Free Markets, Free People


Unemployment: the numbers game

Just as we’ve seen “good news” about the economy claimed in quarters when government spending (“cash for clunkers”) and inventory restocking drove the positive numbers, now we’re being told that a raft of temporary jobs might be a positive sign for the unemployment numbers:

The U.S. Census Bureau expects to add up to 750,000 workers to its payroll by May, a hiring binge that could knock the unemployment rate down by as much as a half-point.

The once-a-decade census is coming at the best possible time for President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats, who have taken political lumps for more than a year over a jobless rate that stands at 9.7 percent.

Some think the administration will get good news as soon as the next monthly labor report, which will be released the first Friday in April.

Yeah – counting people for the government is not exactly that of which economic powerhouses are made. While it’s temporary good news for those with the short-term jobs, it is not a solution to the overall rate of unemployment, regardless of what it might do to the U-3 percentage of 9.7%.

“This is the best-timed census you could ever dream of,” said Heidi Shierholz, who tracks the labor market at the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute. She believes the March unemployment report will show the economy added jobs instead of subtracting them.

If it happens, it will be only the second positive-numbers jobs report in more than a year. But in this case, it could lead to further positive job numbers in the months ahead.

Really? How’s that? These are temporary jobs (6 weeks) and part-time to boot (19 hours a week). In other words, in about a month an a half, these jobs go away and the 750,000 that were added to the workforce and will take the unemployment numbers down, will have to be subtracted. But it is clear by Ms. Shierholz’s words that the spin about the dropping unemployment rate driven by these temporary jobs will be fierce and you can expect broad claims to be made concerning future employment that will most likely have no basis in fact.

Right now it is all about the numbers. But their substance will be masked as the “experts” laud these 6 week part-time government jobs which produce better unemployment numbers as indicators that the employment picture is “improving”.  Don’t be fooled.  Do a little subtraction in your head each time the claim is made and you’ll probably be much closer to the real percentage than will the delusional “experts” (they’ll begin terminating the jobs near the end of June).  And remember – until the business climate improves, hiring is not likely to happen.  750,000 temporary government jobs does nothing to improve that climate.


[ad] Empty ad slot (#1)!

Scary Employment Chart of the Day

When it comes to employment, we have dug ourselves a tremendous hole. I will be surprised if unemployment is back to where it was four years from now. This chart gives us all an idea why:

Of particular interest is the path of the last two recessions which had anemic job growth despite relatively shallow initial dips. The recovery period for each far exceeded previous recessions. If we see a repeat this time the V shaped recovery in employment we keep hearing about is not going to happen. So why the difference?

The earlier recessions exhibited a similar pattern of sharp drops in employment followed by sharp recoveries as the economy snapped back. The change that we began to see in the 1990 recession is partly structural. The layoffs associated with the much larger manufacturing sector in recessions of the past were associated with a rundown in inventories which then snapped back once the inventories were depleted.

Something else is going on here as well in my own opinion. As the eighties gave way to the nineties the US was in the early stages of an experiment in monetary and economic policy. Monetary policy was explicitly geared to reduce economic volatility. This led to attempts to reduce the severity of recessions, and also led to a reduction in upside volatility as well. This was (at least for a while) somewhat successful, resulting in what became known as “The Great Moderation.” The recession of 1990 was the first crack in that system. Attempts to limit volatility not only reduced the violence of the recession, but the explosive growth typical after recessions previously. It also was a recession which was a result of a financial crisis (the S&L’s) and the real estate boom of the late eighties. The deleveraging of the finance and debt recession (what we are going through now, only in miniature) was sluggish. It took a good while for the adjustment to occur.

We followed a familiar script of lowering interest rates and encouraging credit expansion. Constant expansions of credit whenever things slowed kept the engine running until a bigger crisis hit with the bursting of the tech and telecom bubble. Once again we applied even more credit easing to soften the blow, and the attempt to avoid wringing the excesses of credit from the system led to another sluggish recovery with anemic job growth. Profits however were large and the return for the steadily growing financial sector was immense. If the economy was going to be stabilized by constant applications of credit expansion, then the financial sector was the main beneficiary. Finally we have the latest crisis, one where the financial system itself was the most important bubble.

