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.


Closing the Book on Obama’s Trade Policy

March 8, 2017

The U.S. trade deficit for the month of January was posted yesterday by the Bureau of Economic Analysis.  It was horrible.  President Trump took office on January 20th, but he can hardly be held responsible for any of the January results.  This is all on former President Obama.

How bad was it?  The overall trade deficit rose to its worst level in nearly five years – $48.5 billion.  At $62.1 billion, the deficit in manufactured goods just missed its all-time worst reading of $62.5 billion set in March of 2015.  As you can see from this chart, if the trend in manufactured goods continues, we’ll have a new record very soon and, without the change in trade policy promised by President Trump, it will likely get worse from there:  Manf’d Goods Balance of Trade.

Then there’s the export numbers.  In January of 2010, lacking the courage to take on the problem with imports, President Obama vowed to double exports in five years in an effort to turn the U.S. into more of an export-driven, Germany-like economy.  It never happened and never even came close.  In January of 2017 – seven years after Obama made that promise – total exports, at $192 billion – remained below the October, 2013 level.  Worse yet, exports of manufactured goods were below the level reached in September, 2011 – up only 26% from when Obama made that promise.  And that increase was due entirely to global economic recovery from the 2009 recession and had nothing to do with any real improvement in America’s export position.

So that closes the book on Obama’s trade policy, which was a total failure.  Actually, if President Trump follows through on his promise of tariffs (or border tax, or whatever you want to call it), this closes the book on a seven-decade-long experiment with free trade and globalization, begun in 1947 with the signing of the Global Agreement on Tariffs and Trade that, by any measure of its effect on the American economy, has been a complete disaster.

  • America’s trade surplus dwindled until we ran our last trade surplus in 1976.
  • 41 consecutive years of trade deficits has yielded a cumulative deficit of $14.4 trillion.  During that time, the national debt, which is closely linked to the trade deficit, grew by $19.4 trillion.  In 1976, the national debt was only $0.5 trillion.  Virtually all of our national debt is due to the cumulative trade deficit since 1976.
  • During this period, family incomes and net worth have declined, our infrastructure has crumbled, and our nation has been bankrupted.  The manufacturing sector of the economy has been gutted.  More than ten million manufacturing jobs have been lost.  The United States, once the world’s preeminent industrial power, has been reduced to a skid-row bum, begging the rest of the world to loan us money to keep us afloat.

This is all on you now, President Trump.  You own it.  You’ve promised to straighten out this mess.  America is watching and waiting.


Corporate Whining Over Immigration

January 30, 2017

http://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-trump-immigration-companies-idUSKBN15C0SC

As reported in the above-linked article, the corporate whining about the scale-back in immigration that President Trump began with his travel ban aimed at seven high-risk nations has begun.

While one can criticize the clumsy, sledge hammer approach to the ban, which should have allowed travel by people with valid green cards and should have allowed already-issued visas to simply expire while implementing a moratorium on new visas, the self-serving objections by the global corporations should be dismissed out-of-hand.  It’s not this travel ban that concerns them.  It’s the coming fight over the whole H-1B visa program that they use to suppress wages in the U.S. with cheap foreign labor.

That program, along with the heavily abused student visa program which fills the pipeline that supplies it, has  for decades been a major millstone around the neck of young American workers trying to get a start in life.  The student visa program is used to fill the seats of American universities with foreign students, keeping those seats in short supply for American students and propping up the sky-rocketing rate of tuition increases.  It’s the major reason that young Americans are saddled with so much student debt.  Global corporations then use those graduates to staff their American operations and suppress their labor costs.

Those people protesting the travel ban are likely the same people who rightfully are part of the whole movement that protests the truly immoral situation with income inequality.  It would be interesting to poll those people protesting Trump’s ban about their own financial status.  How many are saddled with crushing student debt?  How many can only dream of having a job like those held by these immigrants?  Does it not occur to them that they are merely pawns in the whole globalization scheme that is actually the root cause of income inequality, especially in the U.S.?

The protest of these CEOs that they have to rely on immigration for high-skilled workers is an insult to American workers.  I hope that President Trump soon turns his focus on slashing both the H-1B visa program and the student visa program.


Employment & Trade Data Sum Up Obama’s Presidency

January 11, 2017

https://www.bls.gov/news.release/empsit.nr0.htm

On Friday, the Bureau of Labor Statistics released the employment/unemployment report for December, while the Bureau of Economic Analysis released the trade data for the month of November.  I usually comment on these two reports separately but, frankly, in these waning days of the Obama administration, these looks backward seem rather irrelevant.  In each case, we knew what we were going to get with the economy locked into a “new normal” status quo by Obama’s trade policy.  Nevertheless, it’s worth taking a look at them since, together, they kind of “sum up” the economic results of Obama’s presidency.

