Yesterday morning the Labor Department announced that the economy added another 228,000 jobs in November and the unemployment rate held steady at 4.1% – the lowest rate in 17 years. Yet, wages remain stagnant. Everyone – economists, the Federal Reserve, business analysts – everyone, seems totally baffled by this phenomenon. Why isn’t this supposedly strong demand for labor beginning to drive up wages as employers compete for workers?
The answer is that the unemployment rate isn’t really 4.1%. It’s 7.1%. The Labor Department would like you to forget that the rapid drop in unemployment following the “Great Recession” in 2008 was fueled in large part by its “mysteriously vanishing labor force” trick, claiming that vast swaths of workers were simply dropping out of the labor force, so they were no longer included in the unemployment calculation. Take a look at the following chart. It’s a little confusing, so I’ll explain.
Look first at the blue and orange lines. The blue line tracks the actual growth in the labor force due to growth in the overall population. The orange line tracks the labor force growth as reported by the Labor Department. Note that in all but three of the past ten years did the Labor Department’s reported growth in the labor force exceed the actual growth. It usually significantly under-reports that growth. The result is a growing “backlog” of unreported workers, represented by the yellow line on the chart. That backlog peaked at 6.4 million workers in 2014 and fell to 5.1 million in 2016 but, so far this year, has actually begun to rise again, hitting 5.2 million workers in November.
Now, look at the green line, which is the growth in the employment level. If that growth matches the growth in the labor force, then unemployment will hold steady. If it exceeds that growth, then unemployment will fall. Compared to the blue line – the real growth in the labor force – it has consistently exceeded that blue line by a small amount each year, beginning in 2011 – the start of the recovery from the “Great Recession.” But if you compare the green line to the orange line – the fake growth in the labor force reported by the Labor Department – it has beaten that growth by a significant amount every year beginning in 2010. The result of that growth in the employment level relative to the fake growth in the labor force is the Labor Department’s reported unemployment rate, represented by the purple line. Note that it has fallen precipitously to its current bogus level of 4.1%.
That’s why wages are stagnant, because there is a huge, unreported backlog of labor force which eagerly snatches up any extra jobs that are created each month. The labor force is still pretty grossly out of balance with the demand for labor. Until that backlog of workers is employed, wages will remain stagnant.
Just to drive home the point about how phony the official unemployment rate is, take a look at these next two charts:
The first chart tracks the employment level relative to the total population. It’s analogous to what the Labor Department reports as the “participation rate.” As yo can see, it’s been very slowly recovering from the 2008 recession, but still hasn’t gotten back to its pre-recession level in 2007. (You can see that, even then, it was already plummeting. I can’t tell you what it was before that since I didn’t begin tracking it until then.) In November of 2007, per capita employment was at 48.4% and the unemployment rate was 4.7%. Last month, per capita employment was at 47.2%, but the unemployment rate was 4.1%. How in the world could unemployment have fallen at the same time that per capita employment fell? Sounds pretty bogus, doesn’t it?
The second chart above shows a similar phenomenon. It tracks the number of unemployed, assuming that the labor force grew along with the population. In November of 2007 there were 7.2 million unemployed workers. Last month there were 11.8 million. And yet the unemployment rate fell? Baloney.
While some see nothing but good news in yesterday’s employment report, I see some warning signs.
- The employment level grew by only 57,000, far less than the reported growth of 228,ooo jobs.
- Per capita employment fell slightly for the 2nd month in a row.
- An honest accounting of unemployment (one that’s honest about growth in the labor force) finds that unemployment rose for the 2nd month in a row to almost 7.2% after reaching a low of 6.8% in September. That’s a notable jump.
So now you know why wages are stagnant. The demand for labor hasn’t caught up to the backlog of unreported growth in the labor market.