A Sobering Jobs Report

Today’s jobs report invites both negative and positive interpretations.

The positives are fewer, so let’s start with them:

  • With job losses of 85,000, December was the second-best (or, if you prefer, second-least-bad) month since January 2008.
  • With today’s revisions, November actually showed job gains of 4,000, the first increase since December 2007.
  • Put that all together, and job losses averaged 69,000 per month in the last quarter of 2009. That’s unwelcome, but much better than the average of 691,000 jobs lost in each of the first three months of the year.
  • Employment in temporary help services–often viewed as a leading economic indicator–increased by 46,500 in December.

And here are the negatives:

  • December’s job losses were much larger than most forecasters had predicted.
  • The upward revision to November job growth happened only because October jobs were revised down, making November look better. The actual level of November jobs was also revised down (by 1,000).
  • Although the unemployment rate was steady at 10.0%, the details beneath that figure were horrible. Household-reported employment fell by 589,000; the only reason that the unemployment rate stayed constant is that even more people–661,000–dropped out of the labor force.
  • The labor force participation rate thus fell to 64.6% and the employment-to-population ratio fell to 58.2%, the lowest since 1985 and 1983, respectively.
  • The underemployment rate (U-6) increased to 17.3%.

Bottom line: The economy is growing (as suggested by other data), but that growth is not yet translating into new jobs.

Q3 Growth Revised Down to 2.8%

As expected, the Bureau of Economic Analysis revised down its estimate of Q3 GDP growth. BEA’s second estimate pegs growth at a 2.8% annual pace in Q3, down from 3.5% in the advance estimate.

The revision was driven by three main factors: consumer spending and business investment in structures were weaker than previously estimated, while imports were stronger.

As usual, I think a useful way to summarize the drivers of Q3 growth is to look at the contributions:

In principle, the solid growth in consumer spending and housing investment should be promising signs, given their previous weakness. However, both were boosted by temporary stimulus efforts. Cash-for-clunkers lifted consumer auto sales in Q3, for example, but we should expect some payback in Q4. Meanwhile, the tax credit for new home buyers helped housing investment record its first increase since late 2005, but some of that may have come at the expense of future housing investment (because potential home owners accelerated purchases when they thought the credit was going to expire; it’s since been extended and broadened).

Note: If the idea of contributions to GDP growth is new to you, here’s a quick primer on how to understand these figures. Consumer spending makes up about 70% of the economy. Consumer spending rose at a 2.9% pace in the third quarter. Putting those figures together, we say that consumer spending contributed about 2.1 percentage points (70% x 2.9%, allowing for some rounding) to third quarter growth.

GDP Growth Returns in Q3

As expected, the economy grew at a healthy pace in the third quarter, expanding at a 3.5% annual pace according to this morning’s data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis.

Among the highlights:

  • Consumer spending grew at a 3.4% pace, the fastest since the first quarter of 2007. A substantial fraction of that growth reflects vehicle purchases, which were temporarily boosted by the cash-for-clunkers program.
  • Residential investment grew for the first time since late 2005, driven in part by the tax credit for new homebuyers.
  • Imports rose for the first time in two years. Most of that increase came from goods, which is consistent with the idea that auto imports increased in response to cash-for-clunkers.

You may notice a trend here, as government policies had a significant effect on the pattern of growth in the third quarter.

As I’ve mentioned before, I think one of the best ways to understand the pattern of growth is to look at the contributions that each major sector made to the overall growth rate:

Q3 Growth Contributions (2009 Advance)

As you can see, consumers, inventories, and exports were the main drivers of Q3 growth, while imports were the main drag.

Q3 represents a striking change from Q2 (shown in the next chart), when the economy contracted at a 0.7% pace and private spending was weak across the board:

Broad Weakness in Q2 GDP (Third)

Note: If the idea of contributions to GDP growth is new to you, here’s a quick primer on how to understand these figures. Consumer spending makes up about 70% of the economy. Consumer spending rose at a 3.4% pace in the third quarter. Putting those figures together, we say that consumer spending contributed about 2.4 percentage points (70% x 3.4%, allowing for some rounding) to third quarter growth.

