Jobs Affect Elections

September 15, 2019

By Steve Stofka

“It’s the economy, stupid,” James Carville posted in the headquarters of Bill Clinton’s 1992 Presidential campaign. The campaign stayed focused on the concerns of middle and working- class people who were still recovering from the 1990 recession. Jobs can make or break a Presidential campaign.

Each month the BLS reports the net gain or loss in jobs and the unemployment rate for the previous month. These numbers are widely reported. Weeks later the BLS releases the JOLTS report for that same month – a survey of job openings available and the number of employees voluntarily quitting their jobs. When there are a lot of openings, employees have more confidence in finding another job and are more likely to quit one job for another. When job openings are down, employees stick with their jobs and quits go down as well.

President Bush began and ended his eight-year tenure with a loss in job openings. Throughout his two terms, he never achieved the levels during the Clinton years. Here’s a chart of the annual percent gains and losses in job openings.

As job losses mounted in 2007, voter affections turned away from the Republican hands-off style of government. They elected Democrats to the House in the 2006 election, then gave the party all the reins of power after the financial crisis.

As the 2012 election approached, the year-over-year increase in job openings slowed to almost zero and the Obama administration was concerned that a downturn would hurt his chances for re-election. As a former head of the investment firm Bain Capital, Republican candidate Mitt Romney promised to bring his experience, business sense and structure to help a fumbling economic recovery. The Obama team did not diminish Romney’s experience; they used it against him, claiming that Romney’s success had come at the expense of workers. The story line went like this: Bain Capital destroyed other people’s lives by buying companies, laying off a lot of hard-working people and turning all the profits over to Bain’s fat cat clients. The implication was that a Romney presidency would follow the same pattern. Perception matters.

In the nine months before the 2016 election, the number of job openings began to decline. That put additional economic pressure on families whose finances had still not recovered following the financial crisis and eight years of an Obama presidency. Surely that led some working-class voters in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania to question whether another eight years of a Democratic presidency was good for them. What about this wealthy, inexperienced loudmouth Trump? He didn’t sound like a Republican or Democrat. Yeah, why not? Maybe it will shake things up a bit.  Enough voters pulled the lever in the voting booth and that swung the victory to Trump.

In the past months the growth in job openings has declined. Having gained a victory based partially on economic dissatisfaction, Trump is alert to changes that will affect his support among this disaffected group. As a long-time commentator on CNBC, Trump’s economic advisor, Larry Kudlow, is aware that the JOLTS data reveals the underlying mood of the job market. Job openings matter.

Unable to get action from a divided Congress, Trump wants Fed chairman to lower interest rates. There have been few recessions that began in an election year because they are political dynamite. The recession that began in 1948 almost cost Truman the election. The 1960 recession certainly hurt Vice-President Nixon’s bid for the White House in a close race with the back-bench senator from Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy.

In his bid to unseat President Carter in 1980, Ronald Reagan famously asked whether voters were better off than they were four years earlier. The recession that began that year helped voters decide in favor of Reagan.

Although the 2001 recession started a few months after the election, the implosion of the dot-com boom during 2000 certainly did not help Vice-President Al Gore’s run for the White House. It took a Supreme Court decision and a few hundred votes in Florida to put Bush in the White House.

As I noted earlier, George Bush began and ended his eight years in the White House with significant job losses. Those in 2008 were so large that it convinced voters that Democrats needed a clear mandate to fix the country’s economic problems. After the dust settled, the Dems had retained the house, won a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate and captured the Presidency. Jobs matter.

The 2020 race will mark the 19th Presidential election after World War 2. Recessions have marked only four elections – call it five, if we include the 2000 election.  An election occurs every four years, so it is not surprising that recessions occurred in only 25% of the past twenty elections, right? It’s not just the occurrence of a recession; it’s the start of one that matters.

Presidents and their parties act to fend off economic downturns with fiscal policy or pressure the Fed to enact favorable monetary policy that will delay downturns during an election. Trump’s method of persuasion is not to cajole, but to criticize and denigrate anyone who doesn’t give him what he wants, including the Fed chairman. To Trump, life is a tag-team wrestling match. Chairman Powell can expect more vitriolic tweets in the months to come. Trump will issue more executive orders to give an impression that his administration is doing something. The stock market will probably go up. It usually does in a Presidential election year.

Phillips Curve

November 12, 2017

For the past 16 decades, there has been a least one recession per decade. Given that this bull market is eight years old without a recession, some investors may be concerned that their portfolio mix is a bit on the risky side. Here’s something that can help investors map the road ahead.

For several decades, the Federal Reserve has used the Phillips Curve to help guide monetary policy. The curve is an inverse relationship between inflation and unemployment. Picture a see saw. When unemployment is low, demand for labor and inflation are high. When unemployment is high, demand for labor and inflation are low (See wonky notes at end).

The monetary economist Milton Friedman said the relationship of the Phillips curve was weak, and economists continue to debate the validity of the curve. As we’ll see, the curve is valid until it’s not. The breakdown of the relationship between employment and inflation signals the onset of a recession.

