Today’s Strengths are Tomorrow’s Weaknesses; Today’s New Hires are Tomorrow’s New Unemployed

In an a single world economy with decentralized policy making, stability for a nation’s economy is not achievable.

SOURCE ITEMS

Cutbacks in demand from overseas customers and domestic energy producers led to the weakest growth in new orders since May 2013, prompting U.S. factories to slow the rate of hiring. At the same time, manufacturing is being underpinned by sustained spending from American consumers who are enjoying low prices at the gas pump.

Bloomberg News, Manufacturing in U.S. Expands at Slowest Pace in a Year, Bloomberg, March 2, 2015.

COMMENTS

Back in the Fall of 2014, economists hailed the strong dollar as evidence of a strong U.S. economy and only whispered warnings about the potential for lost foreign demand for U.S. goods. Similarly, they have hailed the shift in consumer spending that low oil prices allow, but only whisper warnings about the resulting job losses in the energy related industries.

Economists completely ignore the fact that a very large proportion of consumer goods that we American’s buy are produced abroad.  This matters because whatever job growth we get from the shifts from buying gasoline and heating oil to buying furniture, electronic goods, and trinkets will mostly be in lower-wage retail, not in higher-wage production. Moreover, when fuel prices begin to rise again, as they will, consumer spending will shift back into heating oil and gasoline, destroying the retail jobs that were so recently created and restoring jobs in energy industries.

Economists tell us that we have entered a period of positive economic trends; they have been doing this almost every year since the financial crisis of 2008. It’s wishful analysis because economic instability and volatility are build into the institutional structure of world economy.  So, if you just got a new job, don’t count on it lasting.

Diverging Nations, U.S. Employment Prospects: A Matter of Interpretation

SOURCE ITEMS

The economy grew at a sizzling 5% annual pace in the third quarter of last year. And more than 1.5 million jobs were created from June to November, the best six-month stretch since 1999-2000.

With that momentum, combined with falling gasoline prices, 2015 is likely to be a good year, notwithstanding Monday’s stock market sell-off.

The Editorial Board, More jobs is not enough: Our view, USA Today, January 5, 2015.

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In the coming year, “divergence” will be a major global economic theme, applying to economic trends, policies, and performance. As the year progresses, these divergences will become increasingly difficult to reconcile, leaving policymakers with a choice: overcome the obstacles that have so far impeded effective action, or risk allowing their economies to be destabilized.

Fortunately, there are ways to ensure that 2015’s divergences do not lead to economic and financial disruptions. Indeed, most governments – particularly in Europe, Japan, and the US – have the tools they need to defuse the rising tensions and, in the process, unleash their economies’ productive potential.

Mohamed A. El-Erian, A Year of Divergence, Project Syndicate, December 8, 2014.

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Taken together, the average 10-year bond yield of the U.S., Japan and Germany has dropped below 1 percent for the first time ever, according to Steven Englander, global head of G-10 foreign-exchange strategy at Citigroup Inc.

That’s not good news. The rock-bottom rates, which fall below zero when inflation is taken into account, show “that investors think we are going nowhere for a long time,” Englander wrote in a report yesterday.

Simon Kennedy, Free Money in Bond Markets Shows Global Economy Still Struggling, Bloomberg, January 6, 2015.

COMMENTS

One can explain the divergence among nations in terms of autonomous national economies in which global economic growth is nothing more than the sum of the growth of national economies. The economic growth divergence among nations is a function of differing national policy approaches, some correct, most incorrect (since most economies are either stagnating or growing well below rates economists deem achievable). If only all nations of the world adopted correct policies, all would be growing in harmony and at a rapid clip.

The alternative is to see what is called the U.S. economy as only a component of the world economy as a whole. The world economy is the only actual economic system and there is only one economic growth rate – the growth rate of the world economy as a whole. National policies have some effect on the global rate of economic growth, but much less effect than is commonly thought. Global parameters (such as resource and ecological limits, transportation bottlenecks, commodity price volatility, climate volatility, and institutional limits to global demand growth) have much more impact.

The economic growth divergence among nations is much less a matter of good and bad national policies than a matter of the impact of the interactions among various and changing national policies on the distribution of global economic growth among the world’s geopolitical population groups.

The interpretative difference is enormously important. The first interpretation suggests that the U.S. rate of growth did not increase in 2014 at the expense of economic growth in Europe, China, Brazil and other nations. It further suggests that the higher U.S. rate of economic growth is sustainable almost regardless of the courses of action taken by other nations (just as long as the U.S correctly modifies its policies in response to those other national courses of action).

The second suggests that a convergence can only take place through an alignment of national policies that produces a different distributional outcome for growth in the world economy. In such a scenario, the growth rates of the U.S. (and China) would have to fall so that the growth rates of the stagnating nations could rise. Given the lack of powerful global political institutions and the very low level of geopolitical cooperation (compared to the high level of economic integration in the world economy), a struggle among nations that is heated and dangerous is the likely scenario for a long time to come.

The implications for U.S. employment are obvious. Job growth in recent months should be seen as precarious. Our policy commitments to market freedom and investor dominance in economic matters puts job creation at the mercy of global economic growth volatility and divergence. At the moment U.S. workers are somewhat on the beneficial side of volatility and divergence. That will almost surely change.