Manufacturing on the Upswing

Earlier today, the Federal Reserve released its latest data on industrial production. Bottom line: production over the past three months has been surprisingly strong. Growth in September was more than expected, and the previous month was revised upward.

Industrial production has now increased for three straight months, as has a slightly narrower measure, manufacturing production:

Manufacturing IP - September

As you can see, manufacturing production turned consistently negative in January of 2008 and then fell off a cliff toward the end of the year. After declining in 17 of 18 months (driving manufacturing production down a total of 17%), manufacturing production has now risen for three straight months (for a cumulative rebound of about 3%).

Manufacturing still has a long way to go. But the recent strength in industrial production, generally, and manufacturing, specifically, adds weight to the view that the recession may have ended early this summer. (Recall that the last recession ended in November 2001, even though job losses continued long afterward.)

8 Million Jobs Lost

Kudos to Floyd Norris over at the New York Times for characterizing total job losses to date as 8 million jobs, not “just” 7.2 million. As I discussed on Friday, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that the number of jobs in March 2009 was 824,000 lower than it previously thought. But BLS won’t include this adjustment in its official data until early February.

The official, as-yet-unadjusted data indicate that 7.2 million jobs have been lost since the recession started in December 2007. The future revision to March figures, however, implies that a better estimate would be 8 million.

We can now expect several months in which commentators use different figures for total job losses. Those steeped in the details, like Norris, will use the 8 million figure. Those less-attuned to the details, like the authors of the NYT’s lead editorial (just four pages after Norris’s article), will use the 7.2 million figure.

Norris also addresses the obvious question: Why did BLS miss the March level of jobs by such a large amount? The answer is that BLS has to estimate jobs gained and lost at certain employers, and their model is not doing as well as we (or it) would hope:

The official job numbers are based on a monthly survey of employers, augmented by something called the “birth-death model,” which factors in jobs assumed to have been created by employers who are too new to have been included in the survey, and subtracts jobs from employers assumed to have failed and therefore not responded to the latest survey.

Victoria Battista, an economist at the Bureau of Labor Statistics, said the bureau was looking at whether that model needed to be changed, as well as at other possible issues, such as changing response rates to the questionnaire sent out to employers each month.

The newest revision is called a “benchmark revision.” Such revisions are disclosed each October, and led to reductions in job totals in both 2007 and 2008. But the changes those years were tiny when compared with the changes this year.

For the 12 months through last March, the birth-death model added 717,000 jobs to what the bureau would have reported had it relied solely on its survey.

While the government uses the survey of employers to estimate the number of jobs, the benchmark revisions are based on reports from states on the number of employees for whom unemployment insurance premiums are paid. Those numbers take longer to be available, but are considered to be more reliable.

1.1 Million More Jobs Lost

Today’s jobs report was weak across the board: September payrolls fell by 263,000, the unemployment rate rose to 9.8%, the underemployment rate (U-6) rose to 17.0%, and average weekly hours fell to 33.0, tying the record low set in June.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics also reported that payrolls declined by 13,000 more in July and August than it had previously estimated.

And if that weren’t enough, BLS also estimates the number of jobs back in March was actually 824,000 lower than previously reported (this is an estimate of the “benchmark revision” that BLS will make to the data early next year).

Putting these figures together, we find that the number of jobs has now declined by 1.1 million (263,000 + 13,000 + 824,000) more than we previously knew.

I have always found it frustrating that the BLS reports an estimate of the benchmark revision each October, but doesn’t incorporate that revision until the following February. That means that many analysts will be using incorrect data over the next few months.

If you want to know the number of jobs lost during the recession, for example, you might think you could get that number by clicking over to the BLS and comparing the number of jobs in September 2009 to the number of jobs in December 2007. That comparison would show total job losses of 7.2 million. Based on today’s estimate of the benchmark revision, however, it’s likely that the actual figure is more than 8.0 million.

Update: The original post had a typo for the average weekly hours; as noted above, the correct figure is 33.0, not 30.0.

Still Broad Weakness in Q2 GDP

Earlier today, the Bureau of Economic Analysis released updated GDP figures, estimating that the economy contracted at a 0.7% pace in the second quarter. The BEA’s well-named “third estimate” thus indicated that the decline in the second quarter was somewhat slower than the 1.0% BEA had previously estimated.

