MacroScope

Fading productivity could hurt U.S. job growth

RBC economist Tom Porcelli is such a curmudgeon these days. Still, given that he was one of the few economists that accurately predicted the possibility of a negative reading on fourth quarter GDP, maybe it’s not a bad idea to listen to what he has to say.

This week, he expressed concern about a rapid decline in U.S. productivity – and that was before data showing U.S. nonfarm productivity fell in the fourth quarter by the most in nearly two years.

Productivity declined at a 2 percent annual rate, the sharpest drop since the first quarter of 2011 and a larger fall than the 1.3 percent forecast in a Reuters poll.

For Porcelli, this could spell trouble for the U.S. labor market:

Declining productivity tends to portend softening employment gains at the margin – with firms subsequently aiming to regain productivity and protect the bottom line. Recall that the decline in Q1 2012 led to a discernible slowing in NFP growth – from an average of 262K in Q1 to 108K the following quarter. Bottom line is that a sharp contraction in productivity should be viewed as a cautionary tale for the jobs backdrop. Something that could be exacerbated if the consumer pulls back enough in Q1 that it has real negative reverberations to Q1 corporate earnings.

Not to mention the prospect of sharp spending cuts set to kick in next month that could deal a heavy blow to the economy.

Japan finally takes Bernanke-san’s advice – 10 years later

This post was based on reporting by Leika Kihara in Tokyo

Japan has crossed the monetary rubicon: the government is actively intervening in the affairs of the central bank, pressuring it to more aggressively tackle a prolonged bout of deflation and economic stagnation. The Bank of Japan is expected to discuss raising its inflation target from the current 1 percent level during its next rate decision on January 21-22.

Overnight, a Japanese newspaper reported the finance ministry and the central bank were considering signing a policy accord that would set as a common goal not just achieving 2 percent inflation but also steady job growth.

Key Japanese policymakers played down the prospect of making the BOJ responsible for stable employment like the U.S. Federal Reserve, but said a 2 percent inflation target will be at the heart of a new policy accord with the central bank.

Does the Fed need a new mandate?

Are the world’s top central bankers too paranoid about inflation? As the United States struggles to sustain a weak recovery while the euro zone and Japan face outright contractions in output, a number of economists have called for the monetary authorities to be less dogmatic about adhering tightly to low inflation targets.

Most prominently, IMF chief economist Olivier Blanchard has argued the Federal Reserve’s 2 percent inflation target is too low given the severity of the loss of employment and growth that followed the Great Recession of 2008-2009. Kenneth Rogoff, co-author of an oft-cited study of economic downturns following financial crises called “This Time is Different,” has also championed greater inflation tolerance.

Fed officials, including Chairman Ben Bernanke, have flatly declined to entertain the notion, arguing that the potential cost – a loss of hard-won inflation-fighting credentials – is too high. “We are not seeking higher inflation, we do not want higher inflation and we’re not tolerating higher inflation,” he told a February hearing in Congress.

Economists boosts U.S. December jobs forecasts after strong ADP data

After a “significantly better than expected” ADP employment report, Goldman Sachs has raised its estimate to 200,000 for the U.S. Labor Department’s December nonfarm payroll report due Friday, the firm’s team of economists said. Separately, initial jobless claims were higher than expected for the most recent week, but the Labor Department reported some holiday distortions, the economists noted. “Overall, the data since our preliminary estimate last Friday have been strong enough to prompt us to revise up our forecast for nonfarm payrolls to 200,000,” the economists concluded.

Goldman wasn’t the only firm to revise its estimates. Jeoff Hall, Thomson Reuters’ resident economist, counted as many as five, though not all of the forecast changes hinged solely on ADP.

The ADP report showed private payrolls expanded by 215,000 jobs in December, easily topping a median forecast of 140,000. Initial jobless claims totaled 372,000 in the week ended December 29, slightly more than expected.

Jobs, triggers and the Fed

As Federal Reserve officials debate whether to use thresholds for inflation and joblessness to guide monetary policy, Friday’s jobs report may be a cautionary tale.  The idea of thresholds is to pick markers for potential policy change – an unemployment rate of 6.5 percent, for instance, as a guidepost for when the central bank might begin to raise rates – so that the market has a better idea of where Fed policy is headed. As the unemployment rate nears that level, the theory goes, investors will gradually start to price in tightening; if the unemployment rate rises again, they’ll price it out.

But some Fed officials, notably the hawkish heads of the Richmond, Philadelphia and Dallas regional Fed banks, oppose the idea. One reason: the unemployment rate alone cannot capture the state of the labor market. Friday’s report show why.

