Economy’s Good, Not Great. Tariffs Not Yet a Factor.

October 20, 2018

I’m back from my annual fall fishing trip up north.  Much has happened and it’s time to get caught up.

The economy’s doing quite well.  In September, the unemployment rate fell yet again to 3.7%.  Economists are wringing their hands over the tight labor market.  Every month, the Federal Reserve proclaims the economy to be at “full employment,” a condition likely to yield rising labor costs, fueling unwelcome inflation.  Yet, every month the economy adds more jobs and somehow manages to find workers to fill them.  Now we’re really at full employment, says the Fed.  Another month.  More jobs added.  “Now we’re really, really at full employment.”  And on it goes.  This supposedly tight labor market is the Fed’s chief justification for raising interest rates.

It’s almost as though there’s a conspiracy to stir up hysteria about an over-heating economy.  On Tuesday, the Fed released its “JOLTS” report of the number of job openings, noting that the number of job listings exceeded the number of people reported to be actively seeking employment.  What they don’t tell you is that that’s perfectly normal.  “Job seekers” is a figure taken from the unemployment report.  But if you’re simply changing jobs and never filed for unemployment, you’re not counted.  Many job opening listings are simply positions opened up by people who have left for other jobs, often because they have decided to simply relocate from one place to another.  It’s a weak measure of the health of the economy.  Nevertheless, ECONODAY had this to say about the report:  “Jerome Powell (head of the Federal Reserve) concedes that it’s a mystery why wages haven’t been going up very much as demand for labor grows and the supply of labor declines. Yet sooner or later, the law of supply and demand is bound to assert itself, at least this is the risk that the Fed is guarding against in its rate-hike regime.”

Yesterday, commenting about the weak report of existing home sales, ECONODAY had this to say: “The lack of wage gains, however, is a negative for home buyers not to mention a great mystery of the 2018 economy given the increasing scarcity of available labor. And another great mystery of this year’s economy is the lack of interest in home ownership.”

Is it a lack of interest in home ownership, or a lack of the wherewithal to buy a home in the face of rising interest rates (driven by the Fed) combined with the “great mystery” of a “lack of wage gains?”  People don’t just lose interest in owning a home.  Everybody wants a place they can call their own.  The problem is that not everyone can afford it.

There’s really no mystery here.  Anyone who has followed this blog or has cast a cynical eye on the employment statistics ever since the “Great Recession” knows that the unemployment rate is completely bogus, driven down artificially by the Labor Department claiming that people have dropped out of the labor force.  During the Obama administration, 6.4 million workers mysteriously vanished.  Since Trump took office, that figure has shrunk by over a million workers, but an honest tally of the unemployed still stands at 11 million workers (including those who were unemployed before the “Great Recession”) and unemployment is actually at 6.6% instead of 3.7% – a rate nowhere near low enough to begin driving wages higher.  Per capita employment remains exactly 1% below the level it was at before the onset of the “Great Recession” – a figure that was already depressed.

So the economy is doing well – better than it has done in the past ten years – but that’s not saying a lot.  The tax cut that went into effect this year gets the credit, but that will only carry the economy so far.  To keep it going – to accelerate the economy even further – we need progress toward cutting the trade deficit, especially the deficit in manufactured goods.  The Trump administration has made a lot of moves in that direction, imposing 10% tariffs on steel and aluminum, tariffs on $25 billion of Chinese imports, followed by 25% tariffs on an additional $225 billion of their imports, the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and threats to impose tariffs on all auto imports.

But there’s no evidence of any improvement in our trade situation, at least not yet.  The most recent trade data show that the rapid erosion of American manufacturing continues, yielding a trade deficit of $70 billion in manufactured goods in August – a new record – with new record trade deficits with China and Mexico.