As I mentioned a couple of months ago, whenever the GDP data come out, the first thing I look at is Table 2, which shows how much different sectors of the economy contributed to the growth (or, in this case, the decline). Even with the small upward revision, the most striking thing about Q2 continues to be how broad the weakness was:

Broad Weakness in Q2 GDP (Third)

As the chart shows, Q2 witnessed declines in every major category of private demand: consumer spending, residential investment, business investment in equipment and software (E&S), business investment in structures, and exports. Wow.  To find the last time that happened, you have to go all the way back to … the fourth quarter of last year, when it was even more severe. But before that, you have to go back five decades to the sharp downturn of the late 1950s.

Not surprisingly, government spending helped offset the declines in private spending. Most of the boost came from defense spending (a contribution of 0.7 percentage points), but state and local investment also helped (adding 0.48 percentage points, presumably at least in part due to stimulus spending).

A sharp decline in imports, finally, was the biggest contributor to growth in Q2, at least in an accounting sense. As I’ve noted before, it’s important to choose your words carefully here, since declining imports are clearly not the path to prosperity. In a GDP accounting sense, however, import declines do boost measured growth. Why? Well consider the fall in consumer spending. That decline affected both domestic production and imports. GDP measures domestic production, so we need a way to net out the decline in consumer spending that was attributable to imports. That’s one of the factors being captured in the imports figure.

Note: If the idea of contributions to GDP growth is new to you, here’s a quick primer on how to understand these figures. Consumer spending makes up about 70% of the economy. Consumer spending fell at a 0.9% pace in the second quarter. Putting those figures together, we say that consumer spending contributed about -0.6 percentage points (70% x -0.9%, allowing for some rounding) to second quarter growth.

Insight on Google and Unemployment

In a series of posts (here, here, and here), I have expressed concern that Google directs its users to what I think is the “wrong” measure of unemployment. For example, if you search for “unemployment rate United States” today, it will tell you that the U.S. unemployment rate in August was 9.6%, when the actual figure is 9.7%.

This discrepancy arises because Google directs users to data that haven’t been adjusted for seasonal variations. Almost all discussions of the national economy, however, use data that have been seasonally-adjusted. Why? Because seasonally-adjusted data (usually) make it easier to figure out what’s actually happening in the economy. The unemployment rate always spikes up in January, for example, because retailers lay off their Christmas help. But that doesn’t mean that we should get concerned about the economy every January. Instead, we should ask how the January increase in the unemployment rate compares to a typical year. That’s what seasonal adjustment does.

My concern about Google’s approach is that many (if not most) data users know nothing about seasonal adjustment. They simply want to know what the unemployment rate is and how it has changed over time. Directing those users to the non-seasonally-adjusted data thus seems like a form of search malpractice.

I’ve wondered why Google has chosen this approach, and thus was thrilled when reader Jonathan Biggar provided the answer in a recent comment. Jonathan writes:

Continue reading “Insight on Google and Unemployment”

Voyaging Through U.S. Jobs

In honor of Labor Day, you may want to check out Job Voyager by Flare. It provides a graphical history of the rise and fall of different types of jobs in the United States from 1850 to 2000.

Here’s what you get for “Farmer”:

Farmer Jobs

Back in 1850, farmers accounted for more than 40% of reported jobs. Today, less than 1%.

If you click around, you will find that the decline in farmers has been offset by growth in a host of jobs, including clerical, retail, and nurses.

And economists? Well, we grew rapidly until 1990, and then tailed off. Perhaps the would-be economists ran off to Wall Street instead?

Economist Jobs

P.S. The Job Voyager charts were inspired by the famous Name Voyager charts that let you track the popularity of first names.

Tracking the Stimulus: Update

Good news: The Recovery.gov website now includes information about the tax components of the stimulus, not just the spending components:


According to the chart, an estimated $62.5 billion made its way out the door in tax reductions through the end of August. The corresponding spending data indicate that $88.8 billion in federal spending made its way out the door by August 28.

Putting these together, you get an estimated $151.3 billion in combined tax reductions and spending increases through the end of August.

Continue reading “Tracking the Stimulus: Update”