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The Sky is Not Falling…Yet


The Employment Report on Friday was bad – but it wasn’t the unmitigated disaster that the consensus seems to have spun it into. It is true that there were no bright spots. It is true that the net number of new jobs added was worse than consensus and indeed worse than some of the more pessimistic expectations. But 142k new jobs is not a recessionary collapse (yet). Let us remember that one or two months every year fall below that figure (see chart, source Bloomberg).

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Folks, it’s just not a robust recovery and never has been. It has been slow and steady, and now it is probably petering out, but…let’s not jump off the buildings just yet. In fact, one of my favorite indicators during this period while the Unemployment Rate has been falling but the general perception of the employment picture has been poor has been the “Not in labor force, want a job now” series, which shows people who are discouraged enough to not be looking for work, but would take a job if it was offered. As the chart below shows, that number is far above the lows from the last couple of expansions, and so has been a good check on the improvement in the Unemployment Rate. Now, however, we must also recognize that it is near the recent lows.

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So not all of the “job market internals” are flashing red. True, none of them are exactly flashing green, either! Nor have they really ever been, in this cycle.

At the same time, it is incredible to me that the ex-Chairman of the Fed is taking a victory lap, claiming in the Wall Street Journal today that his policies led to a non-inflationary decline in the unemployment rate. Surely a professional economist ought to know the difference between correlation and causality. It is absolute madness to claim that the Fed’s policies did nothing for the price level but had a huge effect on the real economy. That is almost exactly opposite of what generations of monetary policy experience teaches us: that monetary policy has almost no effect on real variables but only affects the price level. A more thorough retort will be given in “What’s Wrong with Money?”, which you can pre-order now! (If you prefer, send a note to WWWM@enduringinvestments.com and I will email you when it is published).

The unemployment rate declined for two reasons: the first is that just as no tree grows to the sky, no hole is bottomless. Eventually, even without any intervention at all, the business cycle takes over and recessions end. The second reason in this case is that the federal government ran (and continues to run) massive fiscal deficits, which demonstrably affect near-term growth. Yes, those deficits merely rearrange growth, stealing growth from the future to improve growth today, but if current growth is given by Y=C+I+G+(X-M) there is no way that the Fed can claim what is the biggest contribution over the last few years, percentage-wise. Madness, I say.

Is the economy headed for recession? In all likelihood, yes. But this employment number was not the first nor even the best sign of that possibility.

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  1. Eric
    October 5, 2015 at 3:32 pm

    Bill Hester has a good column this weekend at hussman’s page (I’m not linking because that tends to go to spam). He argues that while the economic data doesn’t look that bad, if you combine it with the recent volatility in the equity markets, the track record points to a fairly high likelihood of recession. And remember that employment is lagging. Also, corporate revenues are down two quarters in a row now, which could lead to layoffs.

    the last few days of gains look pretty crazy to me.

    • October 5, 2015 at 5:47 pm

      I absolutely agree that we are very likely headed towards recession; the only counterbalance is that weakness in China that has made energy cheaper tends to accelerate our growth. But I think that effect this time around is balanced by the size of our energy sector.

      I don’t think equity or bond market or property market moves or volatility affect the chance of recession one bit, nor are they very good indicators. I think stocks should go down regardless because of valuations.

      My main point here is that we’re not collapsing, and reading some of the commentary over the weekend you would have thought the sky is falling! But the Unemployment Rate should start to turn higher over the next quarter or two, I suspect.

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