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.

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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.


Trade Deficit Soars in January

March 8, 2018

https://www.bea.gov/newsreleases/international/trade/2018/pdf/trad0118.pdf

The above-linked report, released by the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) this morning, reports that the trade deficit soared in January to $56.6 billion, the worst reading since October 2008.  Here’s a chart of the data, dating back to January of 2010 when President Obama boasted that the U.S. would double its exports within five years:  Balance of Trade.

Exports of manufactured goods fell in January and remain at the same level as March of 2012.  During that time, imports of manufactured goods have risen by $36 billion.  The goods deficit rose to $76.4 billion in January, an annual rate of $917 billion.  The deficit in manufactured goods alone was $68.3 billion, and is rapidly getting worse.  Check this chart:  Manf’d Goods Balance of Trade.  Since Trump took office, the trade deficit has jumped by 16%.

The trade deficit is killing economic growth.  It cut 4th quarter GDP (gross domestic product) growth by 31%.  Without the effects of trade, 4th quarter GDP would have come in at 3.63% instead of the actual figure of 2.5%.  GDP hasn’t grown by 3% since 2005.

This isn’t what Trump promised us.  While tariffs on steel and aluminum would be a good start, what’s needed badly are tariffs that cover the entire spectrum of manufactured products until a balance of trade is restored.  Perhaps with the departure of globalist Gary Cohn from Trump’s economic team, some real progress on trade may finally be possible.


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.


Ford Moving to Mexico; Trump Says He’ll Stop It

September 15, 2016

http://money.cnn.com/2016/09/15/news/companies/donald-trump-ford-ceo-mark-fields/index.html

The above link will take you to an interview conducted by CNN’s Poppy Harlow with Mark Fields, Ford CEO.  If you have the patience to watch it all the way through, it will be immediately followed by further discussion of Trump’s plans to raise tariffs and bring manufacturing jobs back to the U.S.

Trump has long predicted that Ford would be announcing its move to Mexico.  Fields responds that they are only moving its small car production – the Focus and the C-Max (both made at Ford’s Dearborn, MI plant) -to Mexico.  Other models will continue to be made in the U.S.

Ford actually sells six car models:  Fiesta, Focus, C-max, Fusion, Mustang and Taurus.  The Fiesta and the Fusion are already built in Mexico.  Ford’s announcement about the Focus and C-max leaves only two of its six car models that are still made in the U.S. – Mustang and Taurus.  The former is built at its Flat Rock, MI plant and the Taurus is built in Chicago.  Most of its SUVs and trucks are built in the U.S.  There’s a good reason for this.  The U.S. continues to maintain a 25% tariff on all imported light trucks.

The Transit Connect is an interesting exception.  Until 2013, Ford imported the Transit Connect, a vehicle it markets as a commercial van/truck, from Turkey, trimmed out as a passenger van.  It then strips out the passenger interior, removes the windows, and replaces them with metal panels, converting it into a commercial vehicle.  It did all of this to escape paying the 25% import tariff.  In 2013, the U.S. ordered Ford to stop this practice.  Ford still does it, but now it pays the tariff.  It “eats” the cost of the tariff.  It doesn’t pass it on to the consumer.

If elected, Trump has vowed to essentially tear up most trade deals – particularly NAFTA, and will raise tariffs to force companies to re-establish their manufacturing operations in the U.S.  In the case of Mexico, he has suggested a 35% tariff.  During the linked interview, Ms. Harlow asked Mark Shields directly whether he would still move manufacturing to Mexico if that were to happen.  Shields side-stepped the question.  But the answer is obvious.  Of course Ford would not move more production to Mexico if that were to happen.  Quite the opposite.  Production of the Fiesta and Fusion would also return.

Late in the interview, Shields cited the huge savings in labor costs for the move to Mexico, saying that it needed to be done to remain competitive in that segment of the market.  Ms. Harlow failed to follow up with the obvious question:  “So you’ll be reducing the price of the Focus once production has moved to Mexico?”  I would have loved to see him squirm and see the smirk run away from his face when he replied that the price wouldn’t change a bit.

Has any company ever cut the price of any product once its production was moved overseas?  Of course not.  They pocket the extra profit.  Which brings us to one of the arguments employed by economists (and cited in the 2nd CNN segment which starts immediately after the Mark Shields interview) that prices will rise and consumers will be forced to pay the tariffs, hurting the economy and cutting deeply into consumer spending.

That’s absolute nonsense.  Consumers don’t pay the tariffs.  The importing companies pay the tariffs.  Whether or not they elect to pass that extra cost along to the consumer is entirely up to them.  As we saw above with the Transit Connect, Ford doesn’t pass it along.  Sure, that would cut deeply into profits.  By far, the smarter alternative is to move manufacturing back to the U.S.

During the course of the interview, Ms. Harlow repeats a myth about tariffs and their role in the Great Depression.  “… the last time a big tariff was instituted in the United States back during the Great Depression, all the economists agree that it made the Great Depression worse.”  I’ve said it many times but it bears repeating here:  that’s factually false and is absolute nonsense.  First of all, no new, big tariff was implemented during the Great Depression.  The Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act of 1930 was a very slight tweaking of the  Fordney-McCumber Tariff Act of 1922, raising tariffs overall from 38.5% to 41.4%.  Following enactment of Fordney-McCumber, the economy boomed during the “roaring ’20s.”

