Friday, December 4, 2009

U.S. Employment Figures Don't Add Up

The 'Helicopter Economics Investing Guide' is meant to help educate people on how to make profitable investing choices in the current economic environment. We have coined this term to describe the current monetary and fiscal policies of the U.S. government, which involve unprecedented money printing. This is the official blog of the New York Investing meetup.

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Fed chair Ben Bernanke is up for reappointment and is experiencing some difficult times with his congressional critics. Good news has suddenly and conveniently appeared to bolster his case however, including Bank of America planning on repaying the TARP money it received from the U.S. government and then a big improvement on the non-farms payroll number released on December 3rd. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were only 11,000 jobs lost in November 2009 and the losses for the previous couple of months weren't nearly as bad as they had reported (the last time there were actual job gains in the U.S. was in December 2007). Independent private surveys don't corroborate the government's numbers.

The U.S. government figures were not completely rosy by any means. They indicate that there were major job losses in Manufacturing and Construction, a significant drop in Information and in Leisure and Hospitality jobs, and amazingly a drop in Retail jobs during the height of the holiday season. U.S. Manufacturing employment fell by 41,000 in November and has declined by an eye-popping 2.1 million since the recession began in December 2007. Construction jobs fell by 27,000. There was also a loss of 17,000 jobs in the Information industries (half of that in telecommunications). Leisure and Hospitality lost 11,000 jobs. Jobs in retail declined by 15,000. You would not know this from reading the BLS press release however, unless you looked at the data attached to the bottom of it. The copy did not mention that there was a job loss in retail, but instead stated "there was little change in wholesale and retail employment".

So where did the job gains come from? Three categories had increases in employment -Professional and Business Services, Education and Health Services and Government. Professional and Business Services was the big gainer adding 86,000 jobs. However, 52,000 of those jobs were part-time. Education and Health Services added 40,000 jobs with 21,000 of these jobs coming from Health Care and presumably 19,000 from Education (which is not known for hiring people in November). Government added 7,000 jobs. The two consistent job producers since the recession began two years ago have been the Government and Health Care categories, with Education also frequently adding jobs (many health care and education jobs are government related).

The BLS claimed that unemployment fell from 10.2% to 10.0% in November. How can the unemployment rate fall when there are job losses? People have to leave the labor force. Barring a sudden population decrease of working age individuals, workers have to get so discouraged form the bad employment situation that they just give up looking. According to the BLS, 2.3 million people are marginally attached to the labor force and are not counted as unemployed because they did not look for a job in the previous four weeks. Another 9.2 million are working part-time even though they want full-time employment. The alternative unemployment rate which includes discouraged workers and involuntary part-time workers was reported by the BLS as 17.2%.

A check on U.S. government employment figures can be gotten from the ISM (Institute of Supply Management) Services and Manufacturing Indices, both of which survey employment as well as a number of other factors which indicate economic growth or lack thereof. The Services Index was released just yesterday and employment came in at 41.6 (under 50 means contraction). Employment in the services sector has been in decline for the last 19 months and dropped from October to November according to the ISM. All the job gains in the government employment report supposedly came from the service sector. There is a major contradiction here.

The November non-farms payroll figures are another government release indicating the U.S. economy is getting better. This one doesn't add up either. Healthy economies don't have major job losses in manufacturing and construction. Nor are jobs lost in retail during the holiday season (they are during depressions, but certainly not if the economy is improving). The big job gains were part-time, not permanent. The unemployment rate is improving because workers are so discouraged that they are leaving the labor force, not because jobs are being added. This doesn't happen if the economy is getting better either. Furthermore private surveys don't support the governments numbers. Investors should be wary. While markets can be fooled in the short-term, in the long-term they trade on reality.

Disclosure: None.

NEXT: Gold in Technical Correction as Dollar Rallies

Daryl Montgomery
Organizer,New York Investing meetup

This posting is editorial opinion. Like all other postings for this blog, there is no intention to endorse the purchase or sale of any security.


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Unemployment is much higher than reported.