What we can now see is that the types of recessions we have been experiencing are successive deleveraging cycles, each “solved” by releveraging the economy and leading to a bigger crisis down the road. Sadly deleveraging processes, especially if drawn out by keeping them from running their course, result in tepid job growth. We are now in a massive deleveraging cycle which we are once again trying to solve by adding massive debt to the system. Once again job growth and recovery is slower. Unless we break this cycle (which would be very painful) we should expect nothing different in the outcome, except that the problem is bigger and will last longer.

Cross Posted at: The View from the Bluff

Unemployment: Let’s get real

Poor Harry Reid.  You can understand why Rush Limbaugh calls him “Dingy Harry”.  For a public servant of many decades who is supposedly practiced in the art of public speaking, he sure can mess it up.  Today I assume he was trying to tell us that the 9.7% unemployment rate that the government claims and the number of unemployed reported this week didn’t go up as high as expected.  This is how it came out:

“Today is a big day in America. Only 36,000 people lost their jobs today, which is really good,” Reid said Friday on the Senate floor.

I’m sure those 36,000 are just happy as can be about that, Mr. Reid.

But as most informed folks know, that 9.7% figure doesn’t really reflect the full extent of unemployment.  The government’s “U-6” number is much closer, but isn’t used because – well, take a look and you’ll figure it out for yourself:

The U.S. jobless rate was unchanged at 9.7% in February, following a decline the previous month, but the government’s broader measure of unemployment ticked up 0.3 percentage point to 16.8%.

Despite the Obama administration claim today that those measures they’ve put into place appear to be working, the U-6 says otherwise:

The comprehensive gauge of labor underutilization, known as the “U-6″ for its data classification by the Labor Department, accounts for people who have stopped looking for work or who can’t find full-time jobs. Though the rate is still 0.6 percentage point below its high of 17.4% in October, its continuing divergence from the official number (the “U-3″ unemployment measure) indicates the job market has a long way to go before growth in the economy translates into relief for workers.

Here’s the key and a reason you should take all this happy talk with a grain of salt:

A U-6 figure that converges toward the official rate could indicate improving confidence in the labor market and the overall economy. This month pushes convergence even further away.

And it “pushes convergence … away” by a significant amount.

One of the things to be wary of is the administration will start believing its own press and at the first sign the U-3 begins to dip, figure it can begin to further its tax and spend agenda. Until you see the U-6 headed in the same direction as the U-3 and showing significant drops, nothing is getting better on the employment front. And until that happens, the recovery is not going to “take off”.


[ad] Empty ad slot (#1)!

“Unexpectedly” Bad Employment Statistics

The Employment Situation statistics are due out later this week.  They will be bad.  I know this, because Larry Summers is already spinning them.

White House economic adviser Larry Summers said on Monday winter blizzards were likely to distort U.S. February jobless figures, which are due to be released on Friday.

“The blizzards that affected much of the country during the last month are likely to distort the statistics. So it’s going to be very important … to look past whatever the next figures are to gauge the underlying trends,” Summers said in an interview with CNBC, according to a transcript.

So, please, when you see the numbers of Friday, be sure you don’t assume that they have any policy implications.  It’s all about the weather, you see.

[ad] Empty ad slot (#1)!

The Economy: Most likely lower GDP growth, higher unemployment, flat spending in 1st quarter

Take all of the forecasts with a grain of salt given the “unexpectedness” of most economic numbers, but this gives a hint as to what to expect and it also explains why the last quarter’s GDP numbers were an illusion of growth, not the beginning of a growth trend:

The US economy continues on a bumpy road to recovery. Weaker data this week on consumer confidence, jobless claims, housing, and durable goods orders have introduced downside risks to our near-term economic outlook. We have made some minor adjustments to our GDP forecast. Fourth quarter GDP was revised up to 5.9%, with the inventory swing now accounting for 3.9 pp of growth, up from 3.4 pp. We think this “steals” some growth from 1Q. In addition, core capital goods orders and shipments were weaker than expected in January, so we are lowering our forecast for 1Q GDP to 1.5% from 2.0% previously.

