James Pethokoukis

Politics and policy from inside Washington

Some terrible unemployment data

Aug 24, 2009 14:33 UTC

This from IHS Global Insight:

Although there are increasing signs that the economy has bottomed out, IHS Global Insight’s summer forecast shows that a job recovery is still a ways off for most of the nation’s metropolitan areas. Of the 363 metros in the country, just one—McAllen, Texas—will add more than 1,000 jobs this year. While most areas will begin increasing employment again in 2010, it will be tepid, with only 118 metros crossing the 1,000-job mark next year. Solid gains will not return for the majority of the country until 2011.

The slow recovery means it will be well into next decade before most areas regain the jobs lost during this recession. Not surprisingly, auto-ravaged Detroit will see the largest employment decline (more than 15%) among major metro areas, and will need years, if not decades, to recover. The housing-bust metros of the Sunbelt (Phoenix, Arizona; Riverside, California; Tampa, Florida) will all suffer steep drops and not return to pre-recession levels until 2013 or later. At the other end of the spectrum, Texas metros and Washington, DC, have avoided the brunt of this downturn and, thus, will be among the first to recover.


Not much of an insight; employment numbers are a lagging indicator, and given the depth and breadth of this recession why is it surprising that it will take a long time to get back to ‘norms’ that really shouldn’t have been the norm in the first place? And the other shocker – places hurt more by the recession will take longer to recover. I feel like Neo in the Matrix – “Woah!” Brilliant. Dig a little deeper, pal, b/c this isn’t really news, it’s filler.

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Too soon for a Bernanke victory lap?

Aug 24, 2009 14:18 UTC

It was a pretty upbeat Ben Bernanke that spoke over the weekend at the Fed conference. But a few cautionary statistics from Ed Yardeni:

(1) Commercial bank loans are down $293.1bn ytd through August 12.

(2) Commercial banks are still failing. Indeed, 77 lenders have been closed ytd, compared with 25 in all of 2008.

(3) The delinquency rate for mortgage loans on 1-to-4-unit residential properties rose to a seasonally adjusted rate of 9.24% of all loans outstanding as of the end of Q2-2009. The percentage of loans in the foreclosure process at the end of Q2 was 4.30%.

(4) The combined percentage of loans in foreclosure and at least one payment past due was 13.16% on a non-seasonally adjusted basis, the highest ever recorded in the delinquency survey conducted by the Mortgage Bankers Association.

(5) There was a major drop in foreclosures on subprime ARM loans during Q2, suggesting that the government’s mortgage mitigation programs are working. However, they are aimed mostly at distressed borrowers with resets rather than prime borrowers losing their jobs. Indeed, there were increases in the foreclosure rates on the other types of loans, with prime fixed-rate loans having the biggest increase. As a sign that mortgage performance is once again being driven by unemployment, prime fixed-rate loans now account for one in three foreclosure starts.


Commercial foreclosures are coming. There’s true now!

How Obama could prevent a second recession

Aug 24, 2009 13:41 UTC

Is the light at the end of the tunnel an oncoming train? That’s the worry of many economists who fret that after a couple of quarters of moderate growth, the U.S. economy will either lapse into a state of torpor or relapse into recession. In a new Financial Times op-ed, Nouriel Roubini says that weak labor markets, weak banks, weak consumers, weak profits and weak trade creates a strong risk of just such a “W-shaped” economic scenario.

If so, unemployment would remain really high. And, given that prospect, you just know incumbent Democrats facing re-election in 2010 would love to vote for Son of Stimulus. The big drawback: Doing so would risk the wrath of budget-conscious independents, as well as bond investors who share Warren Buffett’s stated concerns that all this red ink could sink the dollar.  Plus, a backup in interest rates would negate any positive effects from more stimulus.

But Olivier Blanchard, chief economist at the International Monetary Fund, may have cracked the code on to boost the economy and not spook bond investors and budget hawks. Blanchard’s grand bargain, one I have been suggesting for months, is for government to spend more money in the short term to boost growth while simultaneously taking strong action to reduce the long-term budget deficit. “The trade-off is fairly attractive,” Blanchard said in a report this week. “IMF estimates suggest that the fiscal cost of future increases in entitlements is 10 times the fiscal cost of the crisis. Thus, even a modest cut in the growth rate of entitlement programs can buy substantial fiscal space for continuing stimulus.”