Let’s compare the annual change in employment, the inverse of unemployment, and inflation. We should see these two series move in lockstep. As these series diverge, the onset of a recession draws near.

In a divergence, one series goes up while one series goes down.  The difference, or spread, between the two grows larger. Spread is a term usually associated with interest rates, so I’ll call this difference the GAP.

In the chart below, I have marked fully developed divergences with an arrow marked “PC”. Each is a recession. I’ll show both series first, so you can see the divergences develop. I’ll show a graph of the GAP at the end.


As you can see to the right of the graph, no divergences have formed since the financial crisis.

Shown in the chart below are the beginnings of divergences, marked with an orange square. I’ve also included a few convergences, when the series move toward each other. These usually precede a drop in the stock market but no recession.


Here’s a graph of the difference, or GAP, between the two series in the last 11 years.


Fundamental economic indicators like this one can help an investor avoid longer term meltdowns. Can investors avoid all the bear markets? No. Financial, not economic, causes lay behind the sharp downturns of the 1987 October meltdown and 1998 Asian financial crisis.

What about the 2008 financial crisis? A year earlier, in October 2007, this indicator had already signaled trouble ahead based on the high and steadily growing GAP.

What about the dot com crash? In February 2001, several months after the market’s height, the growing GAP warned of a rocky road ahead. A recession began a month later. The downturn in the market would last another two years.

Readers who want to check on this indicator themselves can follow this link.


Wonky Stuff

In Econ101, students become familiar with a graph of this curve. Readers who want to dive deeper can see this article from Dr. Econ at the Federal Reserve. There is also a Khan Academy video .

The Supply Chain Sags

September 11, 2016

Fifteen years ago almost three thousand people lost their lives when the twin towers crumpled from the kamikaze attack of two hijacked airplanes.  Over the fields of rural Pennsylvania that morning, the passengers of a another hijacked plane sacrificed their own lives to rush the hijackers and prevent an attack on Washington.  We honor them and the families who endured the loss of their loved ones.


Purchasing Managers Index

Each month a private company ISM surveys the purchasing managers at companies around the country to assess the supply chain of the economy. Are new orders growing or shrinking since last month?  Is the company hiring or firing?  Are inventories growing or shrinking?  How timely are the company’s suppliers?  Are prices rising or falling? ISM publishes their results each month as a  Purchasing Managers Index (PMI), and it is probably the most influential private survey.

ISM’s August survey was disappointing, especially the manufacturing data.  Two key components of the survey, new orders and employment, contracted in August. Both manufacturing and service industries indicated a slight contraction.

For readers unfamiliar with this survey, I’ll review some of the details The PMI is a type of index called a diffusion index. A value of 50 is like a zero line.  Values above 50 indicate expansion from the previous reading; below 50 shows contraction. ISM compiles an index for the two types of suppliers, goods and services, manufacturing and non-manufacturing.

The CWPI variation

Each month I construct an index I call the Constant Weighted Purchasing Index (CWPI) that blends the manufacturing and non-manufacturing surveys into a composite. The CWPI gives extra weight to two components, new orders and employment, based on a methodology presented in a 2003 paper by economist Rolando Pelaez.  Over the past two decades, this index has been less volatile than the PMI and a more reliable warning system of recession and recovery, signaling a few months earlier than the PMI.

Weakness in manufacturing is a concern but it is only about 15% of the overall economy.  In the calculation of the CWPI, however, manufacturing is given a 30% weight.  Manufacturing involves a supply chain that produces a ripple effect in so many service industries that benefit from healthy employment in manufacturing. Because there may be some seasonal or other type of volatility in the survey, I smooth the index with a three month moving average.  Sometimes there is a brief dip in both the manufacturing and non-manufacturing sides of the data. If the downturn continues, the smoothed data will confirm the contraction in the next month.  This is the key to the start of a recession – a continuing contraction.

History of the CWPI

The contraction in the survey results was slight but the effect is more pronounced in the CWPI calculation. One month’s data does not make a trend but does wave a flag of caution. Let’s take a look at some past data.  In 2006 there was a brief one month downturn. In January 2008, the smoothed and unsmoothed CWPI data showed a contraction in the supply chain, and more important continued to contract. The beginning of the recession was later set by the NBER at December 2007. ( Remember that these recession dates are determined long after the actual date when enough data has been gathered that the NBER feels confident in its determination.)  The PMI index did not indicate contraction on both sides of the economy until October 2008, seven months after the signal from the CWPI.  During that time, from January to October 2008, the SP500 index lost 30% of its value.

The CWPI unsmoothed index showed expansion in June 2009 and the smoothed index confirmed that the following month. The PMI did not show a consistent expansion till August 2009.  The NBER later called the end of the recession in June 2009.

The Current Trend

Despite the weak numbers, the smoothed CWPI continues to show expansion but we can see that there is a definite shift from the wave like pattern that has persisted since the recovery began.

With a longer view we can see that an up and down wave is more typical during recoveries.  A flattening or slow steady decline (red arrows) usually precedes an economic downturn.  The red arrows in the graph below occurred a year before a recession.  The left arrow is the first half of 2000, a year before the start of the 2001 recession.  The two arrows in the middle of the graph point to a flattening in 2006, followed by a near contraction.  A rise in the first part of 2007 faltered and fell before the recession started in December 2007.  The current flattening (right arrow) is about six months long.

