Employment Situation, March 2017

The Bureau of Labor Statistics released its monthly Employment Situation report earlier this morning.

With an addition of +98,000 jobs, the figures were a little more than half the rate of gain or recent months.  Revisions to data from the prior two months clipped another -38,000 positions from the total.

Although the report isn’t great reading for stock market bulls, we’ve seen over the past eight years of economic recovery that bad months occasionally occur, even in the midst of a sharply upsloping trend.  In addition, although the monthly figures are seasonally adjusted, the weather during 1Q17 has been so unusual in the populated regions of the US–unusually mild in January-February, ugly in March–that the first two months probably look better than they should and March worse.

The only really eyebrow-raising aspect of this report, in my view, is that despite the unemployment rate being at a very low 4.5%, there is still no sign of acceleration in wages.  This implies no urgency for the Fed to raise interest rates aggressively.

The Employment Situation, November 2016

The Bureau of Labor Statistics of the Labor Department released its monthly Employment  Situation report at 8:30 est this morning, as usual.

The results were good.  178,000 net new positions were filled during the month, which is right at the average monthly gain so far this year.  Net revisions were slightly negative, subtracting -2000 positions from prior months’ employment estimates.  The BLS also said wages made no upward progress during November, after having jumped a lot the month before.

The only out-of-the-ordinary figure was the unemployment rate, which fell to 4.6% from 4.9% in October.  We’ll likely find next month that the November figure comes from transitory statistical strangeness that will have already disappeared.

What to make of this ES?

Nothing, really.  In fact, I think that as stock market investors, we should no longer be monitoring the ES for signs of potential labor market weakness.  Instead, we should be on the lookout for indications of surprising strength, possibly in the number of new hires, but more likely in the rate of wage gains.

That’s because I think we’re well past the point where we’ve got to guard against economic weakness.  Instead, we’ve got to be alert for signs of the more likely threat–that the pace of interest rate rises will accelerate from the currently anticipated once-in-a-long-while pace..

The first step in adopting this new mindset, I think, is to consider what the endpoint for increases in the Fed Funds rate–and the resulting terminal interest rate point for 10-year Treasuries, which is the closer substitute for stocks in long-term investors’ portfolios–will be.

More on this topic on Monday.

labor force participation in the US

A little more than a week ago, the government released a report by the President’s Council of Economic Advisers on the declining labor force participation among prime-age men.  “Prime-age” is defined as being between 24 and 54.

The gist of the report:

–the US has seen a continuing, steady falloff in labor force participation by prime-age men since the 1960s

–the trend is similar in other advanced countries, but more severe in the the US than anywhere other than in Italy

–the decline comes across all age groups and ethnicities, although the worst experience is among black men

–education plays a part.  In 1964, labor participation among men with a college degree was 98%; last year the figure was 94%.  In 1964, the rate among men with less education was 97%; last year it was 83%

–relative wages for less-educated men have fallen as well, from 80% of the college graduate wage in the 1970s to 60% now

–the mechanism for the decline in participation appears to be that jobs are eliminated during recession, with only some of the positions restored during the ensuing recovery

Two other points:

–the average country in the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development = advanced nations) spends 6x the percentage of GDP that the US does on job search and job retraining for people out of work.  That puts the US at the bottom of the OECD pile.  If the unemployment people are anything like the VA, the situation is even worse than the figures imply.

–an unusually large number of US males have been in jail at one time or another in their lives.  They have a particularly hard time finding jobs afterward.

My thoughts:

–the situation described in the report is obviously not new, but worldwide, we may have reached a tipping point in voter discontent

–economic theory maintains that the best position for a country is to allow free trade.  It stresses, however, that for this openness to create real benefits, governments must step in when globalization causes job losses to retrain displaced workers and reintegrate them into the workforce.  That’s the part Washington seems to have systematically ignored.

The poor employment situation for large chunks of the population is not going to go away by itself.  The solution is probably not to elect a latter-day Ned Ludd, however.  The government shakeup in the UK that appears to be happening in the wake of the “Leave” vote on Brexit may end up being a template for the US as well.

