Friday, January 6, 2012

U.S. Non-farmPayrolls -- The Statistical Illusion of Jobs

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.

The Employment Report for December 2011 was released today with a glowing press release from the BLS (Bureau of Labor Statistics).  The highlight of the report was the 42,000 courier and messengers jobs created last month and the claim that the unemployment rate fell to 8.5%

Statistics can easily be manipulated and it is not unknown for political regimes to do so in order to hold on to power (and 2012 is an election year in the U.S.). After all, it is much easier to change a number than to fix the underlying problem the number represents. Fortunately, the BLS publishes a number of statistical Tables with each monthly report that can be used to check its calculations.

When the Great Recession began in December 2007, the civilian non-institutional population of the United States was 189,993,000. At that time, the number of people in the U.S. labor force was 125,588,000. As of December 2011, the BLS states that the employment population ratio for the U.S. is 58.5% (0.585). The non-institutional population of the U.S. was reported at 193,682,000 or 3,689,000 higher than it was in December 2007. The labor force in December 2007 was 125,334,000 and multiplying the increase in the U.S. population in the intervening four years by the employment population ratio indicates that the labor force should have increased by 2,158,000 to 127,492,000.  However, the BLS reports the U.S. labor force last month was 124,114,000. More than three million people are missing from its figures.

The smaller the labor force is, the better the headline unemployment rate becomes. The BLS claims these three million plus people left the labor force and this justifies purging them from the statistics. There is a problem with their line of reasoning however. Large numbers of people only leave a labor force during periods of severe economic distress.  It does not happen during economic recovery. It does not indicate an employment situation that is improving.  Yet, the BLS produces numbers showing things are getting better when this happens. This violates the first rule of statistics -- the results must reflect reality. The BLS numbers do not.

Dividing the number of employed in December 2011 by the size of the labor force that should exist based on the population numbers produces an unemployment rate of 9.6%, not 8.5%. This is the headline number that should be reported. If the BLS wants to insist however that more than three million people have indeed left the labor force (and this has continued in the last year -- the size of the labor force in December 2011 is smaller than it was in December 2010), it should also make it clear that this indicates that there has been an ongoing recession and no economic recovery has taken place. Both can't happen at the same time, except for a brief period. Either the economic recovery story is a lie or there hasn't been a shrinking labor force. 

While mainstream economists will insist that employment is a lagging indicator (more than two years is some lag), this has only been the case in the U.S. years after statistical "improvements" were introduced in the 1980s and 1990s in how government economic numbers were determined. Before that, employment recovered with improving GDP as should be the case. If you think about it, the term jobless recovery makes as much sense as tall midget or genius moron.

The improvement in the weekly unemployment claims is also being cited as evidence of an improving jobs picture. It would be more accurate to say that it is evidence of a jobs picture than can't continue to get worse. As I have stated since at least mid-2010, the weekly claims number will regress toward the mean (move to its long-term average) because eventually there will be few workers who remain to be laid off. After being elevated for several years, the only way that weekly claims  can now increase is with a big jump in bankruptcies. This will be avoided as long as the economy holds steady.

What is keeping the U.S. economy from getting worse is the unprecedented budget deficits that the U.S. is running. If you spend an extra $1.3 trillion dollars that you don't have as the U.S. did in 2011, this will certainly stimulate the economy in the short-term since much of this money winds up in consumer pockets and they spend it.  According to the non-farm payrolls report for December, the U.S. is not exactly getting good value for this money. Unless of course, you think low-paying courier and messenger jobs should be the cornerstone of the economy.

Disclosure: None

Daryl Montgomery
Author: "Inflation Investing - A Guide for the 2010s"
 Organizer, New York Investing meetup

This posting is editorial opinion. There is no intention to endorse the purchase or sale of any security.


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Payrolls can be made to look a lot better than they really are.