New Orders and Employment

Focusing on service sector employment and new orders, we can see the weakness in this year’s data.

With a long view, a smoothed version of this-sub indicator signals weakness before a recession starts and doesn’t shut off till late after a recession’s end.  The smoothed version has been below the 5 year average for seven months in a row.  If history is any guide, a recession in the next year is pretty certain.

The 2007-2009 Recession

 In August 2006 this indicator began consistently signaling key weakness in the service sectors of the economy (big middle rectangle in the graph below). Stock market highs were reached in June 2007 and the recession did not officially begin till December 2007, a full sixteen months after the signal started.  That signal didn’t shut off till the spring of 2010, about eight months after the official end of the recession.

The 2001 Recession, Dot-Com Bust and Iraq War

The recession in 2001 lasted only six months but the downturn in the market lasted three years as equities repriced after the over-investment of the dot-com boom.  The smoothed version of this indicator first turned on in January 2001, two months before the start of the recession in March of that year.   Although, the recession officially ended in November 2001, the signal did not shut off till June 2003 (left rectangle in the graph above).  Note that the market (SP500) hit bottom in September 2002, then nosedived again in the winter.  Weak 4th quarter GDP growth that year fueled doubts about the recovery.  Concerns about the Iraq war added uncertainty to the mix and drove equity prices near that September 2002 bottom.  In April 2003, two months before the signal shut off, the market began an upward trajectory that would last over four years.

No one indicator can serve as a crystal ball into the future, but this is a reliable cautionary tool to add to an investor’s tool box.


Stocks, Interest Rates and Employment

There are 24 branches of the Federal Reserve. This week, presidents of two of those banches indicated that they favored an interest rate hike when the Fed meets later this month (Investor’s Business Daily article).  On Friday, the stock market dropped more than 2% in response.  One of those presidents, Rosengren, is a voting member on the committee (FOMC) that sets interest rates.  I have been in favor of higher interest rates for quite some time so I agree with Rosengren that gradual rate increases are needed. However, Chairwoman Janet Yellen relies on the Labor Market Conditions Index (LMCI) to gauge the health of the labor market.

Despite an unemployment rate below 5%, this index of about 20 indicators has been lackluster or negative this year.  There are a record number of job openings but employees are not switching jobs as the rate they do in a healthy labor market.  This is the way that the majority of employees increase their earnings so why are employees not pursuing these opportunities?

The Federal Reserve has a twin mandate from Congress: “maximum employment, stable prices, and moderate long-term interest rates.” (Source) There is a good case to be made that there are too many weaknesses in the employment data, and that caution is the more prudent stance.  The FOMC meets again in early November, just six weeks after the upcoming September meeting. Although the Labor Report will not be released till three days after the FOMC meeting, the members will have preliminary access to the data, giving them two more months of employment data. Yellen can make a good case that a short six week pause is well worth the wait.

Stuck in the Mud

In 18 months, the SP500 is little changed.  A broad index of bonds (BND) is about the same price it was in January 2015.  The lack of price movement is a bit worrying.  There are several alternative investments which investors may include in their portfolio allocation.  Since January 2015, commodities (DBC)  have lost 15%, gold (GLD) has gained a meager 1%, emerging markets (VWO) are down 5%, and real estate (VNQ) is literally unchanged.  A bright note: international bonds (BNDX) have gained almost 6% in that time and pay about 1.5%.  1994 was the last time several non-correlated assets hit the pause button.  The following six years were good for both stocks and bonds.  What will happen this time?  Stay tuned.

Growing Government Debt

March 6, 2016

Earlier this year and again last week I suggested that a broad index of energy companies would probably be a good investment for the long term investor.  This week’s inventory report from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) showed that crude oil inventories continued to climb but that demand for gasoline is up a strong 7% over last year.

The latest Baker Hughes rig count showed an 11th week of declines in North America.  Oil rigs are now at levels last seen in early 2008 and gas rigs are at a 70 year low.

In response to demand growth and a steadily declining supply, crude oil prices climbed almost 10% and energy ETFs like XLE and VDE climbed almost 8% this past week.


Constant Weighted Purchasing Index (CWPI)

At the beginning of each month I update an index that is based on the Purchasing Managers Index (PMI) using a methodology initially developed by financial economist Roland Pelaez in 2003 as a possible forcasting indicator for recessions.  I modified that to include the dominant non-manufacturing part of the economy, and called this combined index the CWPI, which I have included in my blog for three years.

The PMI is a monthly survey of Purchasing Managers throughout the country that gauges expansion or contraction in several aspects of their business.  The two most important components in the model are employment and new orders.

For the first time since last October, the manufacturing component of the index rose but is still contracting slightly.  Export manufacturers have had to overcome a strong dollar in the past 1-1/2 years, which makes American made products more expensive overseas.  The services sector is still expanding and the composite reading is still strong, indicating that there is little risk of recession in the near term.

Although Friday’s employment report showed strong job gains of 240,000, growth in the employment component of the services sectors is slowing.