 

unemployment and robots

robots are everywhere

Like just about everyone else (except my wife, who is a former president of the local chamber of commerce in our small home town), for years I’ve gone to the ATM instead of a bank teller. I don’t photo checks into our account, however, although close to 10% of American check volume is now processed this way.

I see the car commercials where computer-controlled cutting and welding machines are the ultimate symbols of manufacturing excellence.

I saw IBM’s Watson trounce those two guys on Jeopardy.

So, yes, I know that robots are taking over some tasks previously done by humans.

jobs at risk

What I didn’t know is how many jobs are potentially at risk.

Then I read an opinion piece by Martin Wolf, the chief economist of the Financial Times. It’s titled “Enslave the Robots and Free the Poor.”   Like anything Mr. Martin writes, the article is worth reading. But I mention it here because it references a paper by two professors from Oxford, Carl Frey and Michael Osborne, “The Future of Employment:  How Susceptible are Jobs to Computerization.”

The answer is “very.”  The paper concludes that 47%–that’s right, just about half, of the jobs now done by humans in the US are likely targets for replacement by robots.

How can this be?

Mssrs. Frey and Osborne divide work tasks into a matrix, according to whether the they require manual or cognitive skills, and whether they are repetitive or are non-repetitive, i.e., require some creativity, judgment or persuasive ability.

What we see in the ATM and the welding machines is repetitive manual tasks already being done by robots. We;re all used to that. The Frey/Osborne assertion is that while robots may increase their penetration of this segment of the matrix, computer scientists have become skillful enough in their algorithm fashioning that robots can now replace humans doing routine cognitive tasks. These include cashiers, waiters, tickettakers, manners of information kiosks, legal writers, medical diagnosers, truck drivers…

Is anyone safe?

Thank goodness, yes. On second thought, “Thank goodness” may not be appropriate.

–one set of “safe” jobs consists of service work that pays so little that savings don’t cover the cost of building the robot. Ouch.

–the other “safe” jobs re the ones that require a high degree of education, or that depend on creativity, or the ability to lead/persuade others, or the flexibility to respond effectively to novel situations.

fending off the robots

In the Frey/Osborne research, the two most effective ways to prevent your own robotization are to have a college degree or to be paid very poorly. Those lucky enough to qualify on both counts can breathe a sigh of relief.

timeframe

The Oxford paper gives no timeframe for this displacement. But even if the authors are off by a mile in their 47% and even if the process they describe takes half a century, substitution of capital for labor will continue to be a drag on job formation for a long while.

Frey and Osborne point out that ten years ago academics maintained that the safest possible job was being the driver of a motor vehicle.  And then along came the Google car.

IBM is refocusing itself to emphasize development of Watson, which is already being used to help make medical diagnoses.

 

Ironically, the current ultra-low interest rate regime in the US lowers the cost of investment capital—and therefore also lowering the breakeven point that must be reached to make the investment in robots.

investment significance?

Mr. Wolf’s op ed imagines the possible long-term societal implications of further mass replacement of humans by robots.  As an investor, my thought is that it may be wrong to look for the usual cyclical signs of vigor returning to the economy–signs that may never come.  Safer to focus on secular growth ideas,

 

 

today’s potential inflation threat

Yesterday I wrote about inflation in general.  My two-post idea has morphed into three, though.  Today I’ll write about the current situation.  Tomorrow, I’ll write about what happened during the last bout of runaway inflation the US experienced, in the late 1970s.

why are the money taps wide open?

It’s partly because we’re wrapping up the fourth year of recovery from the economic lows of 2009 and still have about three million people (2% of the workforce) unemployed.  In those workers lives, today is a repeat of the depression of the 1930s.

As Fed Chairman Bernanke has been saying in testimony to Congress with increasing force, the Fed is not well-equipped to prevent them from becoming part of a European-style permanent underclass.  That’s a job for fiscal policy shaped by the administration and for Congress–stuff like reforming the tax code to stimulate new business formation, or infrastructure spending, or retraining.

