Low Quality Recovery; Job Losses Continue


As I have previously written, the so-called reccovery may be statistically a fact, but it is what I have termed very low quality.  It is the result of an end to the major negative contributors to GDP, but not actual improvement. Headwinds are still strong, and investors should be very cautious after the dramatic improvement in stock prices.

The monthly jobs report, issued last Friday, was disheartening.  Below I have quoted the analysis of the report by Dave Rosenberg, former chief economis t of Merrill Lynch, now with the Toronto-based firm of Gluskin Sheff.

“Nonfarm payrolls in the U.S. slid 263,000 in September, but the details were even more sombre. The Household Survey showed a massive 785,000 plunge in September, and employment on this score has now slid by 1.2 million in the past two months. Sustainability is the key and there can be no durable recovery without net job creation and organic wage growth, which were both lacking in Friday’s report. In fact, the combination of the workweek edging back down to retest the all-time low of 33.0 hours and the near-stagnation in hourly wages dragged the proxy for personal income down 0.2% Month-over-Month (in nominal terms) and the Year-over-Year trend is getting perilously close to deflation terrain, at +0.7% from +0.8% in August and +1.2% in July.

Civilian employment is down 4.3% Year-over-Year and that too is a record in the post-WWII era; remember, the Household survey leads the cycle and typically bottoms and peaks before the Payroll survey does. This survey showed a 785,000 plunge in employment in September, and never before has a recession ended with civilian employment declining this much (on average, it goes down around 70,000 or almost negligible the month the recession ends).

In the last three months, the Household survey shows that civilian employment has plunged 1.33 million. At the time of the end of the 2001 recession, the three-month rally was -3,000 – we hadn’t even entered the jobless recovery at that point. There has never been a time, ever, when a recession ended during a span when the economy lost 1.33 million jobs. So all the calls that the recession is over may have been a tad premature. If the jobs data are correct, and the recession is in fact not over, this entire 60% rally is at risk of unravelling.

There were absolutely no redeeming features in the data. The private nonfarm diffusion index sank to 31.9 in September from 34.9 in August (the manufacturing diffusion index fell to 22.9 from 28.3 in August) which means that for every company adding to their staff loads, more than two are cutting back. The labour force contracted by 571,000 and has plunged now by 1.1 million since May. That again is a sign of the labour market seizing up, which is very disturbing when you consider all the government efforts to stem the tide last quarter – from housing subsidies, to cash-for-clunkers, to mortgage modifications.

The fact that initial jobless claims have peaked and rolled over – modestly by historical standards – tells only half the story which is firings. It is so painfully obvious from the data what is lacking most, is new hiring, especially in the small business sector which accounts for half of the job creation in the United States. The average duration of unemployment rose to 26.2 weeks – a half year! – from 24.9 weeks in August; the median spiked to 17.3 weeks from 15.4. It is so difficult now to find a job that a record 36% of the ranks of those unemployed have been searching with futility now for at least six months. In “normal” recessions since 1950, this ratio peaked at just over 20%. It is nearly double that today. In number terms, we are talking about 5.4 million Americans who have been out of work – but looking – for at least six months. This is troubling.

The U6 measure of the unemployment rate, which is the most inclusive definition of the labour force and takes into account the fact that we have a record 9 million people working part-time because they have been pushed off full-time payrolls, hit a new high of 17.0% in September from 16.8% in August. The gap between this rate and the ‘official’ rate of 9.8% is at a record of seven percentage points. The historical norm is closer to four percentage points and so the concept of mean reversion – Bob Farrell’s first market rule to remember – suggests that the unemployment rate is going to be setting new highs for the post-WWII era before too long (the prior high was 10.8% in November-December of 1982). So the chances that we see a 13% peak unemployment rate this cycle is far from a ludicrous proposition at this point; and just in time for the mid-term elections.

The index of aggregate hours worked, which combines hours worked with the number of bodies at work, seemed to be carving out a bottom in July and August; however, it was a false bottom because this critical ingredient into GDP fell 0.5% in September, to stand at its lowest level in six years. For Q3, aggregate hours worked actually contracted at a 3.0% annual rate, so basically, what is keeping the economy afloat is continued strong productivity gains. But productivity growth alone cannot possibly lead the economy into a sustainable recovery — labour input at some point is going to have to kick in. For Q3, aggregate hours worked actually contracted at a 3% annual rate so basically, what is keeping the economy afloat, is continued strong productivity gains. But productivity growth alone cannot possibly lead the economy into a sustainable recovery; labour input at some point is going to have to kick in.

Take note that the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) also announced a preliminary estimate regarding the benchmark revisions that get published every February and they suggest an additional 824,000 jobs were lost in the year to March 2009, which would put the cumulative decline at over 8.0 million (versus 7.2 million currently, which, even in percent terms – down 5.2%, is the worst in 64 years).

Many of these jobs are never coming back, either. The share of the unemployed who are not on layoff is at record 54.3% as of September. In prior recessions, this ratio would barely pierce the 40% mark. In number terms, we are talking about 8.5 million Americans who have lost their job due to permanent shutdowns, a figure that is double what you typically see at the peak of the recession. “


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