Mr. Pelaez has recently published  a peer reviewed recession forecasting tool that I have not reviewed yet but I do look forward to reading his insights. Recessions come infrequently, about once a decade, but a long term investor who can switch out of stocks and into Treasuries to avoid these recessions could theoretically triple their wealth.

A word of caution.  There are several inherent problems with trading models based on infrequent economic events like recessions: 1) backtesting can help one develop a model or trading rule that does little more than fit the historical data;  2) backtesting uses revised economic and financial data.  Unfortunately, we don’t get to make decisions with historically revised data.

A great example of this:  at the June 2008 meeting of the Fed, three months before the financial crisis imploded, the majority of economists at the meeting felt that the economy had skirted a recession.  As more data for the first and second quarters of 2008 showed a definite decline in GDP, the NBER actually marked the start of the recession six months before that meeting, in December 2007.  You want perfect?  Next universe that-a-way.


Debt Doubts

In December 2009, I mentioned  a comment by Raymond Baer, the chairman of Swiss private bank Julius Baer, who warned: “The world is creating the final big bubble. In five years’ time, we will pay the true price of this crisis.”

That time has come and gone but these things don’t run on a calendar.  As the book “The Big Short” noted, a person has to be right and timely.  Some who bet on the implosion of the housing bubble ran out of money before the bubble burst.

Taking advantage of extremely low interest rates, companies continue to borrow.  Levels of corporate debt are nearly a third of GDP.

Instead of bringing some of its cash profits back into the U.S. and triggering a tax expense, Apple has borrowed money to fund operations and investment.  Banks and investors would rather loan money to Apple than some medium sized business.  How good is that for the long term health of the economy?

To understand the makings of a debt bubble, let’s compare rates of return on investment and debt. Let’s say that a 50/50 balanced portfolio can earn 5.5% per year; 7.5% for stocks, 3.5% for bonds.  If a mortgage can be had for 4%, then it makes sense to NOT pay down the mortgage.  A car lease or loan at a 2% interest rate?  Keep rolling the loan or lease.  A company like Johnson and Johnson can borrow money for 25 years at the same 4%.  Why would they pay down debt?

Debt continues to grow because there is no financial incentive to pay it down.  Some families may pay down debt out of conservative prudence but there is no economic sense in doing so as long as money can be borrowed at a rate that is below what one can earn with the money.

As an example, let’s say that a family is considering paying off the remaining $100K on their mortgage.  They can get a new mortgage for 3.5% – 4%.  If they can earn 5% on that money, why bother paying off the mortgage?  Persistently low interest rates cause families and businesses to make short term decisions that make sense – until they don’t.  Some families will pay off debt as a matter of prudence but the low interest rate environment encourages families and businesses to NOT pay off debt.

In 2009, Raymond Baer was referring to the amount of corporate debt that was being rolled over at the time in order to avoid taking a loss on the loan.  Central banks have helped subsidize that rising corporate debt with low interest rates.  Banks reciprocate by buying government debt.

Global government debt has DOUBLED from $28 trillion in 2007 to almost $56 trillion in 2015 (Global debt clock).  China’s government debt-to-GDP ratio has more than doubled from 21% in 2007 to an estimated 54% in 2008 (S. China Post)

In the U.S. and Europe, government banking agencies reciprocate by requiring banks to hold little if any reserve collateral for the Federal or central government debt the banks purchase.  It’s a great financial buddy system – until it’s not.  We have never lived in a world where central banks can create so much money with an entry in a ledger.  As long as no one runs for the exits, everything is OK.

Under the Dodd-Frank rules, the Federal Reserve does not rate state and municipal debt with the same safety it accords U.S. Treasury debt.  This forces banks to hold more collateral against the debt, making it less attractive.  The Dodd-Frank test is whether banks can survive for thirty days during a financial crisis.  Since municipal and state bonds don’t trade very frequently, their lack of liquidity makes them more susceptible to downward price pressures in a crisis.  The Fed wants banks to offset that risk.  Cities and states complain that this forces them to pay higher interest rates on their debt and gives them less access to the bond market.  What do governments do when they don’t like the judgment of finance professionals?  Get their legislators to pass laws to override that prudence.  Several bills in both the Senate and House have been proposed.  This is how the world goes to hell.  One step at a time. (WSJ article on municipal debt)


Bonds Bust ZLB

Howz dat for a headline?!  ZLB means “Zero Lower Bound”, or 0%. Last Monday, the central bank of Japan sold almost $20 billion of 10-year government bonds that paid a negative interest rate.  Buyers are paying the Japanese government a fee to loan the government money.  Bizarro world!  While I don’t know the details, the buyers are probably Japanese banks who “take one for the team” – lose money – to implement a plan that the central bank hopes will combat the threat of deflation.

