U.S. Employment Picture Darkening?

May 9, 2018

There was a lot of hoopla that accompanied the April employment report, released last Friday by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.  The economy added another 164,000 jobs and the unemployment rate fell to 3.9% – the lowest rate since December of 2000.  Much discussion ensued in the media over the effects of “full employment.”  Will there now be upward pressure on wages, prompting the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates?  Where will employers find the workers they need?  Will the shortage of labor constrain economic growth?

Less notice was taken of some not-so-rosy news in the report.  Wages rose less than expected – only 0.1%.  The labor force participation rate fell by 0.1%.  And literally no one took notice of some even darker news in the report.  The employment level (from the household survey) rose by only 3,000 after falling by 37,000 in March.  And the civilian labor force has fallen by nearly 400,000 over the past two months, reversing much of the spike that occurred in February, and contributing to the drop in unemployment.  Without that decline in the labor force, unemployment would actually have risen by two tenths over the past two months.

In fact, per capita employment has risen only twice in the past seven months – a two-month spike that occurred in January/February – and remains at exactly the same level as in September.  And the number of unemployed has actually risen slightly.

The fact is that there remains a lot of slack in the labor force.  An accurate reading of unemployment – one that grows the labor force along with growth in the population (instead of erasing people from the labor force if they give up looking for work) – has unemployment at 6.8% and U6 unemployment (a less reported measure that includes discouraged workers) at 12.0%.  This Reuters article, contrary to the title of the article, admits as much – that the job market is “hot” only if you don’t count all the people who have been left behind.

The current expansion is among the longest ever and brought national unemployment to an 18-year low. Yet over 6.3 million are still out of work, many of them clustered in cities with chronic, high unemployment.

6.3 million people is the number that were unemployed before the “Great Recession” of 2008.  It doesn’t even count the additional 5 million people who still haven’t been put back to work since then.

None of this is surprising.  Though the Trump administration is making moves in the right direction with the process of renegotiating NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement), with the imposition of tariffs on steel and aluminum, and with threats of a trade war with China, there has yet to be much in the way of meaningful results.  Our trade deficit is as bad as ever.  Further delay in progress on trade will risk a return to a stagnating economy.


No Weaknesses in February Employment Report

March 10, 2018


Ever since the “Great Recession,” as the economy very slowly recovered, there have always been some hidden weaknesses in even the best of reports.  If the economy added a lot of jobs as measured by the establishment survey, the employment level, as measured by the household survey, didn’t measure up.  If the unemployment rate dropped, it was often because some of the labor force had mysteriously vanished.  Or the average work week declined.  Or there were downward revisions to the previous two months.

But not this time.  The economy added 313,000 jobs – much more than expected.  And the growth in employment blew past that figure, rising by 785,000.  The only reason that the official unemployment rate didn’t drop is because the labor force grew by 806,000 – in a month when the total population grew by only 160,000.  So where did all of these workers come from if the economy was at “full employment” as so many “economists” would have you believe?  They came from the labor force backlog that was created by the “mysteriously vanishing labor force” trick employed by the Obama administration.  As a result, the labor force participation rate rose by 0.3%.

And there was more good news.  Manufacturing employment rose by 31,000 and is now up by 125,000 in just the last four months.  The average work week increased by 0.1 hours and wages rose by 0.1% – a modest increase, but one that keeps wage growth year-to-year at 2.6%, which is greater than inflation.  And the numbers of jobs added were revised upward for both December and January, adding another 54,000 jobs.

I’ll admit that the growth in manufacturing employment puzzles me.  Exports haven’t grown at all, while imports have been soaring.  That leaves domestic consumption as the only possible explanation, but GDP (gross domestic product) grew at only a 2.5% rate in the fourth quarter.  Perhaps growth is accelerating in the 1st quarter?  Perhaps manufacturers are beginning to sense that, while the tariffs we’ve seen so far under Trump have been modest, Trump means business with his “America First” approach and they are changing their strategy away from off-shoring and back toward more domestic production.  If that’s what’s happening, and if Trump continues to levy more tariffs to help domestic manufacturers, then the job gains we saw in February may be only a small taste of what’s to come.

The Trade Deficit is Bankrupting the U.S.

