Free Markets, Free People

monetary policy

The Unemployment Situation

I see that Megan McCardle thinks the unemployment numbers released today are enough to make her make her “cautiously optimistic” about the jobs picture.  I’ll meet her halfway.  I see room for caution, but not yet for optimism.

Ms. McArdle writes:

It’s very solidly good news: the labor force participation rate was basically unchanged, which means we’re seeing an actual decline in the unemployment rate, not a spike in the number of people leaving the labor force because they can’t find a job.

My reading of the numbers is precisely the opposite.  It appears to me that teenagers, high school dropouts, and those with only a high school diploma, all of whom have high unemployment rates, did, in fact, drop out of the labor force, which led to the decrease in the employment rate.

I also think the numbers are skewed by the seasonal adjustments.  The BLS adjusts the figures for seasonal changes, with extra weighting given to more recent years.  Last November, the Lehman collapse led to the loss of 610,000 jobs–the largest ever recorded by the BLS–so I suspect the weighting for seasonal factors is skewed to the point where the jobs situation may look better than it actually is.

We do see an increase in hours worked of 0.6 hours, but that doesn’t really create new jobs, it just provides more hours for current part-timers.

However, temporary employment rose significantly for the 4th straight month, and it appears that the mass layoffs have petered out.

So, as far as I can tell, there may have been a bottom, but there are still some anomalies that need to be explained before I jump into the optimist camp.

And, of course, none of this even touches on the 800-pound gorilla in the room, which is monetary policy.  The Fed’s policy of quantitative easing, i.e. massive increases in the money supply, still present us with hundreds of billions of dollars in low-velocity money floating around, all of which will have to be absorbed through higher interest rates, or through significant inflation.  The possibility still remains that necessary credit tightening will strangle any nascent recovery over the next 12-18 months, and send the economy on a another downward leg.

It’s very solidly good news:  the labor force participation rate was basically unchanged, which means we’re seeing an actual decline in the unemployment rate, not a spike in the number of people leaving the labor force because they can’t find a job.

Money? Or Receipts?

Recently, while listening to the Opie and Anthony show, I heard an interview with Loius CK, the comedian.  And he said something that struck me as quite profound.  And quite true.

Back in olden times–i.e., prior to the 1930s–our paper money wasn’t actually money, as such.  Instead, it was a receipt for the real money–gold, or silver–that we had stored in the bank.  And the amount of gold we had determined how many of those receipts we could get.  The gold or silver we held had an intrinsic value, and the paper currency we carried was simply a representation of that intrinsic value.

Then, in the 1930s, we simply got rid of the metal, and kept the receipts.  Ever since then, the paper money we carry around with us has no intrinsic value.  And the value of that receipt is worth whatever the government says it’s worth.  It is a medium of exchange, and nothing more.

You may have $1,000,000 in the bank.  And if the government says that it’s only worth a cup of coffee in exchange, then that’s exactly what it’s worth.  It doesn’t matter if acquiring that million bucks was the work of a lifetime.  The government can, if it wishes or is unwise, reduce the stored value of your life’s work to a trip to Starbucks.

Just something to think about.


Apparently the Fed has decided that their doubling of the monetary base in the last 7 months has done so fantastically, that they’re ready to do more of it.

Some Federal Reserve officials are open to raising the amounts of mortgage and Treasury securities purchase programs beyond the $1.75 trillion that they have already committed to buying, according to minutes from the Fed’s April meeting.

Please pay no attention to the inflation lurking behind the curtain.  Our benevolent overlords have everything under control.  So, why more monetary loosening.

Officials, meanwhile, projected an even deeper recession than they expected three months earlier and a more sluggish recovery over the next two years as labor markets remain under pressure.

Huh.  So much for that “turned the corner’ crap from last month.  But that’s OK.  because, you see, if you’re in the middle of a bursted bubble cused by overly loose monetary policy in the first place, then the way to get back on track is an even looser monetary policy.  That’ll fix you right up, you see.

At least, that’s what the Harvard econo-boys tell us.  And they are, of course, the Best and Brightest.

Meanwhile, the DoL reports that weekly claims for unemployment for last week were revised upwards to 643,000, but this week’s numbers were only 628,500.  So, that’s a nice little downward tick.  Except that we’ve got all those upcoming claims from shutting down car dealerships for Chrysler and GM.  Let’s call that 2,000 dealerships with an average of–I’m just spit-balling, here–25 persons per dealership left unemployed.  Let’s call it 50,000 new claims ahead.

Another Troubling Sign

What if the Treasury held a bond auction and nobody came?  After today, that’s not a rhetorical question.

Weak demand at a Treasury bond auction touched off worries in the stock market Thursday about the government’s ability to raise funds to fight the recession.

The government had to pay greater interest than expected in a sale of 30-year Treasurys. That is worrisome to traders because it could signal that it will become harder for Washington to finance its ambitious economic recovery plans. The higher interest rates also could push up costs for borrowing in areas like mortgages.

We are moving closer to what I warned about in March, after the UK had a failed auction of 15-year gilts.  Apparently, the Chinese didn’t turn out in force today.  They did however, continue talking about a new reserve currency–one that isn’t the US Dollar.  And apparently they’ve been doing more than talking about it.

As we learned last week, the Chinese–who haven’t announced anything about their gold holdings since 2003–casually dropped an announcement that they’d nearly doubled their gold holdings from 19 million to 34 million ounces.  Moreover, this gold, which had previously been kept for foreign trade in an account at the State Administration of Foreign Exchange, has now been transferred to the bank of China, as part the country’s monetary reserves.

I don’t think they’re all that keen on lending us money any more.

This is important because it indicates the extent to which gold is being rehabilitated as a monetary reserve asset, not only by the Chinese monetary authorities but by central bankers around the world. It has been clear that gold was being restored as a more important part of the world’s financial system, with rising investment demand over the past nine years. The Chinese government’s decision to say that this gold belongs in its monetary reserves emphasizes that monetary authorities also are looking at gold with greater interest than they have since the 1960s.

There’s a new reserve currency in town, and it’s yellow and shiny.  What it isn’t is green with pictures of dead presidents on it.  Maybe the Fed’s doubling of M2 the monetary base over the last eight months was a bit…intemperate.

So, the key take-aways here:

1) Higher interest rates possible as auctions fail to find bidders at lower yields.

2)  Billions and billions of dollars floating around, with no place to go but back home.  “Wouldn’t you like to wear $3,000 suits and smoke $75 cigars?  I know I would.”

But, we probably shouldn’t worry. As Glenn Reynolds says, “The country is in the best of hands.”