Labor Trends

June 8th, 2014

This week I’ll look at some long term trends in the labor market, short term economic indicators and an unusual move by the European Central Bank.

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May Labor Report

On Friday, the BLS reported job gains of 217K, in line with expectations.  The big headline is that we have finally recovered all the jobs that were lost during the recession.

That headline obscures the weakness in the recovery of the labor market.  The number of jobs gained comes from the monthly survey of businesses.  The household survey shows that the economy is still short about 1 million jobs from its mid-2007 high.  A million jobs is less than 1% of the workforce but we’ll see in a minute that the household survey may be giving us a truer sense of the labor market.  Like a fighter who has been knocked down a few times, the labor market is back on its feet but still maintains a defensive posture.

The number of involuntary part-time workers, those who want full time work but can’t find it, has declined in small increments over the past few years but remains stubbornly high.  Gone are the upward spikes in part-time employment, indicating that the labor market is at least more predictable.

7.3 million involuntary part-timers is about 2.3 million more than a more normal level of 5 million.  Half of that number means that there are effectively 1.2 million jobs still “missing.”  Add to that 1.2 million or more jobs needed each year just to keep up with population growth.  1.2 million x 6 years = 7.2 million.  Add in the 1.2 million jobs to reduce part-timers to normal levels and that is 8.4 million jobs still missing.  Let’s deduct a million jobs or so that were gained before the recession because of an overheated housing market and we still have a 7.5 million jobs gap, or 5% of the potential workforce.  As I will show next week, this job gap puts downward pressure on wages, on personal income, on consumer demand, on…well, just about everything.

This month marked the fourth month in a row that job gains have been higher than 200K.  Two of those four months of  consistently strong job gains came during a weak quarter of economic growth and particularly weak corporate profit growth.  More on that next week.

The narrow measure of unemployment remained unchanged at 6.3% but the widest measure, the U-6 rate, continues to decline from a high of (gulp!) 17% to a current level of 12.2%.

The number of long-term unemployed edges downward.

Although there is much variation in the monthly count of people who are classified as discouraged, the trend is downward from the hump in 2011 and 2012.

After breaking above the 95 million mark earlier this year and rising, the number of workers aged 25 – 54, what I call the core work force, has declined back toward the 95 million mark.

According to the monthly survey of businesses, half of all employees are women.  My gut instinct tells me that this is more out of necessity than desire.  Women do what they have to do to meet the needs of their families and many of those jobs may be part-time to accommodate family needs.

The decline in male-dominated employment in the manufacturing and construction sectors can be seen in the declining participation rate of men in the work force.

Earlier in the week, ADP reported private job gains of 180K, below the consensus estimate of 210K.  A graph of the past decade shows that private job growth has steadied during the past year.

We should probably keep this longer-term perspective in mind to balance out the monthly headlines. Zooming in on the past few years shows the dips, one of which was the recent winter lull.  The trick is to keep a balance between the short-term and the long-term.

The market is expecting growth this quarter that will offset the winter weakness and will probably react quite negatively if prominent indicators like employment, auto sales or housing should disappoint.

Over 10,000 boomers a day reach retirement age.   Not all of them retire but some back of the envelope estimates are that 100K or more do drop out of the labor force each month.  For the past eight months or so, new entrants and re-entrants into the job market has offset these retirees and the number of people not in the labor force has leveled off in the range of 91 to 92 million.

Construction employment finally crossed the psychological 6 million mark this month and for the past year or so has been on the rise from historic lows.  As a percent of the work force, however, employment in this sector is near all-time lows.  Let’s zoom out and look at the past fifty years to get some perspective on this sector.  A more normal percentage of the work force would be about 5%.  The difference is 1 to 1.2 million jobs “missing” in a sector which pays better than average.

In summary, there is a lot to like in the labor reports of the past few months.  But we should not kid ourselves.  The long-term trends show that the challenges are steep.  The question is not whether the glass is half empty or half full.  The question is how many small holes there are in the bottom of the glass.

