America’s jobs report: Treading water
Sep 2nd 2011, 15:04 by G.I. | WASHINGTON
IT’S hard to imagine a more toxic economic brew than what America had to swallow in August: stock prices plunged, Europe’s debt crisis deepened, Congress took America to the brink of default and Standard & Poor’s responded by cutting its credit rating. It should not surprise anyone that employers decided it was a lousy time to hire.
Even so, this morning’s numbers from the Labour Department were a shock. Non-farm payroll employment was exactly unchanged in August from July, and total employment was revised down by 57,000 over the previous two months.
The unemployment rate was unchanged at 9.1%. It’s mildly encouraging that this held steady because both the number of people with jobs and the number of people who want jobs, the labour force, rose, by more than 300,000 (gathered from a household survey that’s separate from the payroll tally). The household survey is far more volatile than the payroll survey, so take this with a grain of salt.*
Private payroll growth is a better barometer of animal spirits than total employment, which includes government. It rose 17,000; adding back the 45,000 Verizon workers who were on strike mid-month and are now back at work suggests underlying private payroll growth was around 60,000. Job shedding by state and local governments remains a huge anchor on the economy. They’ve shrunk their head counts by 671,000 since August 2008, enough to add 0.4 percentage points to the unemployment rate.
Another bad sign: hourly earnings declined 0.1% from July, the first such drop since January 2008. Though don’t read too much into that, since it follows a hefty 0.5% increase in July.
This report is going to raise alarms that the economy is slipping into recession again. The stock market seems to think so; it’s down sharply this morning. That may be premature. The employment report is a big negative story after a run of mildly positive news reports. First, automobile sales, seasonally adjusted, roughly held steady in August from July, and chain store sales also came in relatively firm. Second, the purchasing managers’ index held just above 50 in August, hardly a sign of ruddy health in the factory sector but better than the drop below 50, which denotes contraction, that analysts feared. Finally, initial unemployment insurance claims did not rise much over the month of August, after adjusting for the Verizon strike. This strongly suggests that August’s employment donut hole owes less to firing than to a lack of hiring, a logical response to the kaleidoscope of calamities firms were contemplating last month. Some of those calamities have receded; America did not default, the stock market has stabilised, and the Federal Reserve did act earlier last month to ease monetary policy by suggesting it would keep interest rates near zero for two more years.
But saying the economy is not yet in recession is damning with tepid praise; it is barely growing, if at all, and the forward looking elements of the August report show no change ahead: temporary employment edged up less than 5,000 and the work week shrank. There are few signs of any impetus to growth anywhere. Global conditions are deteriorating, as shown by the poor performance of purchasing manager surveys worldwide.
This will put more focus on both fiscal and monetary policy. Barack Obama’s budget office released its midsession review with an unusual “alternative forecast” based on revised benchmark estimates of GDP released after the usual forecasting exercise was finished. It shows the unemployment rate averaging 9% through 2012, compared to 8.3% in the pre-revision forecast, and real GDP rising 2.9% through the fourth quarter, compared to 3.2%. This is, if anything, optimistic when you consider that it assumes the payroll tax expires this December, something that would probably sock growth.
Mr Obama will probably ask for a year’s extension in his address to Congress next Thursday night, along with a variety of other measures such as incentives to hire and retrain the unemployed. But he’s unlikely to request, much less get, the sort of stimulus that materially changes the outlook.
That leaves the Federal Reserve. Today’s data at the margin raises the odds it will implement more easing measures as its meeting on September 20-21. But a lot of other information will emerge between now and then, which will help determine whether activity has picked up from the multiple setbacks of August. At present, the odds are still against action at that meeting, but in favour of it later on.
*Technical side note: household employment has lagged payroll employment by 469,000 in the last 12 months once the two are adjusted to define jobs the same way. That suggests household employment still has some catching up to do—or that payroll employment will be revised lower.
The original post is linked here.