Labor Report and Debate

A less than forceful President Obama appeared in Denver this past Wednesday at the first of three debates in the closing weeks before the November elections. (The Secret Service was rather more forceful, mandating a shut down of the main north-south highway through town during the debate.)  Republican contender Mitt Romney showed more preparation and assertiveness but unfortunately left some of the facts behind in his hotel room.  Neither candidate can look the truth in the face.  Mr. Obama’s repeated claim that his economic plan saves $4 trillion uses many discredited (even by his sympathizers) gimmicks to arrive at that figure and yet he continues to trot out the assertion.  Mr. Romney really wants us to believe that Congress is going to jeopardize their jobs by taking away popular tax deductions in order to pass his 20% rate cuts.  Congress will pass the rate cuts, which are good for re-election.  Take away the mortgage interest deduction?  We’re not betting on it, Mr. Romney.  The end result of his tax plan and his pledge to increase military spending would be a $2 trillion deficit, double the annual deficit we are currently running.

Mr. Obama continues to pledge his support for the middle class, many of whom continue to slide down from the middle middle class to the lower middle class on their way to upper lower class and downright poverty.  Mr. Obama spent much of the debate consulting his notes on supporting the middle class as though he were teaching a class on the subject.  Note to Mr. Obama: you are no longer in the classroom.  This is the real world.

There are any number of fact checks on claims by both Mr. Romney and Mr. Obama during the debate.  Here is a fairly short summary from several Associated Press writers.

Then Friday morning, the heavens parted and the voice of – no, not God – the Bureau of Labor Statistics issued forth in their monthly pronouncement on the state of the job market: “The unemployment rate decreased to 7.8 percent in September”.

Throughout the country millions of pundits, economists and average Joes and Bettys stopped in disbelief and reached for their ear trumpets.  Had they heard right, they wondered?  Tweet, tweet, tweet went the twittersphere.  Blah, blah, blah went the blogosphere.  Lies, lies, lies went the right wing cons over at Fox and dance, dance, dance went the lefties at MSNBC.  For the first time in his presidency, Mr. Obama has seen the unemployment rate drop below 8%.

Had a large number of people simply given up and left the work force, causing them not to be counted as unemployed?  This has been a characteristic of the decline in the unemployment rate earlier in the year.  But not this month. 

Was the number of jobs created particularly strong?  Not this month.  At 114,000, job growth was not strong or weak and probably not enough to keep up with population growth.  A third of that job growth was in the health care sector.  A nation that continues to show its greatest growth in taking care of an aging and poorer population is not building a foundation for sound long term economic growth.

Many of the unemployed simply did the best they could do – get a part time job.  The number of involuntary part timers increased by more than a half million this past month. From the BLS Employment Release:

“The number of persons employed part time for economic reasons (sometimes
referred to as involuntary part-time workers) rose from 8.0 million in August
to 8.6 million in September. These individuals were working part time because
their hours had been cut back or because they were unable to find a full-time

There are good and bad trends that cause the unemployment rate to fall.  The two most problematic of the bad trends are 1) unemployed people simply giving up, and 2) involuntary part timers.  We have now seen both of these trends this year.

The steep drop in discouraged workers contributed to the decline in the unemployment rate.

“Among the marginally attached, there were 802,000 discouraged workers in
September, a decline of 235,000 from a year earlier. (These data are not
seasonally adjusted.) Discouraged workers are persons not currently looking
for work because they believe no jobs are available for them.”

Below is a 10 year graph showing the level of discouraged workers. (Click to enlarge in separate tab)

Another contributing factor was the revision in the number of net jobs gained in the two previous months.

“The change in total nonfarm payroll employment for July was revised from
+141,000 to +181,000, and the change for August was revised from +96,000 to
+142,000.”  Last month, many were scratching their heads when the BLS released their August report showing a dramatically lower number of jobs gained than reported by the payroll processing company ADP. It seems that some companies may have been too busy hiring to fill out and turn in their August BLS survey form.

Discouraged workers comprise part of a larger total of 6.4 million people who want a job but have not actively looked for one in the past 4 weeks.  A year ago, in Sept. 2011, the figure was 5.9 million.

Homebuilder stocks have been on a tear this year but construction employment, at 5.5 million, has barely budged in the past 3 years.

The core work force, those aged 25 – 54, continue to show some improvement but still have not reached the post-recession level of late 2009.

In the larger work force, aged 25 and up, the number of employed has risen almost to pre-recession levels, indicating that there are more older people continuing to work when they can – at full or part time jobs. 

As the population ages, so too does the work force – a natural demographic change.  But older workers are not stepping aside for young workers just entering the work force.  Those who can work do so to compensate for the lackluster growth or decline of retirement funds and declining property values, the two chief sources of wealth that a person builds over a lifetime of work. Below is a graph of workers aged 55 and older.

The number of hours worked per week edged up slightly – a good sign.  But – “over the past 12 months, average hourly earnings have risen by 1.8 percent, ” the BLS report notes, indicating that family earnings are just not keeping up with inflation.