It was yet another so-so month for the employment report.  The job growth number was respectable, but wasn’t corroborated by the “employment level” portion of the household survey, which rose only 26,000.  In fact, the employment level rose by only 43,000 in the last three months.  Not only that, but the civilian labor force actually contracted by 72,000.  As a result, unemployment rose slightly.

Meanwhile, the trade report was bleak.  The deficit in manufactured products rose to $60.5 billion, just $0.5 billion off the record high deficit set five months earlier.  Manufactured exports remained stuck at the same level as in March of 2011.  That’s five and a half years of zero growth.  Remember Obama’s pledge to double exports in five years?

These two reports aren’t the kinds of numbers you’d expect from a healthy economy.  President Obama likes to highlight the number of jobs created and the drop in unemployment as evidence of a healthy labor market.  But it’s more a case of him drinking his own Kool Aid.  Those numbers are gimmicked by workers who mysteriously dropped out of the labor force and by a proliferation of low-paying, part-time jobs.  He may fool himself and try to fool you with these numbers, but other statistics tell a different tale.  Death rates don’t rise and life expectancies don’t fall in a good economy.  Nor are wages stagnant.  And “the country is headed in the wrong direction” isn’t the number one issue on the minds of voters in an election in a healthy economy.

Taken together, these two reports do a good job of summing up the economic results of the Obama presidency – economic stagnation at best or, more realistically, a decline fueled by an ever-worsening trade picture – the very thing he promised to fix during the 2008 campaign.


U.S. Life Expectancy Declines in 2015 as Death Rates Rise

December 13, 2016

http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2016/12/08/has-us-life-expectancy-maxed-out-first-decline-since-1993/95134818/

As reported in the above-linked article last week, the National Center for Health Statistics  (NCHS) reported that the average life expectancy for Americans born in 2015 actually fell by one month – from 78.9 years to 78.8 years.  Here’s a link to the full report:  https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/databriefs/db267.pdf

This was the first decline since 1993 when the average life expectancy fell from 75.8 to 75.5 years – the only other decline since record-keeping of this statistic began in 1980.

One year does not make a trend, so one may question the significance of the decline.  However, there is a trend evident in the data.  Prior to 2o15, the longest stretch of flat life expectancy was three years, from 1984 to 1986, when the average life expectancy held at 74.7 years.  The decline in 2015 brings life expectancy to the same level it was at four years ago in 2012.  And it’s not as though human life expectancy is reaching some sort of limit at that level.  Thirty nations have a higher life expectancy – extending well into the 80’s.

Average life expectancy is a function of the death rate.  The NCHS lists the top ten leading causes of death in the U.S.  Among these top ten causes, the death rate rose for all but one – cancer.  But in spite of the fact that cancer and heart disease are far and away the two leading causes of death, the rise in every category except cancer was enough to more than offset the decline in the death rate due to cancer.  It seems that there may be something at work that crosses all categories of death rate.

It’s very likely that that underlying cause is worsening poverty.  Though poverty is never considered a cause of death, being an outside factor instead of a medical factor, it is far and away the number one killer in the world.  Consider this:  among those nations with a longer life expectancy than the U.S., the average “purchasing power parity” (or “PPP,” a measure of income) is over $41,000, the thirteen nations who rank at the bottom in terms of life expectancy (less than 50 in some cases) have an average PPP of less than $3,000.  It takes money to live a long life.  It takes money to pay for health care, to eat a healthy diet, to maintain vehicles in a safe condition, to hold depression at bay, and so on.

The U.S. ranks right up there (19th) with the top nations in terms of PPP.  However, the median household income peaked in the U.S. in 1999 at $57,909.  By 2012 it had slipped to $52,666.  It should come as no surprise, then, that average life expectancy since that time has been flat or, as in 2015, actually declining.

This is precisely the outcome, the inescapable collision between a growing population density and declining per capita consumption, that I warned of in Five Short Blasts.  Relying on population growth as a crutch for economic growth, the U.S. has continued to grow its actual population and has dramatically exacerbated the effect by exploding its “effective” population by engaging in free trade with badly overpopulated nations.  The manufacturing sector of our economy has been gutted and the supply-demand equation for labor has been thrown out-of-balance, driving down incomes.