That’s not an indication that Trump’s tariffs are a failure.  Aside from the small tariffs on aluminum and steel, none of the above-mentioned initiatives have taken effect yet.  The biggest chunk of the tariffs on China went into effect in September, so the effect on trade with China won’t show up until new trade data is released next month.  The “USMCA” agreement – the replacement for NAFTA – hasn’t been enacted yet.  And the trade deficit with China was artificially swollen by a rush to beat the tariffs.

It’s going to take a lot of patience to realize the real benefits of Trump’s trade policy.  The purpose of tariffs is to provide an incentive to manufacture products domestically.  The immediate effect will be to raise prices for American consumers, just as economists have warned.  Longer term,  companies will begin to realize that they can improve profits by manufacturing in the U.S., thus avoiding the tariffs.  It’s going to take time for that realization to sink in, and time for companies to implement plans to build factory capacity in the U.S.  Ultimately, when that capacity comes on line, we’ll see a real boom in the demand for labor and a corresponding rise in wages, more than offsetting any increase in prices.

Hopefully, the Federal Reserve won’t torpedo the economy in the meantime.  It can’t have any impact on price increases driven by tariffs, so it would be pointless to even try.  All they can do is drive the economy into recession with their high interest rates, raising doubts about the president’s economic policies, and increasing the chances that America will shrink back into its role as host in the global host-parasite trade relationship.  That would be a disaster.

Again, it’s going to take time and patience.  It took seven decades of globalism (beginning with the signing of the Global Agreement on Tariffs and Trade – GATT – in 1947) to get us into the fix we’re in.  It’s going to take more than a year or two to get us out.

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The Federal Reserve Thinks Unemployment Is Too Low!

September 13, 2018

https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-fed-rosengren/fed-says-it-whipped-u-s-unemployment-maybe-too-well-idUSKCN1LT0F0

As reported in the above-linked Reuters article, Boston Fed bank president Eric Rosengren worries that the Federal Reserve has been “too successful” is lowering unemployment.  He explains:

“The recurrent pattern (of recessions) was one where the tightening of monetary policy was expected to slow the economy down gently…to full employment,” Rosengren and three Boston Fed co-authors noted. But “Once the unemployment rate starts to rise by a relatively modest amount, dynamics take hold that tend to push the economy into a recession.”

The Fed considers an unemployment rate of 4.5% to represent “full employment.”  The current rate of unemployment, as reported by the Labor Department on Friday, is 3.9%.  So the Fed worries that there’s no place for the unemployment rate to go but up, and even a small rise could start a recessionary downward spiral in the economy.

This is ridiculous for two reasons:

  1.  The Fed ignores its own role in choking off the economy and precipitating recessions by constantly tightening monetary policy (i.e., raising interest rates) as unemployment drops, and
  2.   The Fed has bought into bogus employment figures propagated by the Labor Department in an effort to stabilize confidence in economic policy in the wake of the Great Recession.

Regarding point 2 above, consider the following:

  • In November of 2007, just before the collapse of Lehman Bros. triggered the Great Recession, 48.4% of the U.S. population was employed and the unemployment rate stood at 4.7%.
  • As of August of 2018, the U.S. population has grown by 25.6 million people.  But, according to the Labor Department, the work force has grown by only 7.9 million workers, and the nation’s employment level has grown by only 8.9 million workers.  And in August of this year, only 47.4% of the population was employed.  Yet, thanks to the unnaturally low rate of growth in the labor force reported by the Labor Department, instead of rising, official unemployment has fallen to 3.9%
  • An honest accounting of the labor force that grows proportionately with population growth would produce a current  unemployment rate of 6.8% – nowhere close to “full employment.”
  • In spite of the decline in unemployment, wages have barely risen, confounding economic experts.  They haven’t risen because unemployment is still quite high – not anywhere close to being low enough to put upward pressure on wages.

Even the definition of “full employment” used by the Fed – 4.5% – is subject to debate.  If that level is “full employment,” how do you explain that some states and some countries routinely operate well below that level?  During World War II, unemployment fell to approximately 1% in the U.S.