On the bright side, we are doing better than much of Europe which is probably already in recession.  Returning to the topic of debates, did we hear either candidate offer a recovery plan for … not this past recession but the one that will probably occur during the next Presidential term.  “What!!!???” you say, “we haven’t even gotten out of this past recession!”  The law of averages, like the law of gravity, is a pesky, problematic force of nature.  The 1960s and the 1990s are the only two decades in the past century where we did not witness a recession within an eight year period (Source), yet few Presidential candidates dare to discuss the eventuality of such a thing.  Even the Congressional Budget Office does not factor in recessions to their ten year budget projections unless the recession is ongoing.  As the Presidential contender, Mr. Romney must play the part of the man with a plan.  After four years, Mr. Obama probably understands that “hope and change” is little more than rousing rhetoric; that the President must steer the raft through dangerous currents without capsizing or losing any passengers, while the other political party rocks the raft enough to make his task even more difficult.  Should Mr. Romney win the Presidency, he will discover the same sobering truth.

GDP and Recession

So you’re sitting at a picnic table in the park, having a barbecue with friends and family and one of your kids starts complaining about how life is so unfair because of something or other and you find your mind drifting off to the state of the economy.  You feel like telling your kid that, as they grow older, they are going to find that life is full of unfair and to just get over it.  But you don’t tell your kid that because they are not strong enough for it yet, which reminds you of Jack Nicholson’s line in the movie A Few Good Men: “You can’t handle the truth!”  But you don’t tell that to your kid because it would scare them so you act sympathetic and give your kid a little hug and pretty soon everything is OK again except that about eight feet away from the table Uncle Bob is having an argument with your friend about the money the government is spending.

Uncle Bob is saying that Obama and the Democrats are bringing down this country and your friend counters that it is Obama who trying to resurrect the country after Bush’s eight years as President.  You begin to turn your shoulders to them as though to insert yourself into the debate but notice that your wife is looking at you kinda funny from across the picnic table and, while you are not that good at mind reading, there is something in her look that raises a flag of caution in your mind.  Your father in law is busy at the barbecue and calls out that the burgers will be ready in five minutes – which gives you just enough time to whip out your iPad and check the Federal Reserve data site to answer a nagging question:  what is GDP per person in this country?

Gross Domestic Product accounts for most of the private and government economic activity in a country.  GDP doesn’t take into account the money that a government borrows to fund its spending;  GDP only includes the spending.  GDP doesn’t care what the money was spent for, whether it was to build a bridge in Iowa or destroy a bridge in Afghanistan.  Regardless of these and other faults,  GDP serves as a report card on a country’s economy.

Real GDP is an inflation adjusted GDP, a way of comparing apples to apples over the years.  Real GDP per capita is the inflation adjusted economic output per person.

You type in “Real GDP” into the search box  and the Federal Reserve database, or FRED to its many users, obliges you with a list of GDP reports and you select the first one. The full graph comes up showing the years 1947 to 2012.  You touch the Edit Graph button, then change the beginning date to 1960.

Both Uncle Bob and your buddy have had a few beers, a beverage which adds certainty to a man’s opinion.  You wonder how many of these political-economic debates have occurred this week at the dinner table, at the office, while taking a break on a construction site.

Your iPad screen shows the rise in real GDP with the “hook” starting in late 2007.  It is that hook that has got a lot of people arguing.  Its the hook that has pulled home values down and given a hard yank on the retirement dreams of  many people.  That hook tugged away the after school program your kid was in as the school district tightened its belt.  That hook took your wife’s job away; it almost took yours.

Now your buddy is talking loudly and pointedly about higher education cuts, but is barely able to finish his sentence as Uncle Bob interrupts him with the tale of the state university vice-president who is getting $300K a year in pension benefits.  Bob is sick of paying higher taxes for the fat cat retirements of the elite government employees.

Although the Bureau of Economic Analysis called an end to the recession in June of 2009, every adult with half a brain knows that the recesson didn’t end then. The billionaire investor Warren Buffett uses a rule of thumb that a recession ends when real GDP gets above the high point before the recession began.  You touch the “5 year” range button on the screen and see that real GDP has in fact surpassed that high point in 2007 so Buffett probably called and end to the recession in the fall of 2011.


FRED conveniently colors in the recessions, highlighting the periods in gray, but they are the “official” periods of recession, when GDP rises or falls for two consecutive quarters.  GDP could fall from $100, for example, to $60, signalling a recession, then increase to $65 over six months and the BEA would say it was the end of the recession, even though any sane person would say “Hey, we’re still down a third from the $100 high point.”

Has the GDP per person surpassed its 2007 high?  Your mother-in-law leans over and asks whether you want lettuce and tomato, glances down at the iPad screen with just a hint of disapproval in the set of her mouth and tells you that everyone will be eating soon.  OK, just a minute, you tell her.

Touching the screen, you click the “Add Data Series”, then touch line 1.  In the box you type “POPTHM”, the population census figures.  The other night, you couldn’t remember Bruce Willis’ name from the Die Hard movies but you can remember the label for the population series.  You’re not old yet but this is probably what happens to old people’s brains.  To get the GDP, which is in billions, per capita, which is in thousands, you need to multiply the GDP dollars by a million before dividing so you type into the formula box: “a * 1000000 / b” and touch the “Redraw Graph” button below it.

FRED redraws the graph, showing that the per capita GDP has still not risen above the 2007 high point.


For four and half years we have been in recession, you think.  No wonder we are arguing.