But Washington has no interest, leaving the Fed money policy, which is legally obligated through its “dual mandate” to try to maintain full employment, as the only option.  (The Fed’s other mandate, by the way, is to try to create the highest sustainable–meaning non-inflationary–level of GDP growth.)

unemployment is a bigger economic threat than inflation,

in the Fed’s view.  Therefore it feels justified in maintaining its massive money stimulus.

can the situation change?

Inflation in a developed economy starts up when there are more job openings than there are people to fill them.  Companies then begin to headhunt workers away from rivals with large wage increases.  Fast-rising wage levels–together with newly-flush workers’ relative indifference to paying more for things–are what creates overall inflation to spring up.

monitoring the unemployment rate

One way of keeping an eye out for incipient inflationary impulses is to keep track of changes in working hours and wages.  The Bureau of Labor Statistics does this.  The Fed also uses the unemployment rate as its key leading indicator of wages.  The rationale is that it’s hard for a worker to ask for a big raise while there’s a long line of qualified unemployed eager to do the work for the current wage–or less.

one big assumption

Over the past few years there’s been a continuing debate among economists as to how much of the current unemployment is cyclical and how much is structural.

“Cyclical” means that the workers have skills employers want but business in general isn’t strong enough to justify adding staff.  “Structural” means that a potential worker is unemployed because he doesn’t have the skills employers want.  Maybe he can’t use a computer, for example.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics tries to help measure the difference between cyclical and structural through its JOLTS (Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey) reports.  These show the number of job openings in the US that are currently unfilled.  A new JOLT report comes out at 10am Eastern time today.  The previous one, from May 24th, shows 3.5 million unfilled jobs in the US.  That’s about 10% below the pre-Great Recession highs.  It’s also 75% above the mid-2009 lows of 2.0 million.

to my mind, the JOLTS reports suggest at least part of the unemployment problem is structural–something loose money can’t do anything about.  But no one knows exactly how much this might be.

What if all the open jobs are from tech firms that want to hire college graduates with IT backgrounds, while the three million “extra” unemployed are all high school grads who used to work in construction and have limited computer literacy.  If that were true, we’re already at full employment.  Continuing Fed easing would already be in the process of igniting an inflationary upward wage spiral.

I’m not aware of anyone who is saying this is the case.  But how close are we?  No one really knows.

That’s the risk the Fed is taking–not because it wants to, but because it sees Washington as giving it no other choice.  It’s the reason the Fed is talking about taking its foot off the monetary gas pedal when the unemployment rate is at 6.5%, even though full employment more likely means 5.0%-5.5%.

It’s also the reason, I think, that the financial markets have decided all by themselves in recent weeks–as they typically have in the past–to start to do the Fed’s tightening work for it.

More tomorrow.

the Employment Situation report for July 2012

the report

On Friday August 3rd at 8:30am EDT, the Bureau of Labor Statistics of the Labor Department in Washington released its Employment Situation report for July 2012.  According to the BLS, the US economy added a net +163,000 new jobs during the month–the best showing since February.  The private sector created 172,000 positions;  state and local governments laid off -9,000 workers.

the revisions

As regular readers are well aware, the employment figures come from a BLS survey of large corporations and state/local government bodies.  Respondents have three months to get their data in.  As a result of differences in reporting speeds, each monthly figure compiled by the BLS  is revised twice, once each in the two months following the initial report, before it is considered final.

The May ES figures were initially reported as +69,000 jobs, consisting of +82,000 in the private sector and -13,000 layoffs by state and local governments.  These numbers were revised up in June to +77,000 (+105,000 private, -28,000 government).  The final tally, reported on Friday, is another upward revision, to +87,000 jobs (+116,000 private, -29,000 government).

The June figures were initially reported as +80,000 (+84,000 in the private sector, -4,000 government).  In the July ES, they’re revised down to +64,000 (+73,000 private, -9,000 government).  