February Job Numbers: Evidence for a Growth Trend or Just One More Outlier in an Era of Employment Volatility and Too Little Growth?

SOURCE ITEMS

Chart-Current Job Growth Not as Strong as last yearSource: Employment Situation Summary Table B. Establishment data, seasonally adjusted, Bureau of Labor Statistics Economic News Release, March 8, 2013. 

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Chart-Industries with largest employ increases, feb 2013 Source: Employment Situation Summary Table B. Establishment data,seasonally adjusted, Bureau of Labor Statistics Economic News Release, March 8, 2013.

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Looking at a series of economic indicators, and going back to the costliest 18 hurricanes of postwar history along with the Northridge earthquake of 1994, Goldman’s research team found that retail sales, construction spending, and industrial production “show a clear dip in the month of the disaster, followed by a significant recovery within 1-3 months that typically takes their growth rate above that seen prior to the disaster.”

Agustino Fontevecchia, Despite $50B In Damages, Hurricane Sandy Will Be Good For The Economy, Goldman Says, Forbes, 11/06/2012.

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Chart-Construction employment in Louisiana, 2002-12  Chart generated by BLS State and Area Employment web site.

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The largest global disasters of 2012 were Hurricane Sandy (with a cost of $65 billion) and the year-long Midwest/Plains drought ($35 billion), according to the company’s Annual Global Climate and Catastrophe Report, which was prepared by Aon Benfield’s Impact Forecasting division.

Doyle Rice, Hurricane Sandy, drought cost U.S. $100 billion, USA TODAY,  January 25, 2013.

————— Chart-Major Disaster Declarations 1953-2011

Bruce R. Lindsay, Francis X. McCarthy, Stafford Act Declarations 1953-2011: Trends and Analyses, and Implications for Congress, Congressional Research Service, August 31, 2012

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Joel Naroff of Naroff Economic Advisors … expects average monthly job gains of 200,000-plus this year if the White House and Congress can agree to put off the budget cuts. If all the reductions occur, it likely would mean monthly gains of about 165,000, he says.

Paul Davidson, Employers add a stunning 236,000 jobs in Feb., USA TODAY, March 8, 2013.

COMMENTS

Stronger than usual February job growth is widely hailed as part of an economic recovery in the U.S. that many are seeing in recent positive market signals – rising housing prices and a flourishing stock market, for examples.  The explicit expectation is that we will not look back a year from now and see February’s 236,000 added jobs as only an outlier in year of mostly disappointing employment news.

It is possible that job growth will be strong this year, but it is unlikely.

Several factors involved in the production of February’s job growth numbers suggest that job growth numbers will bounce up and down in 2013 as they have in the past and leave the U.S with unemployment, underemployment, and labor force participation rates much as they are today.

Job growth is weaker this year than last

The first indicator that we should not put much stock in February job growth numbers is that job growth numbers for January and February 2012 were considerably better than the numbers for January and February 2013.  Yet 2012 ended with little progress toward getting Americans back to work.

Unpredictable weather events may be a factor in February job numbers

Both the Midwest/Plains drought and Hurricane Sandy damaged industries and destroyed property.  Smaller weather events, such as severe winter storms, have also done damage.

Rebuilding after Hurricane Sandy and repairs following winter storms could well have contributed to February job numbers.  In the case of Hurricane Sandy, which did $50 billion or more in damage, cleanup, redevelopment planning, negotiating insurance payments, and getting money flowing from government agencies may have pushed much of the impact on the demand for goods and services into 2013.  So, it is possible that:

  • the impact of Hurricane Sandy on the construction and retail industries is just now peaking
  • hospitality and leisure are still be benefiting from housing people displaced by the hurricane
  • Hurricane Sandy still has a significant impact on the demand for social services
  • some professional and business services, such as legal, architectural, engineering, document preparation and clerical, security and surveillance, cleaning, and waste disposal services, are part of recovery efforts related to Hurricane Sandy.

Employment related to Hurricane Sandy and winter storms will fall off as the year progresses.  Of course, other disasters and damaging weather events will strike.  But, when and where those events strike and how much demand for goods and services they will generate can’t be known.

It is fairly certain, though, that the impact of large and small natural disasters on employment will grow larger over the coming years, adding more volatility to month to month job growth numbers.

 Volatile government spending adds volatility to some private sector industries  

Although jobs in health care and social services are listed in the private sector, many of those jobs are paid for by grants and contracts from local, state, and federal government agencies.  The same is true for employment in most educational institutions and in many manufacturing business service industries that supply goods to government agencies.

Given the volatile political tugs-of-war over revenue and spending policies at all levels of government, jobs in industries with federal funding can come and go quickly.  Perhaps some of this effect is in the February job numbers.

A final note

 It is good to have job growth, but it is certainly less than optimal if a growing proportion of new jobs are associated with repairing and replacing the damaged wealth of those who already have it rather than creating new wealth to be shared with the very large number of Americans who have no net wealth at all.

Climate change and government gridlock are robbing both those of us with wealth and those of us without it.