Was it as bad as the recession in the early eighties, you wonder.  That was a double dip recession.  You touch the starting date box and click on 1960 and a new expanded graph appears on the screen. “Hey, hon, why don’t you help me with the ice?” your wife asks.  “Ok, just a sec,” you reply, not looking up from the screen.

You see that this recession on a per capita basis is about the same as the early eighties, lasting about four and a half years, from late 1978 to mid 1983, with an upward hiccup during that period.  The period was the same but the decline in the late 70s and early 80s was much shallower than this current recession. 

You want to show both your friend and Uncle Bob why they are arguing, that the recession really hasn’t ended, the comparison of this recession and the 1980s but your wife needs help with the ice so you close the iPad cover.  Maybe you can show them the graph after the meal.  “Burgers are up!” your father-in-law shouts and the whole group sits down to chow down. 

After the meal, your friend hauls out an old croquet set. There are a few hoops missing and one mallet has a head but no handle, but the kids are delighted.  At some point in the game, Uncle Bob sends your friend’s ball far afield with a taunt “Out in left field where the liberals belong!” but your friend doesn’t take the bait.  On second thought, you muse, showing these guys the graphs would only reignite the debate.

“Daddy, it’s your turn.  You can use my mallet,” your kid says and you reach for the mallet, thinking  We try to teach our kids to be considerate and cooperative on the playground and in school.  So what happens to that sense of cooperation when we grow up?

Unemployment and Recession

As the political machine of both parties gears up for the Presidential election less than seven months away, we will hear a lot of rhetoric about the unemployment rate.  Depending on the talk show, TV program or publication we will hear many different unemployment figures and the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) does publish several different figures each month.  The headline number published each month is the U3 rate – those people who are not employed but have looked for work in the past four weeks.  Other rates include discouraged unemployed (U4), marginally attached workers (U5) and those who are working part time because they could not find a full time job (U6).  Wikipedia has a pretty good overview on the rates in this country and countries around the world.  The BLS has a detailed explanation of the various categories of unemployment with concrete examples of who they put into each category.  Below is a chart of the U3 rate and the U6 rate.

Some will argue that a particular unemployment rate is the “true” rate.  On a conservative talk show a few weeks ago, I heard a caller quote a “true” employment rate of close to 11%.  Neither I, the host of the show or the caller knew where the caller had come up with that figure.  In response to questions from the host of the show, the caller showed that he did not know the various unemployment rates.  Like many voters, this caller simply heard or read about this “true” figure.

In the ongoing political debate, Democratic leaning voters will use the lower U3 rate, currently 8.2%.  Republican leaning voters may use the U6 rate, the broadest measure of  unemployment, currently 14.5%.  Here’s someone who figures the “true” unemployment rate at 36%.  We tend to believe what we want to believe and our mental squirrels are good at finding the facts that fit our beliefs. 

This past month several economic reports, including the monthly unemployment report, indicated that the economy may once again be stalling – as it did in 2010 and 2011.  The recent rise in Spanish government bond yields shows yet another sign of an underlying lack of confidence in the ability of the European market to avoid slipping into a deeper recession.  In the past six months, China’s growth has slowed as they try to transition from an export economy to a consumer economy.  The Bush tax cuts and the debt ceiling are due to expire at the end of the year.  We can expect more political turmoil as that deadline and the election approach.  Weakening economic data in the coming months could exacerbate fears that the U.S. will fall back into recession, escalating the Republican rhetoric that their party needs to be given the presidential reins to turn the economy around.

Readers of this blog know that I have been especially skeptical of seasonal adjustments to labor figures in the past few years, preferring to use the non seasonally adjusted figures from the monthly Household Survey that the BLS uses to collect employment data.  But for the chart I’m about to show you, there is not much difference between the seasonally adjusted figures and the non seasonally adjusted figures.  The chart compares the percent change in the data and the seasonally adjusted figures are easy for you to get in the future.

If we begin to hear the economic and political pundits raise worries of recession in the coming months, the data in the chart below is a really reliable predictor of recessions.  There was a slight delay in a minor recession in the 1950s and two false signals in 1986 and 1995 when the economy faltered. Here’s the key:  when the percentage change in the unemployment rate from a year ago goes above zero, it is highly likely that we have either just started a recession or will start one shortly.

In the coming months you can pull up this same chart by going here at the Federal Reserve  or entering “Fred Unemployment” in Google search bar and selecting the top pick.  The Federal Reserve does all the work for you.  Click “Edit Graph” just below the graph.  On the next screen, change the “Observation Date Range” below the graph to start with a more recent year to make the chart easier to read.  Go down to the “(a)” section and select “Change from Year Ago, Percent”.  Below that, click “Redraw Graph”.  Now you too can know the future.

The Long Run

Now the really big picture.  Reflecting the severity of the market downturn that began in late 2007, the 4 year average (50 month) of the S&P500 index is getting close to crossing below the 17 year (200 month) average.  Remember, this is years.  In the normal course of affairs, inflation tends to keep the shorter average above the longer average.  The crossing or “nearing” of these two averages reveals just how sick the past decade has been.  The last time the market showed this indicator of prolonged market weakness was in the first half of 1978, after a 43% market drop in the bear market of 1973-74 and a 19% drop in 1977.