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Central Banks

Helping to fuel the upward climb in the market this week was the message that central banks are willing to adopt whatever policies they can to support the economy.  In response to the threat of deflation in the Eurozone, the European Central Bank (ECB) made an unprecedented move this week, charging banks 1/10% to park their excess reserves with the central bank.  What does this mean?  Customary policy is that member banks must keep on deposit with the central bank a certain percentage of their outstanding loans and other securities to guard against losses.  For larger banks, this is about 10%.  In a simple example, let’s say that a bank makes another loan for $100.  It must keep an additional $10 on deposit with the central bank.  Let’s say it already has $12 extra on deposit with the central bank.  The central bank would then pay interest to the bank for the extra $2.  The policy change this week by the ECB reverses that policy:  member banks must now pay the central bank for any excess reserves.  Essentially the central bank is charging banks for not making more loans,  a policy which some monetary economists have encouraged the Federal Reserve to adopt.

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CWPI (Constant Weighted Purchasing Index)

On Monday, the Institute for Supply Management released their monthly survey of purchasing managers, then revised it shortly after the release, then revised it again later in the day.  This should remind us that economic gauges are not  like measuring a 2×4 stud with a tape measure.  Seasonal adjustments and other algorithms are applied to most raw data to arrive at a published figure.

The CWPI index I have been tracking for about a year showed further gains in May, rising up from the winter doldrums.  The composite index of the manufacturing and services sectors stands at a bit over 57, solidly in the middle of the strong growth range of 55 to 60.  If the pattern holds, we should expect to see this economic gauge rise during the next few months, peaking at the end of the summer.

An average of two key components of the economy, employment and new orders in the services sector, rose back above 55 this month, a level that hasn’t been seen since last October.

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Key Takeaways

The numbers from the labor market are cause for optimism – job gains are rising while new claims for unemployment are falling.  Auto sales are strong, an indication that consumers have more confidence.  New orders and employment are rising.  Weakness in the housing market bears a close watch.

Employment, Income and GDP

May 4th, 2014

Employment

Private payroll processor ADP estimated job gains of 220K in April and revised March’s estimate 10% higher, indicating an economy that is picking up some steam.  Of course, we have seen this, done that, as the saying goes.  Good job gains in the early months of 2012 and 2013 sparked hopes of a strong resurgence of economic growth followed by OK growth.

New unemployment claims this week were pushing 350K, a bit surprising.  The weekly numbers are a bit volatile and the 4 week average is still rather low at 320K.  In a period of resurgent growth, that four week average should continue to drift downward, not reverse direction. Given the strong corporate profit growth expectations in the second half of the year, there is a curious wariness in the market.  Conflicting data like this keeps buyers on the sidelines, waiting for some confirmation.  CALPERS, the California Employees Pension Fund with almost $200 billion in assets, expressed some difficulty finding value in U.S. equities and is looking abroad to invest new dollars.

On Friday, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported job gains of 288K in April, including 15K government jobs.  Most sectors of the economy reported gains but there are several surprises in this report.  The unemployment rate dropped to 6.3% from 6.7% the previous month, but the decline owes much to a huge drop in labor force participation.  After poking through the 156 million mark recently, the labor force shrank more than 800,000 in April, more than wiping out the 500,000 increase in March.

To give recent history some context notice the steady rise in the labor force since the end of World War 2, followed by a flattening of growth in the past six years.

The core work force, those aged 25 – 54 years, finally broke through the 95 million level in January and rose incrementally in February and March.  It was a bit disappointing that employment in this age group dropped slightly this month.

To give this some perspective, look at the employment rate for this age group. Was the strong growth of employment in the core work force largely a Boomer phenomenon unlikely to repeat?  Perhaps this is why the Fed indicated this week that we may have to lower our expectations of growth in the future.

Discouraged job seekers and involuntary part timers saw little change in this latest report.  On the positive side, there was no increase.  On the negative side, these should decline in a growing economy.  There simply isn’t enough growth.  Was the strong pickup in jobs this past month a sign of a resurgent economy?  Was it simply a make up for growth hampered by the exceptional winter?  The answers to these and other questions will become clearer in the future.  My time machine is in the shop.

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GDP

Go back with me now to those days of yesteryear – actually, it was last year.  Real GDP growth crossed the 4% line in mid year.  The crowd cheered.  Then the economic engine began to slow down. The initial estimate of fourth quarter growth a few months ago was 3.2%.  The second estimate for that period was revised down to 2.4%, far below a half century’s average of 3%.  This week the final estimate was nudged up a bit to 2.6%, but still below the long term average.