By the time Smoot-Hawley was enacted, the Great Depression had already been underway for a year.  During the Great Depression, America’s balance of trade declined by less than $1 billion while GDP fell by $33 billion.  To blame tariffs for the Great Depression is ludicrous.  But that didn’t stop economists from doing it, eager to make a case for their new, untested theory about “free” trade.

In the CNN piece following the Mark Shields interview, CNN reports on dire warnings by economists that Mr. Trump’s tariffs would have disastrous consequences for the economy, cutting GDP by up to $1 trillion and would result in the loss of 4 million jobs.  Such claims are really puzzling, given the fact that economists know very well that a trade deficit is actually a subtraction in the calculation of GDP.  It’s impossible that bringing back manufacturing would do anything other than boost GDP dramatically.  Merely balancing trade in manufactured goods would be an $800 billion boost to the economy.  That would be a 4% jump in GDP which, not coincidentally, is what Trump has targeted for economic growth.  Any further surplus in trade in manufactured goods would boost the economy even more.  And instead of cutting 4 million jobs, it would actually create approximately 10 million jobs.

Free trade advocates claim that manufacturing jobs don’t matter any more, that most manufacturing is automated and there are few jobs there to be had.  If that’s true, then why do so many badly overpopulated nations with huge, bloated work forces cling so desperately to the manufacturing that they do for the American consumer?  Certainly, automation has improved productivity in manufacturing, but not nearly to the extent that free traders would have you believe.  Consider the production of the supposedly high-tech cell phones like the i-phone.  Their manufacture is about as low tech as you can get – thousands of people assemble the circuit boards by hand in China.

During one of the CNN segments, the reporter comments that “cars aren’t really built from scratch any more.  They’re assembled.  Those plants in Mexico will be assembling them from American-made parts.”  As if the process of assembly requires no effort, and as if cars haven’t been built that way since Henry Ford invented the assembly line.  I can tell you from personal experience, having toured the Dearborn plant where Ford builds the Focus, that it takes a lot of workers to make an assembly plant “tick.”  Watching a stack of sheet metal being turned into a finished automobile in less than 24 hours is truly awe-inspiring.  Having toured both auto assembly plants and electronics manufacturing, I can tell you that an auto assembly plant is far more “high-tech” than electronics production.

Trump’s plans to use tariffs to return manufacturing back to the U.S. is exactly what the American economy needs – and is exactly the thing that globalists fear the most.


Overpopulated Nations Sucking the Life out of American Manufacturing

May 11, 2016

I’ve finished my analysis of trade in manufactured goods for 2015 and the news isn’t good.  The effect of attempting to trade freely with nations that are much more densely populated than our own intensified yet again in 2015, dragging our deficit with those nations to a new record.

Check out this chart:  Deficits Above & Below Median Pop Density.  First, some explanation of the data is in order.  I studied our trade data for 166 nations and separated out those product codes that represent manufactured products.  Subtracting imports from exports, I was able to determine the balance of trade in manufactured goods for each.  I then sorted the data by the population density of each nation and divided these 166 nations evenly into two groups:  those 83 nations with a population density greater than the median (which, in 2015, was 184 people per square mile) and those 83 nations with a population density below the median.  I then totaled our balance of trade for each group.

As you can see, in 2015, our balance of trade in manufactured goods with the less densely populated half of nations was once again a surplus, but a smaller surplus of $74 billion.  This is down from $132 billion in 2014 and is less than half of the record high of $153 billion in 2011.

Conversely, our balance of trade in manufactured goods with the more densely populated half of nations was a huge deficit, plunging to a new record deficit of $722 billion, beating last year’s record by $53 billion.

Some observations about these two groups of nations are in order.  Though these nations are divided evenly around the median population density, the division is quite uneven with respect to population and land surface area.  The more densely populated nations represent almost 77% of the world’s population (not including the U.S.), but only about 24% of the world’s land mass (again, not including the U.S.).

Think about that.  With the people living in 76% of the world’s land mass, the U.S. enjoyed a surplus of trade of $74 billion in manufactured products.  But with the rest of the world – an area less than a third in size – the U.S. was clobbered with a $722 billion deficit!  Population density is the determining factor.  Not wages or wealth.  Wealthy nations were just as likely to appear among the deficit nations as among the surplus nations.  Not currency valuations.  Virtually ever currency in the world weakened against the dollar in 2015.  Population density is the key factor that drove these trade imbalances.

Some may point to the increase in the trade deficit as proof that currency values and manipulation are driving the imbalance.  But the data from previous years has shown that no such relationship exists.  A much more likely explanation is that American exports are declining and imports are rising because as more and more manufacturers lose ground to foreign competition, there are fewer and fewer products available for export or for purchase by domestic consumers.  Like a horde of mosquitoes, the overpopulated nations of the world are literally sucking the life out of American manufacturing and, with it, the American economy in general.

So what’s to be done?  “Give free trade enough time to work,” free trade advocates say, “and these imbalances will even themselves out.”  Wrong.  Free trade policy has had decades to work, beginning with the signing of the Global Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) in 1947 and the result has been that the trade deficit with densely populated nations just gets worse and worse.  This happens because free trade theory doesn’t account for the inverse relationship between population density and per capita consumption.

The only remedy that would restore a balance of trade is the same trade policy that the U.S. employed until 1947 to maintain such a balance – tariffs.  The use of tariffs to compensate the U.S. for nations’ inability to provide us access to equivalent markets – markets that have been emaciated by overcrowding – would restore a balance of trade and breathe life back into the American economy.