February 13, 2018

Earlier this past week, the Commerce Department released the trade figures for the month of December.  The news wasn’t good.  The overall deficit jumped to $53.1 billion, the highest since the Great Recession in 2009.  Worse yet, the deficit in manufactured goods soared to a new record of $69.0 billion as a $2.7 billion increase in exports was swamped by a $6.7 billion increase in imports, which rose to $183.2 billion.  Check this chart:  Manf’d Goods Balance of Trade.  This is the 3rd month in a row that the deficit in manufactured goods has set a new record.  This is quite the opposite of what Trump promised during the campaign.  To be fair, the increase in the deficit is due to the improved economy, leaving Americans more willing to open their wallets and buy, and is not due to any trade policy blunders by Trump.  But Trump’s dithering on trade is directly responsible for the lack of improvement.  All we’ve gotten is talk, threats and endless (and pointless, I might add) negotiations (primarily on NAFTA) – nothing more than we’ve gotten from previous administrations for decades.

In another story last week, Congress approved (and Trump signed) a spending bill that ended the brief government shutdown – a bill that grows the national debt by an estimated $1.5 trillion over ten years.  This is on top of the $1.5 trillion added by the Republicans’ tax cut legislation.  And all of that is on top of the $1.5 trillion cost of the American Recovery Act implemented under Obama.  Yesterday, Trump introduced a budget plan that would grow the national debt by $7.5 trillion over the next ten years.

So what’s the relationship?  Why do I bring up the trade deficit and the national debt in the same post?  As I explained in Five Short Blasts, the trade deficit is the root cause of our federal budget deficit.  To understand, draw a line around the United States on a map.  Now, draw arrows that represent cash outflows from that circle and cash flowing in.  The money spent on imports – currently running at about $3 trillion per year – is an outflow.  The money we collect from exports that we sell – currently running at about $2.4 trillion per year – is an inflow.  That leaves a deficit of about $600 billion per year.  If that money didn’t come back in some fashion, every penny of U.S. wealth would eventually be gone.  Every American would be flat broke.  It’s exactly the same as your check book.  Keep taking money out without putting any back in and – well- you know what happens.

So the trade deficit puts us in a huge bind.  Fortunately, though, it presents those countries who sold us those imports with an equal but opposite problem.  They’re now collecting a big pile of U.S. dollars that ultimately have value in only one place.  The U.S. is the only place on earth where U.S. dollars are legal tender.  This means that those countries who sold us those imports now have to reinvest those dollars back in the U.S. in some fashion.  For one, they can use them to buy exports from the U.S. – which they do – but obviously not in equal measure.  What to do with the rest?  Invest in American companies?  That makes no sense.  Those are the same companies that their exports are trying to drive out of business.  So they use the money to buy American debt obligations, or “treasuries.”

The federal government then uses the money collected by selling treasuries to finance deficit spending, thus plowing back into the economy the dollars that the trade deficit took out.  In this way, the federal government is able to keep the economy on a positive footing, maintaining an illusion of prosperity in the U.S.  And the biggest way they do this is by collecting less tax revenue from you than it takes to finance their programs.  Essentially, the federal government subsidizes your income.

Check out this chart.  It graphically shows the relationship between the growth in the national debt and the cumulative effect of the trade deficit:  Cumulative Trade Deficit vs Growth in National Debt.  Notice how closely the two parameters track each other.  Also, you’ll notice that any time the growth in the national debt lags the cumulative trade deficit, a recession is the result – the most recent being the “Great Recession” of 2008.  In the run-up to that recession, Congress focused on reining in the deficit and the result was George Bush’s famous “jobless recovery” from the recession that occurred at the turn of the century.  Home ownership was declining and the housing/mortgage industry turned to sham loans to put people into homes – bad loans that nearly collapsed the entire banking industry.  When Obama took office, he correctly blamed global trade imbalances, and world leaders agreed.  What did they do about it?  Not a damn thing.  Like parasites, they could all agree that they were killing the host, but all continued to hungrily feed on it.

So how bad is the national debt?  Let’s begin with a little historical perspective.  In 1929, the national debt was $16.9 billion dollars, which was about 16% of GDP (gross domestic product).  By the end of World War II, it had understandably ballooned to $269.4 billion, or 121% of GDP – unacceptably high.  By 1973, it was whittled back down to only 33% of GDP.  Then it began to grow again.  Not coincidentally, in 1975 the U.S. ran its last trade surplus and became a “debtor nation.”  Soon after, the national debt began to explode.