Earlier in the week, the Federal Reserve announced that it will continue its steady tapering of bond buying and that it may have to adjust long term policy to a slower growth model.  The harsh winter makes any analysis rather tentative so we can guess the Fed doesn’t want to get it wrong?

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Manufacturing – ISM

ISM reported an upswing in manufacturing activity in April, approaching the level of strong growth.  The focus will be on the service sector which has been expanding at a modest clip.  I’ll update the CWPI when the ISM Service sector report comes out next week.

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Income – Spending

Consumer income and spending showed respectable annual gains of 3.4% and 4.0%.  The BLS reported that earnings have increased 1.9% in the past twelve months. CPI annual growth is a bit over 1% so workers are keeping ahead of inflation, but not by much.   Auto sales remain very strong and the percentage of truck sales is rising toward 60%, a sign of growing confidence by those in the construction and service trades.  Construction spending rose in March .2% and is up over 8% year over year but the leveling off of the residential housing market has clearly had an effect on this sector in the past six months.

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Conservative and Liberals

While this blog focuses mainly on investing and economics, public policy is becoming an ever increasing part of each family’s economic heatlh, both now and particularly in the future.
Some conservatives say that they endorse policies which strengthen the family yet are against rent control, minimum wage and family leave laws, all of which do support families.  How to explain this apparent contradiction?  A feature of philosophies, be they political, social or economic, is that they have a set of rules.  Some rules may be common to competing philosophies but what distinguishes a conceptual framework or viewpoint is the difference in the ordering of those rules.  The prolific author Isaac Asimov, biologist and science fiction writer, proposed a set of three rules programmed into each robot to safeguard humans.  A robot could not obey the second law if it conflicted with the first.  Robots are rigid; humans are not.  Yet we do construct some ordering of our rules.

A conservative, then, might have a rule that policies that protect the family are good.  But conservatives also have two higher priority rules which honor the sanctity of contract and private property: 1) that government should not interfere in voluntary private contracts, and 2) that private property is not to be taken from private individuals or companies without some compensation, either money or an exchange of a good or service. Through rent control policies, governments interfere in a private contract between landlord and tenant and essentially take money from a landlord and give it to a tenant, a violation of both rules 1 and 2.  Minimum wage and mandatory family leave laws enable a government to interfere in a private contract between employer and employee and essentially transfer money from one to the other, another violation of both rules.

In my state, Colorado, there is no rent control.  Instead, landlords receive a prevailing market price and low income tenants receive housing subsidies and energy assistance.  Under rent control, money is taken from a specific subset of the population, landlords, and given to tenants.  Under housing subsidies, money is taken from general tax revenues of one sort or another and given to tenants.  Of the two systems, housing subsidies seems the fairer but many conservatives object to either policy because the government takes from individuals or companies without any exchange, a violation of rule #2.  All policies like housing subsidies which involve transfers of income from one person to another, are mandatory charity, and violate rule #2.

Liberals want to support families as well but they have a different set of rules that prioritizes the sanctity of the social contract: 1) individuals living in a society have an obligation to the well being of other members of that society, and 2) those with greater means have a greater obligation to the well being of the society.  A government which is representative of the individuals of that society has the responsibility to facilitate the movement of wealth and income among those individuals in order to achieve a more equitable balance of happiness within the society.  Flat tax policies espoused by more conservative individuals violate rule #2.  Libertarian proposals for a much smaller regulatory role for government violate rule #1.

For liberals, both of the above rules are subservient to the prime rule: humans have a greater priority than things.  When the preservation of property rights violates the prime rule, property rights are diminished in preference to the preservation of human well-being.  On the other hand, conservatives view property rights as an integral aspect of being human; to diminish property rights is to diminish an individual’s humanity.

In the centuries old dynamic tension between the individual and the group, the liberal view is more tribal, focusing on the well being of the group.  Liberals sometimes ridicule some tax policies espoused by conservatives as “trickle down economics.”  In a touch of irony, it is liberals who truly believe in a trickle down approach in social and economic policies.  The liberal philosophy seeks to protect society from the natural and sometimes reckless self-interest of the individuals within that society. The conservative viewpoint is concerned more with the protection of the individual from the group, believing that the group will achieve a greater degree of well-being if the individuals are secure in their contracts and property. Conservatives then favor what could be called a bottom up approach to organizing society.