1.5% growth isn’t a particularly auspicious number for those claiming we’ve “turned the corner” and are out of the recession and on a positive growth trend. It should be remembered that the last positive growth quarter before December was driven mostly by “cash for clunkers” or government spending. The 4th quarter of last year was driven by restocking inventories. Without it, the GDP is at 2%.  Unless there are consumption increases which will work to decrease those inventories, the growth for that quarter is an anomoly much like the GDP increase driven by cash for clunkers.

With consumer confidence down, housing and durable goods orders down and jobless numbers up, it doesn’t speak for an auspicious start to the year.

This next week will see some other numbers come in. If the forecasters are right (big if), then its going to be more bad news on the employment front:

The consensus is for a net loss of 50 to 80 thousand payroll jobs, and the unemployment rate to increase slightly to 9.8% (from 9.7%).

Today’s Personal Income and Outlays report (PCE) is mixed:

Personal income rose $11.4 billion, or 0.1%, less than the 0.4% expected, while personal consumption expenditures rose 0.5%, ahead of the 0.4% increase expected: So income’s rising slowly, but Americans are still spending more than expected.

The PCE index for the month posted a 0.2% increase, most of that because of energy and food; absent those items, the PCE index rose less than 0.1%, the report showed.

So the PCE index saw a slight increase above expectation but that was driven by necessities (food, energy) not the consumption of goods.

The ISM Manufacturing index released today also disappoints:

Activity in the manufacturing sector expanded for the seventh consecutive month in February, according to a report released by the Institute for Supply Management on Monday, although the pace of growth slowed by more than economists had been anticipating.

The ISM said its index of activity in the manufacturing sector fell to 56.5 in February from 58.4 in January, with a reading above 50 still indicating growth in the sector. Economists had been expecting the index to show a more modest decrease to a reading of 58.0.
Activity in the manufacturing sector expanded for the seventh consecutive month in February, according to a report released by the Institute for Supply Management on Monday, although the pace of growth slowed by more than economists had been anticipating.

The ISM said its index of activity in the manufacturing sector fell to 56.5 in February from 58.4 in January, with a reading above 50 still indicating growth in the sector. Economists had been expecting the index to show a more modest decrease to a reading of 58.0.

While snow is being blamed for some of the decline, but only in its depth, not the fact that there was a decline.

And the final Monday report is the Construction Spending Report for January was released:

Spending on U.S. construction projects fell at a seasonally adjusted rate of 0.6% in January, the third consecutive month of declines, the Commerce Department estimated Monday.

The decline in January was wider than the 0.5% drop that economists surveyed by MarketWatch had been expecting. December’s outlays fell an unrevised 1.2%.

In January, private residential outlays rose 1.3%, while private nonresidential outlays fell 2.1%. Public outlays also fell, off 0.7%.

During the rest of the week, you’ll see the following:

On Tuesday, the various manufacturers will release light vehicle sales for February. The consensus is for a decline to about 10.4 million on a Seasonally Adjusted Annual Rate (SAAR) basis from 10.8 million in January. Sales for Toyota will be closely watched. Also on Tuesday, the Personal Bankruptcy Filings estimate for February will be released.

On Wednesday, the ADP Employment report and ISM Non-Manufacturing index (consensus is for a slight increase to 51% from 50.5%), and the Fed’s beige book will all be released.

On Thursday, the closely watched initial weekly unemployment claims, productivity report, factory orders, and pending home sales will all be released.

And on Friday, the BLS employment report, Consumer Credit (more contraction), and another round of bank failures (I’m thinking Puerto Rico will make an appearance).

The good news, if there is any, is that inflation expectations haven’t really reared their ugly head to this point, meaning right now inflation is under a modicum of control and not rising appreciably. Of course that could literally change in a heartbeat, so other than to note it and be glad for the fact, I have no idea how long those expectations will remain dormant.

Bottom line – we’re bumping along the bottom and hopefully we’ll see a meaningful turnaround sometime this fall. But right now, anyone saying things are going well and we’re fully into recovery doesn’t realize how fragile the economy is right now and certainly doesn’t know what they’re talking about.