Between the two months, revisions clip -6,000 positions from the total in July, all the decline coming from to state and local government layoffs.  (Despite the large May government layoff figure, the rate of shrinkage of state and local government employment is slowing.  Two reasons:  state/local revenues, rising rapidly as the economy recovers, are now approaching their previous 2007 peak; and, balanced budget rules have already been forcing trimming for a number of years.)

what makes this ES important

background

Employment in the domestic economy hit its low point about three years ago.  At that time there were about 9 million fewer people working than at the (overheated) peak of 2007, and maybe 7.5 million people fewer than normal.  Since then, due to a combination of natural healing and the Fed dropping interest rates to an emergency low of zero, the economy has added back over 4 million jobs.

It’s tempting to do simple subtraction and say that there are still at least 3.5 million out of work due to the recession.  It’s not that simple, however.  Students are constantly finishing school and looking for their first post-education jobs.  Older workers retire–though at a below normal rate at present–freeing up positions for new workers to take.

How big is this movement in net terms?  Economists estimate that the US needs to create an average of 125,000-150,000 new jobs each month just to absorb net new entrants into the workforce.

Therefore, the big army of unemployed only starts to get whittled down when the economy generates more than 125,000-150,000 jobs a month.

the recent past

Over last winter, job creation suddenly accelerated to around 250,000 new positions a month.  Wall Street was elated!  The economy appeared to have not only absorbed all the new school-leavers but also reduced the ranks of the long-term unemployed by 10%.  Maybe a 1970s-, 1980s-style (read: faster) recovery was finally underway.  And this during a period when bad weather tends to slow hiring.

Then came the March figures, which were slightly below 150,000 job adds.    …and the April figures   …and the May figures   …and the June figures–all sub-100,000 job creation months.  Wall Street was deflated!

Initially, investors read the apparent slowdown as mild winter weather pulling forward into February construction work that usually comes only in April.  But as the sub-100,000 months began to pile up–and, at the same time the EU economy was turning out to be worse than expected and slowdown in China was deepening–investors began to fear that simple seasonality wasn’t the culprit.  Wall Street began to think that the job figures were signaling the US was beginning to be dragged back into recession by economic woes elsewhere.

At least for the moment–and for good, I think–the July ES has restored seasonality as the most likely reason for the poor job numbers posted during the spring.  We’re back to the idea that the domestic economy is growing just enough to absorb new entrants–but not to make any appreciable dent in the large number of chronically employed.

stock market implications

1.  Having several million “extra” unemployed is a calamity for the unemployed themselves.  It’s also a key long-term social and political problem.  It isn’t necessarily as big an issue for publicly traded companies, however.

The long-term unemployed represent maybe 3% of the workforce.  When working, they represented far less than that percentage of total consumption spending–1% would be a generous estimate.  Corporate profits would be dented severely by a global recession.  But, sad to say, ex materials companies, failure of Washington to ease chronic unemployment won’t make very much difference to S&P 500 earnings.

2.  In the manic, black-or-white, all-or-nothing view of short-term traders, Wall Street is again a safe place to be long.  This doesn’t necessarily mean that stocks are going to go up a lot from here.  But it does, in my view, lower the odds of a protracted slide in the S&P 500.

3.  If, as I think they will, the July ES figures do prove indicative of what August and beyond will bring, it may well also be that the world will see the upcoming US presidential election as not as crucial as it does now.  The belief that neither major party candidate is competent would be less threatening if the economy is, although admittedly slowly, healing itself.  Wall Street would then probably default to its traditional stance that, after all, gridlock is the best one can hope for from politicians.

Again, this doesn’t mean that stocks will go up–or that Washington will do anything for the chronically unemployed.  It does mean, however, that some growth is possible without helpful/needed fiscal policy changes the government refuses to make.  The magnitude of another worry is reduced.