The Obama administration can fool itself all it wants with its gimmicked statistics on jobs and unemployment, but they can’t alter the real world consequences of its failed trade and immigration policies.  Poverty is the very mechanism by which nature will eventually correct the problem of human overpopulation.  The 2015 life expectancy data may be the first indication that that process has begun in America.

 


Some Observations about Trump’s Transition

November 25, 2016

The following are some random thoughts and observations about the unfolding transition of Donald Trump’s presidency.  (I still can’t believe I’m writing those words.)

  • Wow, for a guy pushing 70, this guy has a motor!  I stayed up the night of the election until it was clear he had won, which happened about 3 AM on the morning of the 9th.  I was exhausted for the next several days.  Not Trump.  Two days after the election he was at the White House to meet with President Obama and then on to Capitol Hill for a series of meetings.  The next day he launched into an endless stream of meetings with potential staff members – up to twenty meetings a day – and still had the energy to be “tweeting” at 3 o’clock in the morning.  Yesterday – Thanksgiving Day – he was even on the phone with the CEO of the Carrier Corporation trying to convince them that moving their manufacturing operations to Mexico was a bad idea.  The guy is clearly a workaholic.
  • In order to push forward his agenda, he needs a cabinet staffed with like-minded individuals, not a “team of rivals” as some have suggested.  I’ve been pretty pleased with his picks thus far, but I really hope he doesn’t pick Romney for Secretary of State.  Romney might soothe ruffled feathers among traditional Republicans and calm nerves among foreign leaders with his polished style and globalist outlook, but that’s not what Trump needs.  He needs someone who can look China in the eye and tell them “tough s___” when they complain about Trump’s trade policy.  That’s definitely not Romney.  Giuliani would be a much better choice.
  • Trump has softened his stand on illegal immigrants somewhat, vowing to deport or incarcerate 2-3 million of the worst among them, but expressing a willingness to “consider” the rest.  I’m OK with that as long as he “builds a wall” or takes whatever other actions are necessary to put a halt to illegal border crossings and to immediately deport those who still do make it across.  A pleasant surprise has been his vow to also crack down on some legal immigration, like the H1B visa program which is designed purely to hold down wages.  The program, and others like it, should be completely eliminated.
  • Early on, Obama began assembling a team of economic advisors, mostly academics, largely from Harvard.  No wonder his vow to tackle the trade deficit was quickly abandoned.  So far I’ve heard none of this about Trump’s transition team.  Unless I’ve missed something, there hasn’t been a single mention of an “economic advisor.”  Good.  He doesn’t need any.  His economic plans are right on target and he would be hard pressed to find any economists who wouldn’t steer him in the wrong direction.
  • So far, his plans to impose tariffs on Mexico and China, though a huge step in the right direction, are too timid.  Tariffs on auto parts from Mexico will only make U.S. auto manufacturers less competitive with imports from Japan, South Korea and Germany.  Tariffs on Chinese imports will only move manufacturers to India, Vietnam, Indonesia and other countries with huge labor forces.  To be successful, he needs to extend his tariff plans to include all products from all such countries.
  • I’ve heard some pundits proclaim that some manufacturing jobs won’t come back to the U.S. no matter what he does with trade policy.  That’s absolute nonsense.  If tariffs raise prices to the point where products can be made profitably in the U.S., then someone will seize the opportunity and do exactly that.  For example, if Apple doesn’t move its i-phone manufacturing back to the U.S., then someone else will soon undercut them with cheaper and better phones made right here in the states.
  • Manufacturers who have moved to China might be wise to not even wait for tariffs to be implemented.  They’d be smart to move their equipment back to the U.S. before China prevents such moves.
  • Despite all the fear-mongering by free trade and globalization cheerleaders about the dangers of “protectionism,” investors seem to be betting on the opposite.  In fact, we see the same thing happening in Britain in the wake of “Brexit.”  I’m reminded of an old saying:  “Money talks and BS walks.”
  • The media has been wringing their hands over potential conflicts of interest with Trump’s vast and far-flung business empire.  It’s a potential concern, but everyone knew it when they voted for him and it’s not something he can divest overnight.  Let’s give it time to play out.
  • Trump’s not an inspirational orator like Obama has been.  That’s OK.  I’ll happily trade that trait for someone who can get things done to fix our immigration mess and our idiotic trade policy.

There should be no misconceptions that this will be anything but a wild ride.  It’s going to be absolutely fascinating to watch it play out and, if he follows through on his campaign promises on immigration and trade, we’re going to witness a transformation in the U.S. economy that no one even thought possible.