MacroScope

Why the U.S. jobless rate might stop falling

The U.S. jobless rate, currently at 7.7 percent, remains elevated by historical standards. But it has fallen sharply from a peak of 10 percent in October 2009. However, that decline could soon grind to a halt, according to a recent paper from the San Francisco Federal Reserve.

Its authors argue that, because the slow but steady decline in the jobless rate has been in part due to slippage in the labor participation rate that is more a product of the business cycle than long-run demographic trends, as the Bureau of Labor Statistics presumes.

In January, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics significantly reduced its projections for medium-term labor force participation. The revision implies that recent participation declines have largely been due to long-term trends rather than business-cycle effects. However, as the economy recovers, some discouraged workers may return to the labor force, boosting participation beyond the Bureau’s forecast. Given current job creation rates, if workers who want a job but are not actively looking join the labor force, the unemployment rate could stop falling in the short term.

The rate of labor force participation has slid to its lowest level in 30 years.   

This means that, just as years of weak consumer spending are expected to produce some amount of pent-up demand, so too could a prolonged period of high unemployment and underemployment unleash a new burst of entrants into the job market. That would ultimately be a positive sign – but the data may not look pretty.

Fed’s numerical thresholds are a bad idea: Goldman’s Hatzius

Updates with Fed decision

The Federal Reserve on Wednesday took the unprecedented step of tying its low rate policy directly to unemployment, saying it will keep rates near rock bottom until the jobless rate falls to 6.5 percent. That’s as long as inflation, the other key parameter of policy, does not exceed 2.5 percent.

Jan Hatzius, chief economist at Goldman Sachs, however, said in a research note published ahead of the decision that the shift may not be very effective.

Would such a move be a good idea? We’re not so sure. Calendar guidance may be theoretically flawed, but it is working reasonably well in practice. Fed officials have managed to keep expectations for the funds rate in the next few years pinned near zero, and the market now understands that this is more of a commitment to the promotion of future economic recovery than an expectation of future economic weakness.

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.

Fed’s Lockhart explains what he means by “substantial improvement” on jobs

Federal Reserve officials have linked their open-ended stimulus program to substantial improvement in the labor market. So now, it’s up to Fed watchers to hone in on a definition of substantial, no small task in a world of multiple and often conflicting indicators on the job market.

In a speech to the Chattanooga Rotary Club on Thursday, Dennis Lockhart offered some insights into how he’s thinking about the process:

For policy purposes, I think it’s appropriate to be cautious about relying on a single indicator of labor market trends—for example, the unemployment rate—to determine whether the condition of “substantial improvement” has been met. The official national unemployment rate published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics is the most prominent statistic in the mind of the general public. As a policymaker, I want to have confidence that a decline of this headline number is reinforced by other indicators and evidence of broad labor market improvement in its many dimensions. The challenge my FOMC colleagues and I will face is communicating in simple and trackable terms what this phrase “substantial improvement” means while respecting the complex reality of many moving parts. […]

Spain’s house of cards

Looking at some of the recent trends in the euro zone debt market, one could be forgiven for thinking the region is doing alright.

Spanish and Italian funding costs have come down sharply. Data from the European Central Bank on Thursday showed consumers and firms put money back into Spanish and Greek banks in September. And there are budding signs that foreign investors are venturing back to the Spanish sovereign debt market. As one trader this week put it, the market is “healing”:

Liquidity is coming back, liquidity meaning the market can digest larger customer repositioning and flows again.

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.



 

 

Don Rajoy de la Mancha: Spain’s “quixotic” adventures

 

Spain will not seek aid imminently, says Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy. And by imminently, he means, not this weekend. Just the latest twist in a European crisis plot that now sees Spain as its primary actor.

The focus on Spain’s reluctance to see foreign aid, a pre-condition for additional European Central Bank purchases of its bonds, is ironic given the country’s record of goading weaker counterparts into similar rescue packages earlier in the crisis.

To Lena Komileva, chief economist at G+ Economics, the saga is all too reminiscent of the hapless meanderings of Don Quixote. Komileva argues that the country’s latest budget announcement marks only the beginning of a deeper, almost circular plight:

U.S. recession signal from the Philly Fed

Will the U.S. economy continue coasting along at a slow but steady clip or does it actually risk tipping into a new recession? Tom Porcelli, economist at RBC Capital, says he’s concerned about a new trough from a little-watched Philadelphia Fed survey of coincident indicators.

Here’s another indicator flashing red. The three-month trend for the Philly coincident index (which captures state employment and wage metrics) fell to a fresh cycle low of +24 in August – it was +80 just three months ago.

A reading this low historically bodes ill for future economic activity. Looking back at the last five downturns, this index averaged +41 three months prior to the official start of the recession. We have decidedly crossed that threshold.

Not enough jobs? Blame the government

The U.S. labor market has been adding jobs for two-and-a-half years, helping bring down the jobless rate from a peak of 10 percent in late 2009 to the current 8.1 percent rate. But recently, job growth has slowed to under 100,000 per month – not enough to keep the jobless rate on a downward path. Heidi Shierholz at the liberal Economic Policy Institute in Washington says this leaves the U.S. economy well short of achieving its full capacity:

We’d need to add around 350,000 jobs a month to get back to the pre-recession unemployment rate in three years.

With just 96,000 jobs created in August, we’re still a long way off from that kind of strength – and a steady flow of job losses from the public sector isn’t helping. State and local governments have been slashing public payrolls to balance their budgets. In August, the public sector lost 7,000 jobs, but that was mere drop in the bucket of public sector job losses that now total 680,000 lost jobs since August 2008. The total impact is even larger, says Shierholz.

Help not wanted: U.S. online job ads see biggest two-month decline since recession

U.S.job seekers saw online job ads dwindle this summer, according to a survey from The Conference Board. Advertised vacancies fell 108,700 in August to 4,684,800, the industry group said.

Jonathan Basile at Credit Suisse noted that the combined drop of 262,000 jobs for July and August was the biggest two-month decline since the last recession.

This measure of labor demand suggests businesses have become a lot less willing to hire in the last two months. Jobless claims in recent months are not showing a deteriorating picture for the layoff side of payrolls, but help wanted online ads are showing weakness on the hiring side.