money on bad economic news, as I continue to maintain my position in the SRS exchange-traded fund.  Nevertheless, I’m keeping one hand on the ripcord, ready to bail out at any minute.