Unemployment Numbers: A Mixed Bag
January employment numbers are characteristically volatile, as the birth/death ratio numbers are typically the largest of the year. This month the birth/death model subtracted (rather than added) 427,000 jobs (yes, I wrote that correctly). This is a very large “adjustment” month, and the volatility gets smoothed over in the seasonal adjustments. It is part and parcel of the process, as making estimates about how many new businesses are formed or die is extraordinarily difficult at turning points in the economy.
As an acknowledgment of that, the employment level for March 2009 was revised down by 930,000 jobs, and by December it was a total of almost 1.4 million extra jobs lost. That means that the Bureau of Labor Statistics overestimated the number of new jobs significantly. December’s job loss was really 150,000, not the 85,000 originally reported. How would the markets have reacted to a number that large?
January saw a slightly larger than estimated loss of 22,000 jobs, which would have been 53,000 without new federal employees, 9,000 of whom were hired to perform the census. (By the way, federal employment is absolutely exploding!)
Now, the somewhat good news. I have been writing about how the household survey has been much weaker for almost two years than the establishment survey. For instance, the total number of unemployed rose by 589,000 in December, while the number of people not classified as looking for work rose by 843,000. No matter how you spin it, those were very ugly numbers.
This month the household survey showed the largest one-month turnaround that I could find. As The Liscio Report noted:
“Adjusting for the changes in the population controls, total household employment rose by 784,000 – and when further adjusted to match the payroll concept, employment was up 841,000. Moves of this magnitude (regardless of sign) are unusual, but not unknown – and frequently undone in subsequent months. The less volatile ratios were also up, with the participation rate up 0.1 point, and the employment/population ratio rose a nice 0.2 point, its first increase since last April. While it’s too early to say whether this strength in the household survey is a harbinger of an upturn that will soon show up in payrolls, it’s something to be filed under ‘tentatively encouraging.'”
The work-week hours rose slightly. Income growth was better than it has been. Temporary workers rose, which is typically a harbinger of an increase in full-time employment. The number of people working part-time for economic reasons plummeted by 849,000.
And finally, the unemployment rate fell 0.3% to 9.7%. This of course means that more people are dropping out of the labor pool, and it also means they will at some point come back.
On the negative side, a loss of 22,000 jobs is nowhere close to the 100,000 new jobs that are needed just to hold unemployment steady. 41% of those unemployed have been so for over 6 months.
And quoting David Rosenberg:
“While there will be many economists touting today’s report as some inflection point, and it could well be argued that we are entering some sort of healing phase in the jobs market just by mere virtue of inertia, the reality is that the level of employment today, at 129.5 million, is the exact same level it was in 1999. And, during this 11-year span of Japanese-like labour market stagnation, the working-age population has risen 29 million. Contemplate that for a moment; fully 29 million people competing for the same number of jobs that existed more than a decade ago. That sounds like pretty deflationary stuff from our standpoint.
“Not only that, but consideration must be taken that in 2009, we had a zero policy rate, a $2.2 trillion Fed balance sheet and an epic 10% deficit-to-GDP ratio. You could not have asked for more government stimulus. Yet employment tumbled nearly 5 million in 2009.”
Finally, a very sad chart, courtesy of David. Those in the 25-54 year-old male category have seen their total number of jobs fall back to the level it was in 1996. Fourteen years later, and the “breadwinners” who are supposedly in their prime have seen an almost 10% drop in employment.
As noted above, January employment numbers are very volatile, and are likely to be adjusted either up or down by a lot in coming months. But this report was not the disaster of December. It still shows a very weak economy that certainly does not need a large tax hike next year. I hope we start seeing some positive numbers soon, but I am not optimistic that we are going to see the 200,000-plus new jobs per month we need to really start denting the unemployment numbers, for some time. Not when the National Federation of Independent Business says 71% of small businesses do not plan to hire this year.
The Fed is taking away quantitative easing. Stimulus spending is exiting in the last half of the year. States and communities are having to either raise taxes or cut spending by $350 billion! I heard on the radio coming back from the gym (I think it was my friend Steve Liesman on CNBC) that there are now 55,000 fewer teachers than a few years ago.
And again from the NFIB, small businesses see very tight credit conditions, which makes it hard for them to expand (see chart below). The headlines this week from the Fed banking survey said that banks were prone to be less tight, but the NFIB writers went deep into the report. What they found is that very large banks are willing to be less tight in their lending standards. Smaller banks were in fact not as easy. Loan demand is falling. Consumer credit actually declined slightly in December, after plunging in November. If you can’t count on Americans to buy during Christmas, the world is in fact moving to the New Frugal.
All this is not the stuff that robust recoveries are made of. We drift back into Muddle Through the last half of the year, I think. And if Congress does not act to postpone or mitigate the enormous tax increases due in 2011, we slip back into recession. It will be a policy error of major magnitude to raise taxes with 10% unemployment and a weak economy.