[ad] Empty ad slot (#1)!

At what point does the media drop “unexpectedly” from its unemployment stories?

I mean, for heaven sake, it seems that weekly the “experts” are surprised by an “unexpected rise” in unemployment statistics.  This week was no different than the “unexpected rise” last week:

Unemployment claims filed last week rose unexpectedly, coming in at 496,000, up 22,000 from the previous week.

Taken with other discouraging news released this week — record-low January new home sales and a slide in consumer confidence — the new jobless claims number describes a slow and uncertain recovery.

Forecasters had expected 460,000 new jobless claims to be filed last week

The four-week moving average of new jobless claims — which smooths out volatility in the week-to-week numbers — rose 6,000 to 473,750.

Key phrase – “slow and uncertain recovery”. So a continued “rise” in unemployment, even to this weeks actual numbers, shouldn’t be “unexpected” in such a recovery. Why it is so important to predict what the next week’s unemployment stats will be anyway? As often as they’ve been wrong and seen “unexpected” numbers you have to wonder why they even bother. More significantly, given the track record, you have to wonder why the media even bothers with their numbers. The numbers are what they are. From those numbers we should be able to understand the condition of the economy. But I’m tired of seeing “unexpected” numbers every week treated as some sort of surprise by a group whose credibility was shot a long time ago.


[ad] Empty ad slot (#1)!

Musings, Rants and Links over the 18th Fairway: February Housing Edition

On the heels of last weeks delightfully mixed bag of employment data (job creation looks like it may be out of reverse and into neutral) we get some new housing data. There the signals are more disquieting, if expected (at least by me.) The housing market may now be heading back down.

The interesting aspect of this is that so many people see this as unlikely. So let us list some reasons why this is a real risk, if probably not as rapid a fall as we saw previously.

  • Prices are still above a long term stable level. This could be taken care of by stagnating prices and inflation, but there is little inflation right now.
  • The price to rent ratio is out of whack, and rents are still falling, in fact, accelerating. Little wonder, since there is an 11% vacancy rate.

Source: Gary Shilling

  • There are 231,000 newly built housing units sitting vacant.
  • There are 3.29 million vacant homes for sale.
  • Then there is the shadow inventory of homes that are off the market for various reasons (such as foreclosed homes banks are unwilling to sell yet to avoid realizing losses.)
  • Defaults are accelerating, with the largest source of pain now prime loans. As I have maintained for a long time this is not, and never has been, a subprime problem. Subprime was just what collapsed first being the weakest link in the housing market.

Source: Gary Shilling

  • That acceleration is unlikely to slow any time soon as not only are workers still losing jobs and few new potential owners getting jobs, but the length of unemployment is unprecedented in the post war era. The longer a worker is unemployed, the more likely they are to default.

Source: Gary Shilling

  • Lending is still tight for many mortgage seekers.
  • We are forming households at a reduced rate, thus lessening demand for new homes.

Source: Gary Shilling

  • More than 20% of homeowners are currently underwater. Nothing correlates more closely with default rates than negative equity.
  • Worst of all, we need to revisit an old topic of mine that is no longer a longer term risk, but right around the corner. The likely huge wave of defaults represented by Alt-A and Option Arm Loans about to reset. Defaults have followed with a lag each wave of resets, and the largest wave, from the era with the worst underwriting is about to hit. Notice, subprime is receding. With the system as fragile as it is now, what will this wave bring on?

I always am nervous about calling anything a prediction, but further housing deterioration is a very grave possibility.

Needless to say, this has led to further problems at Fannie, Freddie with more to come. Not that you should be concerned about that, the mission has changed. On their way to probably 400 billion in losses (I remember when I was an alarmist claiming that the losses would be far more than the 20-30 million the government was claiming, probably 200 billion. It turns out I was a cockeyed optimist) the government has officially eliminated any limit on their exposure. Why? It seems to be so that they can take losses!

Freddie’s federal overseers nevertheless have instructed Mr. Haldeman to focus on something that isn’t likely to make the bleak balance sheet look any better: carrying out the Obama administration plan to allow defaulted borrowers to hang onto their homes.