Fiscal space is good! When you’re dealing with gobsmacking budget numbers, small cuts (or even just nicks in the rate of growth) can make a huge, real-world difference. As the Peterson Foundation figures it, Uncle Sam has run up some $55 trillion in long-term liabilities. Minor tweaks that make that number a bit more manageable in the future would create huge fiscal opportunities for more pro-growth measures today.

One example: the Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice calculates that if Medicare spending across America “grew at the San Francisco rate of 2.4 percent per year instead of the current national average (3.5 percent), Medicare would achieve a cumulative savings of $1.42 trillion between now and 2023.” That’s a nice chunk of change. Or, as an analysis I commissioned from the American Enterprise Institute revealed, extending the Social Security retirement age while at the same time indexing benefits to inflation rather than wages would turn a $5 trillion present value deficit into a $5 trillion surplus.

Can America afford to upgrade its rotting transportation infrastructure and electrical grid while also, say, lowering corporate and investment tax rates to a more internationally competitive level? Yes and yes. If entitlement liabilities are downscaled, the U.S economy can generate more than enough future economic growth and excess tax revenue tomorrow to “pay for” smart investments today. That would create jobs and strengthen America’s economic foundation -– and keep the bond vigilantes at bay.



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The U.S. economy in the second half … and beyond

Aug 19, 2009 18:24 UTC

ISH Global Insight is looking for a U-shaped recovery: 2 percent growth in 3Q, 2.4 percent in 4Q and then 1.8 percent next year. This would be typical following a banking crisis/recession.  I think this will make for a very unhappy electorate.

The main driver of growth in the second half of the year remains the turn in the inventory cycle. Firms will at first cut their inventories less rapidly, and then by the fourth quarter begin to add to them. The success of the “Cash for Clunkers” program is accentuating the cycle in the autos sector, as the surge in demand is depleting supplies of popular vehicles and manufacturers are raising their production plans in response. There is some growth payback in the first half of 2010, since we think that some of the Cash for Clunkers demand is pulling sales forward. In addition, compared with our July forecast, the turn in residential investment, business equipment spending, and exports begins earlier, helping the third and fourth quarters. But the forecast profile remains a U-shaped one, since it takes a long time (not until 2011 and 2012) to move into higher gear.

Oh, about that U.S. economic recovery …

Aug 17, 2009 14:37 UTC

What might stand in the way of a robust economic turnaround. Gary Becker outlines the following factors:

The federal government is creating many programs, such as reducing student loan repayments and mortgage payments for persons with low incomes, which discourage the unemployed from finding jobs, and encourage the employed to become unemployed. The proposed caps of various kinds on executive pay, especially in the financial sector, the large government debt being created due to huge fiscal deficits that will put upward pressure on interest rates, the European style reorientation of anti-trust policies toward protecting competitors rather than consumers, the enormous excess reserves that have a considerable inflation potential, the federal government’s likely incompetent management of two of the three American auto companies and a major insurance company, and the planned creation of a consumer czar that will interfere with the goods and services offered consumers are examples of policies that are likely to discourage business investment and risk taking.

Me: It is not about aggregate demand, gang, it’s about confidence.


I recently read your article I thought i would share it as it has some very interesting facts and insights on the crisis and expected recovery.

http://studentsblog2.blogspot.com/2009/1 0/great-ways-to-student-debt-recovery.ht ml

Reagan and the year that changed everything

Aug 15, 2009 00:34 UTC

The great Jason Trennert of the Strategas Group recalls the beginning of the Reagan bull market (in the WSJ) in August 1982 and points out some key differences between then and now:

The only good news at the time was that America’s economic leadership, in the form of President Ronald Reagan and Fed Chairman Paul Volcker, were deeply committed to fiscal, monetary and regulatory reform. Put simply: business regulation, the tax code, inflation and interest rates were all at such dizzyingly high levels that they had room to improve in 1982. Today, interest rates and inflation are so low that they are unlikely to do anything but go higher.

Current headline inflation is near zero. Ten-year Treasurys are at a historically low level of 3.7%. Taxes on income and capital are low and are poised to go higher, while common valuation metrics for the market are hardly cheap. No investor should blame the current administration for what are likely to be lackluster market returns in the next few years. But it does seem fair to worry about the future of equities in an environment where government spending is poised to comprise a greater portion of the economic pie.

Is Obama a bad economic cheerleader?