Some economists have used the benchmark of the GDP to gauge the seriousness of the debt.  As long as it doesn’t exceed 100% of GDP, they would claim, the national debt is manageable.  Where do we stand now?  Take a look at this chart of national debt, measured as a percentage of GDP:  National Debt as Percentage of Chained GDP(2).  We’re back over 100%.  It actually declined slightly last year as the budget deficit shrank a little and as the GDP grew more than it has in years.  We’re not likely to see it decline again any time soon as the national debt is now expected to grow by $7 trillion in the next ten years.  Although it took 32 years to climb from 32% of GDP to 100% in 2013, it will hit 200% in much less time if nothing is done about the trade deficit.

However, the situation is actually worse than that.  The “GDP” isn’t the one who is on the hook for the national debt.  It’s taxpayers – you and me.  So let’s take a look at the national debt in per capita terms – that is, how much of it each one of us owes.  Take a look at this chart:  National Debt Per Capita, 1929-2017.  This should scare the hell out of anyone.  Each of us is now on the hook for $50,000 of the national debt, which is 2-1/2 times the burden of each American at the end of World War II!  And look at this chart:  National Debt as Percentage of Total Household Net Worth.  In 1962, the national debt was only 3% of the total household net worth of all Americans.  Today, it’s hovering near 30%.

“Total household net worth” includes some very wealthy households, like those of Bill Gates, Warren Buffet and other billionaires.  Where does your household’s net worth fit in?  Take a look at this chart of household net worth, as measured by the Federal Reserve in its tri-annual survey of household finances:  Household Net Worth.  While the “mean” (or average) household net worth has grown nicely  from $163,000 in 1962 to $692,000 in 2016, the “median” value remains stuck at about $100,000 where it’s been for two decades.

You need to understand the difference between “mean” and “median.”  If nine people have $1 in their pockets and a tenth person has $100 in his pocket, then the “mean” value of what these ten people have in their pockets is the total divided by the number of people which, in this case, is $10.90.  The “median” represents the value at which half of the people have more and half have less.  In this case, the “median” value of how much these people have in their pockets is only $1.  Half of these ten people have $1 or less, and half have $1 or more.  (One of them has a lot more!)

This means that the household net worth of at least half of all Americans is $100,000 or less.  And, in all likelihood, most of the other half don’t have a whole lot more than $100,000.  The median value is skewed by only a small percentage of households.

On average, a household has 3.2 people.  Remember that each American “owes” $50,000 of the national debt.  That means that each household owes about $160,000 on the national debt.  Compare that to the median household net worth of $100,000.  In all likelihood, if the amount you owe on the national debt were subtracted from your net worth, you’d be completely broke.  You’d actually be “in the hole” by about $60,000!

To be honest, I’ve been hearing warnings about the national debt for all of my nearly seven-decade life.  So far, nothing really bad has happened.  At some point, you have to begin to wonder if those who claim that the national debt doesn’t matter are right.  Who knows how this might actually turn out?  Nobody knows.  Will Americans ever have to pony up the money to pay the debt?  I doubt it.  It’s in no one’s interest to bankrupt Americans.  After all, the rest of the world depends on us continuing to buy their products.  What is likely to happen, in my opinion, is the same thing that has happened in other cases where nations have been unable to repay their debts.  There will be a “debt-forgiveness” program of some sort, perhaps overseen by the World Bank, that will let us off the hook, but will come with some extremely harsh concessions – a Greek-style austerity program as a minimum.  The U.S. will become a slave-state for the rest of the world, never again able to exert any influence over world events or even our own destiny.

Is that what we want?  There’s only one escape from this dilemma – the restoration of a balance of trade.  The only way to make that happen is through the use of tariffs.  It’s exactly what Trump proposed during his campaign but now seems unwilling or unable to implement.  Where is the media outrage over this situation?  Instead of the news being dominated by stories of our looming economic demise – which it should be, all we get is stuff that more properly belongs in tabloids or on page 20 of The Times, at best.  It seems that our journalists are either too ill-informed on the subject of economics to probe the issue, or are too lazy to bother looking into it.  The salacious “she said, he said” stuff is easier and sells better.  It’s not exactly “fake news” but, in the grand scheme of things, it’s certainly trivial news.  There are much more important things, like the trade deficit and the national debt, that needs our focus.

