Employment & Trade Data Sum Up Obama’s Presidency

January 11, 2017


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.

Trouble Signs in the Employment / Labor Market Picture

October 8, 2016

The September employment report, released Friday by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, continues a trend that has characterized much of 2016.  Job growth is slowing.  The economy added 156,000 jobs, but that’s the third straight monthly decline and is below the year-to-date average for 2016 (178,000 jobs per month), which is already down from 2015 (229,000 jobs per month).

Economists were at odds over how to interpret this latest report.  Some called it a “goldilocks” report – not too hot and not too cold.  In fact, on the surface, that might seem an apt analysis.  156,000 new jobs should be enough to absorb the growth in the labor force that results from population growth.  Yet, unemployment rose to 5.0% after hitting a low of 4.7% in May.

What’s happening is that what I have referred to in the past as the “mysteriously vanishing labor force” is reappearing.  It’s not a one-month phenomenon, but a trend that’s been building for well over a year now.  To better illustrate what’s happening, I ran some numbers dating back to the onset of the financial crisis that began at the end of 2007.  I tracked the change in the labor force and compared it to what the real growth in the labor force has been, assuming that people still need to find work to support themselves in about the same proportion that we’ve seen historically.  That is, about half of the population.  In other words, if the U.S. population grows by three million per year, it’s safe to assume that about 1.5 million of those people need work to support themselves and their dependents.  That’s been the historical norm.

If the growth in the labor force recorded by the BLS didn’t keep pace with the actual population, or if it actually contracted, then that’s a labor force “backlog” that the economy will eventually have to absorb and put to work at some point.

I then compared this backlog to the “employment level” reported by the BLS from its “household survey” portion of the monthly employment report.  Here’s what I found:


From 2008 until present, the actual labor force grew pretty consistently each year, along with the growth in the population.  (2011 was lower because of an adjustment to the U.S. population based on the 2010 census.)  However, note the 2nd line – the growth (or contraction) of the labor force reported by the BLS.  Until last year, only one time did the BLS-reported growth exceed the actual growth in the labor force – in 2012.  Each year that it was less, people actually dropped out of the labor force – thus, the “mysteriously vanishing labor force.”  My more cynical side suspects the Obama administration of manipulating this figure to make the unemployment rate lower.  But let’s assume that people actually did drop out, employing an array of tactics to survive financially, at least for some period of time.

The third line is a calculation of the “labor force backlog,” a cumulative tally of how many people have left the labor force.  For example, in 2009 when the BLS reported that the labor force actually contracted by 1.544 million workers, this figure added to the actual growth in the labor force of 1.324 million workers, produced a backlog of 2.868 million workers.  Added to the 2008 figure, the backlog by the end of 2009 was 3.505 million workers.

Line 4 is the change in the employment level reported by the BLS based on the household survey.  Again using 2009 as an example, the BLS reported that the employment level actually fell in 2009 by 5.356 million people.  It was a horrible year.  As a result, the unemployment rate actually soared to 9.9% in 2009 from 7.3% in 2008.  (It was 5.0% in 2007.)

With all that said, here’s the problem I see developing.  In 2015, the growth in the labor force reported by the BLS exceeded the actual labor force growth.  In other words, people in the “labor backlog” rejoined the work force.  And through last month, that has accelerated dramatically.  In only nine months, the labor force has grown by an amount that would usually take almost two years.

Economists say that this trend is the result of an improved labor market.  People see the jobs picture brightening, making the time right to find a good job.  But I believe another factor is at play here.  The tactics used by displaced workers to survive the downturn have run their course.  Those who went back to school for more training and more advanced degrees (including those who scammed the system and used student loans to meet living expenses) are now saddled with all the student debt they can endure.  Those who went back home to live with Mom and Dad may have overstayed their welcome or have put their families in a financial bind.  Others may have exhausted the severance packages they received when they lost their jobs.  People need a source of income to survive.  The idea that people could simply drop out of the labor force without consequences was preposterous.

The labor force backlog reached a record 6.359 million people by the end of 2014.  As of last month, it’s dropped some to 4.9 million workers, but that’s still a huge backlog.  As of last month, workers are pouring back into the labor force at a rate that has exceeded the growth in the employment level, a trend that’s actually accelerating at the very same time that job creation seems to be slowing.  As a result, unemployment has begun to rise again. This trend is likely to begin to put downward pressure on wages and could actually reduce consumer confidence and slow the economy.  And, it should be noted, that much of the job creation we’ve seen in recent months has been in the restaurant and bar industry and in retail – sectors of the economy that are especially sensitive to consumer confidence.  They’re the first places people rein in spending when finances get tight.