Aug 15, 2009 00:10 UTC

Dude, you’re bringing me down! Or so says economist Robert Brusca:

Obama has been saying bad things about the economy ever since he got in office. As economic data improved he focused on how bad things were, not on the improvement or the trend. When the Q2 GDP figure fell by only 1% in the quarter he said there would be many more months of recession to come. … His administration was talking about deficits and about raising taxes before the recession was even over; that was reckless.  Japan got into its lost decade of growth by fearing the size of its own fiscal debt and hiking taxes on consumers before the economy was strong enough to take it. Is that the model Obama is pursuing?

The drop in sentiment in current conditions and in expectations is a depressing end to a week of mixed numbers. The consumer sentiment and consumer spending figures are on the same page. But job market improvement usually boosts these two series.. … If June was the end of the recession we are not seeing some very bad economic sentiment for early in the recovery period. It is the first ‘in recovery’ or ‘end recession’ variable that looks uncharacteristically weak.

How could sentiment be so bad with the impact of nearly $1trillion in spending on the horizon? I think it comes back to the president’s constant smashing of sentiment every time an economic statistic improved. If the President won’t cheer for this economy who will? I think that is the lesson of this report. Confidence should be leading the improvement in the cycle not trialing it. With all the positive news someone must take ownership of the failure in confidence.

Where the U.S. economy is stranded

Aug 14, 2009 01:57 UTC

The economy is leveling off, the Fed says. I think of things this way, as if your ship sunk and you thought you were going to drown. But you struggle to shore on some island. You are happy to be alive but then realize you are stuck on an island. Kind of exactly like Castaway. But who knows what the tide will bring in.

About that surge in U.S. productivity …

Aug 11, 2009 19:04 UTC

(Lightly microblogging this week from the Great White North)

A bit of analysis (from IHS Global) on the 6.4 percent jump  in second-quarter business productivity from the world’s most competitive economy:

The combined efforts of workers and business to grind out solid productivity gains through the recession is unequivocally good news – an underlying reality of solid fundamentals that has been overlooked by the economic doomsayers and naysayers for many months.

Solid productivity growth provides the basis for a recovery in corporate profits and investment in the second half of 2009, and keeps the lid on prices and inflation. It gives the Fed more room to keep rates lower for longer in order to move the economy as quickly as possible through the recovery phase to an expansion mode.

The fact that American workers are capable of generating these amazing productivity gains ultimately is good news for employment – as the economy moves from recovery in the second half of 2009 and the first half of 2010, to potential expansion in the second half of 2010 and beyond, there is no doubt that businesses will have a strong desire to add more of these high quality workers into their teams.

Me: An alternative to a consumer-led boom? How about one led by business? If the US were to get one, the beginnings would look a lot like this?

4 reasons why the July unemployment report was worse than you think

Aug 8, 2009 17:29 UTC

Lots of temporary jobs and discouraged job seekers are the story. From David Rosenberg at Gluskin Sheff on the unemployment report:

1) The auto sector added 28,200 to the industry payroll in July, which was the highest tally in 11 years. To show you just how big that really is, it is a 69% annualized surge. Normally, the industry, which is in secular decline, posts job losses of between 20,000 and 30,000 consistently, so this alone represented roughly a 50,000 swing.

3) As we mentioned, there have been large fluctuations in the federal government payroll too. After hiring a slew of Census workers in the spring, there were 57,000 layoffs in May-June and then we saw in today’s report that 12,000 federal workers were “hired” in July. Again, mathematically, this contributed about 20,000 to today’s headline number. In other words, and we have no intent on raining on anyone’s parade, there was about 100,000 non-recurring payrolls in that top-line figure. It may be dangerous to extrapolate today’s report into a view that we are about to fully turn the corner on the job market front.

3) Yes, the income number was also firm; average weekly earnings popped 0.5%, but again, this reflected the bounce in the auto sector as well as the 10.7% increase in the minimum wage to $7.25 an hour. Again, this is a non-recurring item and does not at all reflect an improvement in underlying income fundamentals in the personal sector. We had a similar bounce in the summer of 2008 when the minimum wage was last boosted.

4) To be sure, the drop in the unemployment rate was a surprise, but it was all due to the slide in the labour force — the employment-to-population ratio gives amore accurate picture of the slack in the labour market and the hidden secret intoday’s report was that this metric slid to a 25-year low of 59.4% from 59.5% inJune and 61.0% at the turn of the year. Of those unemployed, 33.8% of themhave been unemployed now for over 27 weeks — a record amount (was at29.0% in June and was at 17.5% at the start of this recession).