Economy adds 228,000 jobs in November, unemployment holds at 17-year-low rate of 4.1%, but wages are stagnant. Why?

December 9, 2017

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.

Labor Backlog

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:

Per Capita Employment

Unemployed Americans

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.

Tax Reform Needs Border Tax to Work

September 13, 2017


Trump and Congress are now hard at work on tax reform, promising huge cuts in both corporate and individual taxes.  How is that possible without blowing a gigantic hole in the budget and sending the national debt on a new trajectory?  Here’s how Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin explains it in the above-linked article:

Mnuchin told Fox the administration would use its own economic assumptions to gauge the impact of its tax cuts on the federal budget deficit and the $20 trillion national debt, a key issue in Washington’s intensifying tax debate.

“It will be revenue neutral under our growth assumptions,” Mnuchin said. The administration believes that tax cuts will lead to much faster growth than do congressional analysts or private forecasters.

“So, we can pay for these tax cuts with economic growth,” he added.

That’s absolute nonsense, and he knows it.  Yes, cutting taxes will boost economic growth, but only by the amount of the tax cut.  Suppose that the combined corporate and individual cuts result in a cut of $1 trillion per year.  If every dollar of that was spent domestically and not put into savings, then GDP (gross domestic product) would grow by $1 trillion. And let’s suppose that this is taxed at a rate of 25%.  That’s federal revenue of $0.25 trillion.  So revenue would actually decline by $0.75 trillion.  The only way for it to be revenue neutral would be if the $1 trillion tax cut mysteriously generated $4 trillion in spending.  That’s impossible.  It’s simple math.

However, there is a way to make these tax cuts revenue neutral.  Include a new source of revenue by taxing foreign exporters who are getting a free ride in the American economy.  Last week, the Commerce Department released the trade figures for the month of July.  Contrary to Trump’s promise that this “stops right here and stops right now,” the deficit in manufactured goods has actually gotten worse.  Take a look at this chart:  Manf’d Goods Balance of Trade.  The deficit in manufactured goods is now running approximately $63 billion per month, or $750 billion per year.  Exports haven’t risen one iota in six years, while imports have soared by $25 billion and are running approximately $2 trillion per year.

Now, consider what a 30% tariff (or border tax) would do.  First of all, it would drastically reduce imports  – by half, let’s say.  That means that $1 trillion of manufacturing would return to the U.S.  That’s how much the GDP would grow.  Taxed at 25%, that would be a new stream of revenue of $250 billion.  That leaves $1 trillion in imports that would be taxed at 30% – another new stream of revenue that totals $300 billion.  Add these revenue streams totalling $550 billion to the revenue generated by the increase in GDP created by the tax cut – $250 billion – and you have revenue of $800 billion – nearly off-setting the loss of revenue caused by the tax cut.

In late August, Trump reportedly told John Kelly, his chief of staff, that “I want tariffs.  Bring me some tariffs!”  Now’s the time to do it.  Roll the tariffs into the tax reform package and no senator or congressman will be willing to tell his/her constituents that “I voted to keep your taxes high because I don’t like tariffs.”  It’d be political suicide.

The time has come to make foreign manufacturers pay their fair share for access to the American market.

Weak Headline Number Masks Strong March Employment Report

April 8, 2017

The Bureau of Labor Statistics yesterday released its employment report for the month of March.  The headline jobs number was weak.  “Only” 98,000 jobs were added in March – about half of what was expected.  But unemployment dropped by two tenths (a fairly big drop) to 4.5%.  The data underlying the unemployment figure was quite strong.  The “employment level” (the number of people reporting being employed in the household survey portion of the report) rose by 472,000 in March.  (It rose by 447,000 in February.)  And the labor force grew by 145,000 – outpacing the growth in the general population for the fourth month in a row.