The Federal Reserve is making a big mistake with its program of hiking interest rates just because the economy is doing better.  President Trump has been right to criticize its policies.  How can he “Make America Great Again” when the Fed’s policy is to “Let America Get Just a Little Bit Better – But Not Much?”


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

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

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.


December Jobs Report Weaker than It Looks

January 12, 2018

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

The headline number from the December employment report (link above) was a bit disappointing.  The economy added only 148,000 jobs vs. expectations for approximately 191,000 and vs. 252,000 added in November – especially disappointing considering that this was the peak of the retail shopping season.  Unemployment held steady at 4.1%.  (But not really.)

Look into the details and the report is even weaker.  The employment level, a figure taken from the household survey (vs. the establishment survey, which is where the 148,000 jobs figure comes from) rose by only 103,000.  But that’s not the worst part.  Employment and job creation numbers are meaningless without the context of population.  December is the month when the Census Bureau updates its estimate of population (during non-census years).  This time around it boosted the population by 549,000 (to just under 327 million people) vs. a normal monthly increase of about 170,000.  Of course, the population didn’t jump by that much in December.  It just means that the Census Bureau discovered that it has been underestimating population growth during 2017.  That means that growth in the labor force has been underestimated for the purposes of calculating unemployment.  If the actual size of the labor force was used in the calculation, instead of estimating it based on how many people were looking for work, unemployment actually rose in December by 0.1% to 7.2%, the third consecutive increase in that number.  And per capita employment has fallen for the third consecutive month.  Check the chart:  Per Capita Employment.  And the number of unemployed Americans rose for the third consecutive month to over 12 million.  Here’s the chart:  Unemployed Americans.

Enthusiasm over the Trump administration’s policies will only carry the economy so far.  Without the kind of meaningful trade policy reform that Trump promised during his campaign, it’s going to stall out.  This data may be an indication that that’s beginning to happen.


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.


Trade Deficit in Manufactured Products Hits Record in April

June 2, 2017

The Department of Commerce released the April figures for international trade in goods and services this morning, and the trade deficit rose again to its worst reading since January – $47.6 billion.  Imports were up and exports were down.  But you can’t even find the worst news in the report – the deficit in manufactured goods.  The Commerce Department doesn’t even bother to calculate it.  But I do.  By subtracting from the overall deficit the figures for services, foods, feeds, beverages and petroleum products, you can arrive at a pretty good estimation of trade in manufactured goods.  The news is bad.  The deficit in manufactured products rose to $63.4 billion, beating the previous record set in March, 2015 by $0.1 billion.  Imports rose to a record level and exports fell to their lowest level in five months.  Here’s a chart:  Manf’d Goods Balance of Trade.  As you can see, the deficit in manufactured goods continues to worsen at the same pace that it has since 2010, more than doubling in seven years.

Separately this morning, the Bureau of Labor Statistics released a weak employment report for the month of May.  Unemployment dropped, but thanks only to the old “mysteriously vanishing labor force” trick used so often during the Obama administration.  The employment level actually fell by 133,000 workers.  An accurate reading of unemployment would have had it actually worsening by two tenths of a percent.  Manufacturing employment fell yet again by another 1,000 jobs.  No surprise, in light of what’s happening with the trade deficit.  Add this data to the extremely weak first quarter GDP and you have a picture of an economy that’s stalled and might be on the brink of something worse.

So President Trump now owns the worst performance in manufactured goods of any president.  He vowed to “Make America Great Again.” The first step in that process is to stop it from getting worse.  That hasn’t happened yet.  Talk and optimism will only carry you so far.  There’s been little action.  There’s no border tax.  NAFTA still stands.  Jobs are still heading to China and Mexico.

To be fair, it’s still early in his administration, and the Republican congress has done nothing either.  But I fear that the opportunity to “make America great again” is being frittered away.