Conservatives honor the social contract but give it a lower priority than private contracts.  Liberals honor private contracts but not if they conflict with the social contract. Most people probably fall somewhere on the scale between the two ends of these philosophies and arguments about which approach is “right” will never resolve the fundamental discord between these two philosophies.

In the coming years, we are going to have to learn to negotiate between these two philosophies or public policy will have little direction or effectiveness.  Negotiating between the two will require an understanding of the ordering of priorities of each ideological camp.

Before the 1970s political candidates were picked by the party bosses in each state, who picked those candidates they thought would appeal to the most party voters in the district.   The present system of promoting political candidates by a primary system within each state has favored candidates who are fervent advocates of a strictly conservative or liberal philosophy, chosen by a small group of equally fervent voters in each state.  The middle has mostly deserted each party, leading to a growing polarization.  Survey after survey reveals that the views of most voters are not as polarized as the candidates who are elected to represent them. A graph from the Brookings Institution shows the increasing polarity of the Congress, while repeated surveys indicate that voters are rather evenly divided.

Employment, New Orders, CWPI

CWPI (Formerly CWI)

The Constant Weighted Purchasing Index (CWPI) that I introduced last summer was designed to be an early or timely warning system of weakening elements of the economy.  It is based on a 2003 study by economist Rolando Pelaez on the monthly Manufacturing Purchasing Managers Index (PMI) published by the Institute for Supply Management (ISM).  ISM also produces a Non-Manufacturing index for service industries each month but this was not included in the 2003 study.

The CWPI focuses on five factors published by ISM:  employment, new orders, pricing, inventory levels and the timeliness of supplier deliveries.

The CWPI assigns constant weights to the components of both indexes, then combines both of these indexes into a composite, giving more weight to the services sector since it is a larger part of the economy.  Both the CWPI and PMI are indexed so that 50 is neutral; readings above 50 indicate growth; readings below 50 indicate contraction.  In previous months (here and here), I anticipated that the combined manufacturing and services sector index would move into a trough at this time before rising again in March and April of this year.

A longer term chart shows the wave like formation in this expansionary phase that began in the late summer of 2009.

February’s ISM manufacturing index climbed slightly but the non-manufacturing, or services, index slid precipitously, more than offsetting the rise in manufacturing.  Particularly notable was the huge 9% decline in services employment, from strong growth to contraction.  The service sector portion of the CWPI shows a contraction which some blame on the weather.  A slight contraction – a reading just below 50 – can be just noise in the survey data.  The past two times when the employment component of the services sector has dropped below 48, as it did in this latest report, the economy was already in recession; we just didn’t know it till months later.

A close comparison of the current data with the previous two episodes may sound a cautionary tone.   At this month’s reading of 48.6, the CWPI services portion is not showing as severe a contraction as in April 2001 (43.5) and January 2008 (33.1), when the employment component also dropped below 48.

New orders and employment in both portions of the CWPI are given extra weight. In January 2008, new orders and employment both fell dramatically.  The current decline is similar to the onset of the recession beginning in early 2001, when employment declined severely in April but new orders remained about the same.  Let’s isolate just these two factors and weight them proportionate to their respective weights in the services portion of the CWPI.

Notice that the decline below 50 signaled the beginning of the past two recessions.  Here’s the data in a different graph with a bit more detail.

Some cite the historically severe weather in the populous eastern half of the country as the primary cause for the decline in the services sector employment indicator and it well may be.  If so, we should expect to see a rebound in this component in March.  Basing a prediction on one month’s reading of one or two components of an indicator is a bit rash.  However, we often mistakenly attribute weakness in some parts of the economy to temporary factors and discount their importance because they are temporary – or so we think.

In the early part of 2008, many thought that a healthy correction in an overheated housing market was responsible for the slowdown in economic growth.  In the spring of that year, the bailout of bankrupt Bear Stearns, an undercapitalized investment firm which had made some bad bets in the housing market, confirmed the hypothesis that the corrective phase was nearing its end. As weakness continued into the late spring of that year, some blamed temporarily high gasoline and commodity prices for exacerbating the housing correction.  In the fall of 2008, the financial crisis exploded and only then did many realize that the problems with the economy were more than temporary.