On a recent afternoon, employees at Freddie’s headquarters here peppered Mr. Haldeman with concerns about the company’s future. He responded that they were “fortunate” to have such a clear mission—the government’s foreclosure-prevention drive. “We’re doing what’s best for the country,” he told them.

Then there is the poor FHA:

FT Alphaville is certainly in the skeptical camp referred to by Ms Burns, and we were not reassured when the housing agency released its December monthly report on Tuesday.

According to the report, the default rate in the FHA’s single-family portfolio hit 9.12 per cent in the fourth quarter of 2009, compared with 6.82 per cent in the same period a year prior.

In absolute terms, that means the number single-family mortgages insured by the FHA and in default reached 531,671 in the fourth quarter of 2009. That’s a 66 per cent increase versus the same period in 2008.

The agency is being hit hardest by the 2007 and 2008 mortgage vintages; the performance of these loans is so dismal the FHA expects to have to pay claims on at least one out of every four loans made in those years.

Cross Posted at: The View from the Bluff

Musings, Rants and Links over the 18th Fairway:02/09/2010

We finally got a mixed bag on the employment front this month, a welcome change from the purely awful. However, with everyone focused on “creating” jobs I think this quick synopsis attacking the unrealistic expectations of when and where jobs will come from is well worth reading. This chart gives you an idea of how bad it really has been (click image for larger version)


Yves Smith looks at the problem of how to handle the prospect of the financially weaker members of the European Union possibly defaulting. neither the PIIGS nor their colleague states want to take the steps they may need to take. Markets however are sending a clear message, “Do Something!” The risk goes beyond the direct damage from the potential losses from holding these countries debts. European banks are already shaky, with shaky assets and still a lot more leverage than is safe. I believe Europe’s bear market is likely back on.

European banks are shaky? How provincial of me not to mention our own banks. The coming wave of defaults in the Alt-A and Prime mortgage space are not getting enough attention, Yves helps out there as well. Not only are the losses coming (pretending loans are good only works until they actually default) but the banks are in for some serious lawsuits from all kinds of parties that bought the toxic loans. First in line are Freddie and Fannie. They will still lose at least 400 billion, but they’ll take a good chunk out of the banks hide on the way down.

the phrase “credit specialists at Citi” is not exactly the kind of thing which instills enormous confidence in analysts and investors these days

I think that is an understatement. They want to sell another fancy derivative designed to remove all risk if there is a systemic crisis when, of course, those supposed to pay up will certainly have the money to do so….Right?

Please imagine me banging my head against the keyboard. And no, the response of the Citi Spokesman doesn’t make me feel any different, in fact, it makes me feel worse.

The term liquidity is the pixie dust the financial commentariat uses to obscure what is really going on. I maintain, and have throughout the last few years, that our difficulties have not been a liquidity crisis (though many who had no business exposing themselves individually to liquidity drying up for them certain had a liquidity crisis) but a solvency crisis. David Merkel points out that liquidity always exists, it just goes where the marginal credit buyer has gone. Where insolvency risk seems to be increasing, the marginal buyer can become very scarce and will provide it to areas seemingly exposed to less risk. At the end of the day it is solvency that is our problem, and until we solve that liquidity will go to those perceived to be least at risk. Right now that is the government and those they are backing. Hence a credit crunch for much of the economy.

Speaking of credit, consumer credit has now declined for 11 straight months. A record, and by a long shot. (Click image for a larger version.)


In the “no big surprise department,” and paralleling the argument I made at the time, it has now been shown that the ban on short selling during the crisis did not help support prices and damaged stock market liquidity. In the no surprise at all department the biggest complainers turned out to have fundamental problems that short sellers were pointing out accurately (much better than our regulators.) The loudest complainer of all, and their bizarre CEO, Patrick Byrne. The upshot, they have been cooking their books for years, just like the short sellers were claiming.

Cross posted at The View from the Bluff

Counting Unemployment

The most recent release of unemployment data has raised some questions, namely, how can we lose 20,000 jobs in the same month that the unemployment rate declined to 9.7%.  The answer is simple: The unemployment rate is essentially a made-up figure.  And I can give you a much more accurate way to measure the unemployment rate.