“What Workers Lose by Staying Put,” Enrico Moretti in the Wall Street Journal

The New Geography of Jobs

“What Workers Lose…” is an article in the Weekend Edition of the WSJ, adapted from Dr. Moretti’s recent book (which I haven’t read) The New Geography of Jobs.  Dr. Moretti was born and grew up in Italy, but now teaches economics at Cal Berkeley.

The thrust of the article is that Americans are unusually mobile in search of work, in contrast with Continental Europeans, who seldom stray from their birthplace.  Dr. Moretti believes that this flexibility is an economic virtue–not necessarily a surprise, given his own career.

His observation is interesting because it runs so counter to the views of prominent 20th century European literary and social critics, who look on American willingness to move as evidence that we’re rootless, soulless wanderers who have no sense of belonging.  Even worse, we eat at McDonalds, vacation at Disneyland and use disposable pens!  That’s all evidence, in their minds, that we’re an inferior brand of humanity–which, by the way, finds its highest and purest expression in the stay-at-home residents of whatever their native country is (read: themselves).

More important from a stock market point of view, the article sheds some light on the problem of the current high level of unemployment in the US.  And it offers a policy prescription for helping to alleviate it.

cyclical or structural?

The key unemployment issue, to my mind, is whether the current high level is

–a cyclical phenomenon, that is, a function of the slow economic rebound from the Great Recession, or

–a structural onemeaning that the unemployed don’t have the skills needed to qualify for jobs in today’s world.  If so, unemployment won’t just go away.

White House and Capitol Hill vs. the Fed

Politicians in Washington seem to adhere to the former view, which, conveniently for them, means that no legislative action is needed.  Time, patience and continuing low interest rates will solve the problem.  The Fed is in the latter camp (where, for what it’s worth, I am, too).  Structural unemployment requires retraining programs, plus continuing unemployment benefits until workers gain skills needed to compete successfully in the job market.

JOLT
The Fed points to the Labor Department’s Job Openings and Labor Turnover (JOLT) studies.  The latest report, from the end of March, shows the private sector has 3.7 million+ unfilled job openings.  Washington replies that workers are trapped in their home towns by houses the can’t sell because the mortgage exceeds the house value.

What does Dr. Moretti bring to the discussion?

He says:

–“willingness to relocate is a large factor in American prosperity”

–“the financial return for geographical mobility keeps increasing”

–the willingness to move is very strongly related to education level.  45% of college graduates will likely move to find better jobs before they’re 30 years old, vs. 17% of high school dropouts.  Dr. Moretti cites research by Prof. Abigail Wozniak of Notre Dame who says education explains most of the willingness to move.

Why the huge difference?

The less educated:

–have less information about the possibility of good work elsewhere

–may lack the skills needed in high-paying jobs

–don’t have the savings needed to finance the trip and support themselves while they look for a job.

Example:  the Motor City, 2009

Dr. Moretti cites the example of Detroit in 2009. Unemployment there was 18%.  Unemployment in Iowa City, 500 miles away, was 4.5%–basically meaning Iowa City firms were crying for workers of all stripes.  But high school dropouts in Detroit didn’t budge.

a policy recommendation

Dr. Moretti suggests that in high unemployment areas government unemployment benefits include vouchers that cover part of the expense of moving to find work.  This doesn’t address the lack-of-marketable-skills problem, but it does address the lack-of-cash one.  Such a program–already being implemented in a small way for workers whose firms have been hurt by foreign competition–would have two benefits.

It would help shift workers who were willing to move to places where they could find work.  And, by starting to drain the pool of unemployed in high unemployment areas, it would make the job search there somewhat easier.

two kinds of structural

All of the commentary–at least all that I’ve seen–about structural unemployment is concentrated on the long-term issue that many young men leave the US school system unequipped to compete for the best-paying jobs.  They’re prime candidates to be chronically unemployed.

Dr. Moretti’s insight is that while we can’t educate these men overnight, we can make them more mobile with the stroke of a pen.  We may also find that removing the structural rigidity of no-money/no-information does much more to relieve unemployment than we might imagine.