In the early part of 2001, a healthy correction to the internet boom was responsible for the slowdown – a temporary state of affairs.  When the horrific events of 9-11 scarred the country’s psyche, the recession was almost over.  Many were not listening to the sucking sound of manufacturing jobs leaving for China or giving enough importance to the increasing competitiveness of the global market.  Employment would not reach the levels of early 2001 till the beginning of 2005.

This time the slowdown in employment and new orders in the services sector may be a temporary response to the severe winter weather.  Let’s hope so.

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Private Sector employment and new unemployment claims

ADP released their February employment report this week and eyes rolled.  January’s benign reading of 175,000 private job gains was so at odds with the BLS’ reported gains of 113,000.  “Oh, wait,” ADP said this week, “we’ve revised  January’s gains down to 127,000.”  In a work force of some 150 million, 50,000 jobs is rather miniscule.  As the chief payroll processor in this country, ADP has touted its robust data collection from a large pool of employers.  A revision of this magnitude leads one to question the robustness and reliability of their methodology, and the timeliness of their data collection.  For its part, the BLS admits that its current data is based on surveys and that each month’s estimate of job gains is largely educated guesswork.  ADP is actually processing the payrolls, which should reduce the amount of guesswork.

Private job gains in February were 10,000 below the consensus 150,000 but this week’s report of new unemployment claims dropped 27,000, bringing the 4 week average down a few thousand.  As a percent of workers, the 4 week average of continuing claims is below the 33 year average and has been since March 2012.  In this case, below average is good.

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Employment – Monthly Labor Report

This week’s labor report from the BLS carried a banner caveat that the cold weather in February may have affected employment data.  With that in mind, the headline job gains of 175K were above expectations for 150K job gains.  The unemployment rate ticked up a bit.  If we average the ADP job gains with the private sector job gains reported by the BLS, we get 150K plus 13K in government jobs added for a total of 163K total jobs.  The year over year growth in the number of workers is above 1%, indicating a labor market healthy enough to preclude recession.

A big plus this year is the growth in the core work force, those aged 25 – 54, which finally surpassed the level at the end of the recession in the summer of 2009. 

However, there are some persistent trends independent of the weather that underscore the challenges that the current labor market is struggling to overcome.

As I pointed out last week, there are several unemployment measures, from the narrowest measure – the headline unemployment rate – to wider measures which include people who are partially employed.  The U-6 rate includes discouraged workers and those who are working part time jobs because they can’t find full time jobs.  For a different perspective, let’s look at the ratio of the widest measure to the narrowest measure. The increase in this ratio reflects a growing disparity in the economic well being of the work force.

Contributing to the rise in this ratio is the persistently high percentage of workers who are involuntary part timers.  Looking back over several decades, we can see that the unwelcome spike in this component of the work force can take a number of years to decline to average levels.  Following the back to back recessions in the early 1980s, levels of involuntary part timers took 8 years to recover to average, then quickly climbed again as the economy sputtered into another recession.  We are almost five years in recovery from this recession and have still not approached average.

There are more discouraged workers today than there were at the end of the recession in the summer of 2009.  Discouraged workers are included in the wider measure of unemployment but not in the narrow headline unemployment figure.

The median duration of unemployment remains at levels not seen since the 1930s Depression.  Someone who becomes unemployed today has a 50-50 chance of still being unemployed four months from now.  That would make a good survey question:  “In your lifetime, have you ever been involuntarily unemployed for four months?”

Despite all the headlines that the housing market is rebounding, the percent of the work force working in construction is barely above historic lows.

A recent report by two economists at the New York branch of the Federal Reserve paints a disappointing job picture for recent college graduates.  On page 5 of their report is this telling graph of a higher percentage of recent college graduates accepting low wage jobs.

Low wage and part time jobs do not enable a graduate to pay back education loans.  Almost two years ago, the total of student loans surpassed the trillion dollar mark.  According to the Dept. of Education, the default rate in 2011 was 10%.  I’ll bet that the current default rate is higher.

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Takeaways

As is often the case, data from one source partially contradicts data from a different source.  The employment decline reported by ISM bears close watching for further signs of weakness.  The yearly growth in jobs reported by the BLS indicates a relatively healthy job market.