All of this spells trouble for the economy in the coming months.


July Employment Report

August 11, 2016

It’s difficult to know what to make of the July employment report, released on Friday, in which the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) announced that the economy added 255,000 jobs (on the heels of a gain of 292,000 in June), while the employment level rose by 420,000.  Considering the following, these numbers are hard to believe:

  • GDP (gross domestic product) rose by only 1.2% in the 2nd quarter, and by only 0.8% in the first quarter.  In per capita terms, that’s zero growth – perilously close to a recession.  Yet we’re to believe that the economy is adding jobs at more than double the rate of population growth, a rate more characteristic of far higher GDP growth?  Seems a stretch.
  • The “Labor Market Conditions Index” – a broader measure of the labor market (of which the BLS data is just one part) used by the Federal Reserve to assess labor market conditions, turned positive for the first time this year in July, but barely.  That index paints a picture of a flat, weak labor market at best.
  • Two days before the release of the BLS report, payroll processing firm ADP estimated that 179,000 jobs were created in July.  This was the 2nd month in a row that the BLS data far exceeded the ADP data.

On the other hand, there are reasons to believe the BLS data.  On the same day that ADP released its estimate, polling firm Gallup’s “Job Creation Index” held steady at a record-high level for the third month in a row.  First time unemployment claims have been running at historically low levels, although it should be noted that not getting laid off isn’t the same thing as getting hired, and the low rate of claims may have as much to do with the changing nature of jobs, making fewer people eligible for unemployment when their work slows down.

On Tuesday, the BLS announced that non-farm productivity fell for the third quarter in a row.  This is consistent with an economy that’s adding jobs in the face of weak demand.  But why?  Why would employers be piling on workers in a flat economy that’s teetering on recession?  Corporate earnings have been declining for several quarters now.  Companies are usually in full-blown, head count-cutting cost control mode by now.  Instead they’re hiring at a healthy clip?  It’s possible.  Given the political climate surrounding the income inequality issue, there seems to have been a collective effort by corporations to blunt some of the criticism by raising entry-level wages and, possibly, to continue hiring long past the point at which they would normally have begun laying people off.

But that won’t last forever.  Shareholders are growing impatient for companies to begin showing actual earnings growth again instead of just slowdowns in the rate of decline.  I have my doubts about how much longer the factors that are putting downward pressure on employment and wages – especially falling per capita consumption and population (labor force) growth – can be held at bay.



U6 Unemployment Rises to 16.0% in February

March 6, 2009


U6 is the broadest measure of unemployment in the civilian labor force in the U.S. economy and includes those who need work but have given up the search, and those who have taken part-time jobs while still seeking full time employment.  In February, that figure rose by 0.6% to 16.0%.  The seasonally-adjusted U3 figure is the one typically reported in the media and does not include those who have given up and those who have been forced into part-time work. 

This morning, it was announced that payrolls shrank by 651,000 jobs and that unemployment (the U3 figure) had risen to 8.1%.  But this data is a curious mish-mash of data from two separate surveys.  The job loss figure is generated by the “Current Employment Statistics” (CES) program, a survey of 150,000 businesses and government agencies.  But the 8.1% unemployment figure comes from the “Current Population Survey,” a monthly survey of households, conducted by the Census Bureau. 

The latter survey shows that the ranks of the unemployed grew by 851,000 in February, with the number of jobs shrinking by 351,000 while the work force grew by 498,000.  (I can’t explain why there’s a discrepancy of 2,000.  Perhaps a matter of rounding.)  Normal labor force growth is about 150,000 per month, so nearly 350,000 people who were on the sidelines jumped back into the job market in February.  (See http://www.bls.gov/cps/ for more info.) 

And yesterday it was reported that, once again, the number of weekly first-time unemployment claims in the previous week was about 650,000, a rate that’s held steady for weeks now.  That’s an annual rate of approximately 24%, or one out of every four workers, losing their job. 

These are truly horrible numbers.  One of my 2009 predictions, made back in November of last year, was that unemployment would top 10% this year.  At the time, no economist was predicting such high numbers, and few are today.  But with unemployment rising by 0.5% per month, it would only take four more months of such data to get there.  It’s beginning to look like a sure thing to me.  President Obama had better do something about the trade deficit fast.