First, let’s take a brief look at how the monthly Employment Situation figures are compiled by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.  The BLS combines two surveys to compile the Employment Situation.  The first survey is the Establishment Survey.  That’s a pretty accurate survey, because it consists of asking businesses to provide hard payroll data on the number of existing jobs.   The second is the Household Survey, which is where the train runs off the rails.

For the Household survey, they ask if you are employed.  If the answer is “No”, they then ask if you if you’re actively looking for a job. If the answer is no, then they just simply take you out of the labor force.  They don’t care whether you aren’t looking for work because you know there are no jobs available, or whether you’ve retired and are planning to sail a sloop across the Pacific.  If you aren’t actively looking for work, you aren’t part of the labor force.  So, the official unemployment rate generally understates–sometimes substantially–the real level of unemployment.

Fortunately, there is a better way to calculate the rate of real unemployment, and the BLS web site conveniently provides you with all the data you need to do it.  From here, we only need three items: The Civilian Noninstitutional Population, the Participation Rate, and the number of Employed.

The first thing we need to do is figure out the Labor Force Participation Rate during the most recent period of full employment.  If you take the average monthly labor force participation rate from the 70 months between Jan 04 and Oct 08, you get a participation rate in the labor for of 66% of the Civilian Noninstitutional Population.

Next, you multiply the Civilian Noninstitutional Population by 0.66.  That gives you the size of the normal labor force at full employment.

Next, you take the number of Employed, and calculate the actual rate of unermployment using the following equation:

1-(Employed/Normal Labor Force)=Unemployment Rate.

So, with this method, we can compare the unemployment level of Oct 08, right before the economy cratered, to last month.  When we do so, we get the following results:

OCT 08:
Civilian Noninstitutinal Population:
Participation Rate: 66%
Labor Force:
Employed: 145,543,000
Unemployment Rate: 6.0%

Jan 10:
Civilian Noninstitutinal Population:
Participation Rate: 66%
Labor Force:
Employed: 136,809,000
Unemployment Rate: 12.5%

Note that this calculation for Oct 08 is very close to the official unemployment rate of 6.1%.  But as the economy gets worse the official employment rates show greater and greater variance.  In other words, the official unemployment rate becomes progressively less accurate as the Employment Situation worsens, substantially understating the actual rate of unemployment.  This is, by the way a feature of the BLS’s method, not a bug.  It is no coincidence, as our Soviet friends used to say, that discouraged workers fall out of the labor force calculations.

Now, this measure I’ve explained doesn’t tell us anything about people who are working only part-time, when they’d prefer a full time job, so it doesn’t tell us much about underemployment.  But it does tell us, based on the recent historical labor force participation rate, what the size of the labor force should be.  Once we know that, it becomes very easy to see what the actual rate of unemployment is in real terms, rather than the notional terms provided by the Household Survey.

According the BLS, however, the Civilian noninstitutional population has increased by 2,220,000 people  from 234,612,000 to 236,932,000, while, at the same time, the civilian labor force has shrunk by 2,055,000 people  from 155,012,000 to 153,455,000.  Using the BLS numbers, then, the labor force participation rate is 64.6%.  That kind of demographic change might be expected in a couple of years when the baby Boomers begin retiring in large numbers, but for right now, it seems…counter-intuitive.

In any event, 12.5% unemployment is a far more realistic number than the BLS estimate of 9.7%.


Podcast for 07 Feb 09

In this podcast, Bruce, Michael  and Dale discuss the unemployment numbers and Sarah Palin.  The direct link to the podcast can be found here.


The intro and outro music is Vena Cava by 50 Foot Wave, and is available for free download here.

As a reminder, if you are an iTunes user, don’t forget to subscribe to the QandO podcast, Observations, through iTunes. For those of you who don’t have iTunes, you can subscribe at Podcast Alley. And, of course, for you newsreader subscriber types, our podcast RSS Feed is here. For podcasts from 2005 to 2009, they can be accessed through the RSS Archive Feed.

[ad] Empty ad slot (#1)!