Unemployment in November fell to 7.7 percent, the lowest in nearly four years. But the decline was not a sign of labor market strength – far from it. People were giving up looking for jobs, signaling hopelessness, not hope.

Subconscience of a liberal: Krugman’s curious support of sweatshops

Who hasn’t heard of Paul Krugman these days? The Nobel-winning Princeton economist and New York Times columnist has emerged as a key voice in American liberalism, and is berated by the right for his support of heavy fiscal stimulus, higher inflation and a strong social safety net.

Which makes the views espoused in a 1997 missive entitled “In Praise of Cheap Labor” rather surprising. In the article, the economist attacks opponents of globalization for their soft-hearted distaste for inhumane labor conditions in developing countries.

Such moral outrage is common among the opponents of globalization – of the transfer of technology and capital from high-wage to low-wage countries and the resulting growth of labor-intensive Third World exports. These critics take it as a given that anyone with a good word for this process is naive or corrupt and, in either case, a de facto agent of global capital in its oppression of workers here and abroad.

Fiscal cliff could help U.S. avoid road to Japan – but probably won’t

The “fiscal cliff” is widely seen as a massive threat looming over a fragile U.S. recovery. But with a little imagination, it is not difficult to see how the combination of expiring tax cuts and spending reductions actually presents an opportunity for tilting the budget backdrop in a pro-growth direction, even if political paralysis makes this scenario rather unlikely.

For Steve Blitz, chief economist at ITG in New York, the cliff presents a unique chance for the United States to avoid sinking deeper in the direction of Japan’s growth-challenged economy by shifting incentives away from consumption and towards investment:

If current negotiations end up simply turning the “cliff” into a 10-year slide an opportunity to help the economy regain a dynamic growth path and close the gap with pre-recession trend GDP would, in our view, be lost and raise the odds that, in the coming years, U.S. economic performance looks more like Japan’s. […]

Deciphering the Fed: Guideposts for progress on jobs

The Federal Reserve’s open-ended bond-buying stimulus announced last month was coupled with a promise to continue purchasing assets “if the outlook for the labor market does not improve substantially.” Central bank officials are expected to continue discussing what parameters they will take into account to define such progress, but are not expected to come to any hard and fast decisions just yet.

In a research note entitled “What the Fed didn’t say: Payrolls at 160K,” Torsten Slok, economist at Deutsche Bank, offers a few guideposts:

In terms of what the Fed will be looking at, we reckon that employment growth will be first among equals – in particular nonfarm payrolls. We estimate that the FOMC’s economic and policy projections are consistent with payrolls averaging gains of around 160,000 per month through mid-2015, when they have told us they expect the exit process to begin to get under way. There is a range of uncertainty around this estimate. But if the numbers are coming in well below that rate for a number of months (100k or less), look for the Committee to extend the mid-2015 date and possibly step up its QE purchases, and expect just the opposite if they are coming in well above that rate (200k or more).

Why rise in part-time employment does not explain U.S. jobless rate decline

The September unemployment rate was the lowest since December 2008 after surprisingly large back-to-back declines, sending economists back to the drawing board after big forecast misses. Some pointed to the large increase in involuntary part-time employment – erroneously so, according to an analysis from Ray Stone, economist and managing director at Stone & McCarthy.

The jobless rate fell to 7.8 percent last month from 8.1 percent in August.

After a quick, superficial look at the September household data, several commentators embraced the thesis that it was due to a 582,000 increase in Part-Time Employment for Economic Reasons. These are people who prefer full-time employment, but sadly had to settle for a part-time job. These 582,000 part-timers accounted for much of the overall 873,000 increase in September civilian employment.

This Part-Time for Economic Reasons statistic “was a Greenspan favorite, and certainly over longer periods of time such is a measure of labor distress,” Stone said. “But, the month-to-month wiggles in this series usually turn out to be noise. In September this metric rose to 8.613 million.”

Early hints of stronger unemployment numbers – that Wall Street economists missed

As traders and economists hash over the sharp and unexpected drop in the U.S.jobless rate to 7.8 percent, they might do well to review some key data points that offered early hints that at least some households were seeing improvement in the labor market. Wall Street analysts in a Reuters poll had forecast a rise in the unemployment rate to 8.2 percent.

Even as big companies were laying off more workers or at least holding back on hiring, The Conference Board’s consumer confidence data showed workers felt more encouraged about finding jobs. The Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan survey depicted a late summer upturn in consumer mood even as gasoline prices remained high. The latest ADP report, with all its perceived flaws, indicated a consistent, moderate acceleration in hiring among small- and mid-sized companies since late spring even though big firms seemed reluctant to expand their payrolls.

The graph below shows confidence improving as job prospects brighten.