Last month, Trump hailed the strong February employment report as “real,” as opposed to the “fake” reports produced by the Obama administration.  (The Obama administration did lean heavily on claims of a shrinking labor force to prop up its unemployment figures.)  Was that claim just bluster or has the reporting methodology actually changed for the better?  It’s two early to tell but, at least for the second month in a row, the BLS claims that the labor force grew (as it actually does, of course) and the numbers seem plausible.  Time will tell.

Per capita employment (the employment level divided by the population) climbed above 47% for the first time since November, 2008.  (Here’s the chart:  Per Capita Employment.)  The “detachment from reality index” – my measure of how much the unemployment figures were distorted by the “mysteriously vanishing labor force” tactic used by the Obama administration – fell to its lowest level since January, 2013.  (Here’s the chart:  Detachment from Reality Index.)

This is great news, but it has more to do with a burst of confidence among consumers (likely driven by a burst of confidence among investors which has driven the stock market higher) in the wake of Trump’s election.  The fundamentals of the economy haven’t changed.  The trade deficit is as bad as ever.  And interest rates are on the rise which will pull the economy down if Trump isn’t able to make headway with tax and trade reforms.  And the jump in stocks that have propelled the economy has already stalled, now waiting to see if expectations of Trump policies actually materialize.

I hope that what appears to be honesty with the factors that make up the employment report (based on a scant two months’ of data) continues.  But without the “border tax” that Trump promised, the good numbers won’t.

By the way, for some time now, the Federal Reserve and others have been proclaiming the economy to be at full employment.  If that were true, then how does the economy continue to add jobs at a faster rate than the growth in the labor force, and how does the unemployment rate continue to fall?  It’s because they were all sucked in by the “detached from reality” employment reports produced by the Obama administration.  The fact is that an honest reading of unemployment (one that grew the labor force in proportion to population growth) has unemployment at 7.3% – nowhere even remotely close to “full employment.”

February Employment Report: “Real” or “Fake?”

March 15, 2017

The employment report for the month of February (the first full month of the Trump administration) was released on Friday and the numbers looked pretty good.  The economy added 235,000 jobs and the unemployment rate fell one tenth to 4.7%.  President Trump hailed the news and declared that, though the employment reports during the Obama administration were fake, that the February numbers were very real.

Let’s examine that claim.  First of all, take a look at this chart:  Labor Backlog.  Some explanation is in order.  “Actual labor force growth” is the growth in the labor force if it had grown at the same rate as the overall population as it does in reality.  The “BLS reported labor force growth” is the growth in the labor force that the Bureau of Labor Statistics uses to calculate the unemployment rate.  The “change in employment level” is a figure taken directly from the BLS monthly data.  It’s the growth in the number of people who report being employed in the household survey.  The “labor force backlog” is the difference between the growth in employment level and the “actual labor force growth.”  If the employment level grows faster, then unemployment should decline along with the “labor force backlog.”

Note that during the Obama years, the BLS consistently reported less growth in the labor force than what the growth in the population would suggest.  Only in 2012 and 2015 did the BLS report labor force growth that was slightly above actual growth.  The result is that the “labor force backlog” grew steadily during the Obama administration until it peaked at the end of 2014 at 6,359,000 workers who were unemployed.  By the end of 2016, that backlog had fallen only slightly to 5,994,000 workers.  In spite of that, according to the BLS, the unemployment rate plummeted from 9.9% in 2008 to 4.7% in 2016.  That’s impossible and the only way that the BLS was able to make it appear that the unemployment rate was dropping was by claiming that workers were dropping out of the labor force or by not growing the labor force as the population grew, or through some combination of those factors.  Thus, when Trump claimed that the employment data was “fake” during the Obama administration, he was exactly right.  If you’ve been a follower of this blog, you know that it’s something that I maintained all along throughout the Obama administration.

OK, so how about Trump’s claim that the numbers now are “real?”  So far, in January and February, the BLS has reported growth in the labor force of 416,000 workers.  The actual growth in the labor force – if it grows in proportion to the population – is only 89,000 workers.  In other words, so far in 2017, the BLS now claims that 327,000 “missing” workers have reappeared in the work force.  That supports Trump’s claim that his numbers are real.  But time will tell.  Two months’ of data isn’t nearly enough to judge how honest the Trump administration is being when it comes to the employment reports.  It’s something I’ll watch just as closely as the Obama numbers.