In the last 60 years, was the October 2008 market drop of 17% the deepest monthly plunge in equity prices?  No, that honor goes to the almost 22% dive in October 1987.  For a consecutive 3 month drop, 2008 does barely nudge out 1987, both falling 30%.

Although headlines will speak of the downturn in the Fall of 2008 as the worst since the depression, it is important for Boomers to remember that our parents’ generation suffered through some pretty severe market declines as well.  In 1987, most Boomers were in their thirties and probably had relatively few dollars in the stock market.  We may remember “Black Monday”, October 19, 1987, for the headlines but it was not as personal as the 2008 decline because we were decades before retirement and had less at stake.  What particularly distinguishes the two years is that the unemployment rate continued to fall during the 1987 decline.

Young people don’t remember market crashes the way that older people do.  When we are young, we have – like forever – before we are going to be old.  For the echo boomer generation born in the eighties and nineties, also known as the  “millennials”, or Generation Y, the crash of 2008 will be a faint or non-existent memory when they reach their fifties decades from now.  They will probably get to have their own crash – one that they will remember because they will have more at stake.

When we are in our twenties, someone should prepare us.  We are going to work hard and save money.  We are probably going to put some of that hard earned money in the stock market.  Then, when we are in our fifties, sixties or seventies, we are going to flip out when our stock portfolio drops by 40%.  Would we listen to or remember that sage advice?  Probably not.

Recession and the Presidency

On Tuesday, President Obama will give his annual State of the Union address to Congress and the nation.  This past Saturday, South Carolina chose Newt Gingrich, the former Speaker of the House, as the front runner in their Republican primary.  In three grassroots states, Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, primary voters have chosen three different Republican contenders who are vying for the Chief Executive Office.

For the past 150 years, every President except Lyndon Johnson, Jack Kennedy and Bill Clinton has had to contend with recession during their tenure. (NBER Source)  Every Presidential contender promises that they are going to stop the vicious business cycle that inevitably leads to recession.  With the advent of “JIT” – Just In Time Inventory – increasingly adopted by businesses and their suppliers in the mid to late 90s, recessions were pronounced a thing of the past.  No more would there be an excess build of supply by the nation’s businesses, leading to a sagging economy when product demand inevitably fell.  Advances and investments in technology enabled businesses to respond quickly to fluctuations in demand.  As the milennium approached, it was truly the dawning of a new age.

What was dawning was the advent of a secular bear market, a long period of time when the market falls for a few years, struggles up again, then falls, then rises again as fear and hope compete against one another.

A few weeks ago, I noted that in the middle of 2011, we had finally come out of an almost four year  recession.  This was not the official National Bureau of Economic Research end of the recession.  That happened in the middle of 2009.  This mid-2011 recession end was the “How It Feels” variety as real GDP finally gets back and surpasses the level it was at before GDP started its decline.

Below is a graph comparing the official lengths of recession and the “how it feels” recession length and a comparison of the two during each President’s tenure in the past sixty years.  This comparison helps explain the mood of the country when Presidents Ford, Carter and HW Bush lost re-election bids (Ford was actually not up for re-election since he had taken over the Presidency when Nixon resigned in August 1974).  The chart also gives an insight into the success of re-election bids by Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan, and GW Bush. The economic pain was either less than or about equal to the official figures of economic distress during their presidencies.

As he prepares for his third State of the Union address, the lesson for President Obama is stark.  History unfortunately repeats itself.  It is also a lesson for any Republican Presidential hopeful; the odds are that he will have to contend with a recession during his tenure if he wins election.  On the campaign trail, how many Presidential hopefuls of either party ever broach the subject of what their administration will do during the eventual recession while they are in office?  Better to promise that it won’t happen on their watch.  It will.

Year in Review

Jerry and Steve passed on some links to some interesting charts. At the Atlantic is an assortment of graphs of both the European and U.S. economies from a group of economists surveyed by the BBC. Featured on WonkBlog and in the Washington Post is a compendium of graphs more focused on the U.S. economy.

But the most telling chart of all is the end of the recession! After 4 painful years, Real (or inflation adjusted) GDP has finally reached and surpassed the level it was in 2007, before the recession. The official end of the recession was – cue the laugh track – in July 2009.

While this is not the “official” end of the recession marked by the Bureau of Economic Analysis, it is a more pragmatic one used by many traders, investors and market watchers, including Warren Buffett.

Unemployment still sucks (a technical economic term). The real unemployment rate is about 17% and that picture does not look bright.

Residential housing starts still suck. The market for multi-unit housing has been strong because so many people can not afford or qualify to buy a home despite the fact that there are hundreds of thousands of vacant homes littering the country.

The Euro Zone may implode in 2012 and the political indecision both in the U.S. and Europe have caused many companies to be cautious in their investments and capital spending. The Coincident Economic Activity index sucks but is getting better.

The U.S. consumer is still not back. Below is a graph of real retail sales.

This is going to be a long slog. Keep your head down and move forward.  If you have a job and are not upside down on your mortgage and you broke even in the market this year, you should have a Merry Christmas.  Give to those who may have lost their merry along the way.