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.

The Rapid Global Deployment of Increasingly Smarter Machines Overturns Traditional Economic Policy Assumptions About Employment Growth and Income Distribution

ITEMS FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION

Last week Amazon, the online retailer, announced it was buying a robot maker called Kiva Systems for $775 million in cash. … Kiva Systems’ orange robots are designed to move around warehouses and stock shelves.

Or, as the company says on its Web site, using “hundreds of autonomous mobile robots,” Kiva Systems “enables extremely fast cycle times with reduced labor requirements.”

Nick Bilton, Disruptions: At Amazon, the Robot World Comes a Little Closer, New York Times, March 25, 2012.

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The value of the global industrial robot-system market will double to $41 billion by 2020, according to an estimate by Christine Wang, an analyst at Daiwa Capital Markets in Hong Kong. Global unit sales last year jumped about 30 percent to a record 150,000 units, the IFR said.

Reuter, the Kuka CEO, said higher wages in China make investing in robots a simple trade off.

“It comes down to the question: at what cost can a robot do the job more efficiently?”

Richard Weiss, Kuka Robots Invade China as Wage Gains Put Machines Over Workers, Bloomberg, April 12, 2012.

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This is the potential of the “Internet of Things”: billions and billions of devices and their components connected to one another via the Internet. 50 billion devices by 2020, according to companies like Ericsson.

The basic building block of the Internet of Things is machine-to-machine communication (M2M), devices equipped to communicate without the intervention of humans.

Large scale M2M users may offer their services dozens of countries, selling the same devices globally.

Rudolf Van der Berg, The Internet of things, OECD Insights,  January 31, 2012.

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IBM says Watson’s skills — interpreting queries in natural language, consulting vast volumes of unstructured information quickly, and answering questions with a defined level of confidence — can be applied to many industries. It has already sold the technology to WellPoint Inc. (WLP), the U.S. insurer, and Citigroup Inc. (C), and expects to generate billions in new revenue by 2015 from putting Watson to work.

… Martin Kohn, IBM’s chief medical scientist, said in an interview. Using Watson “we have access to much more information than we could possibly accomplish by reading on our own, or even 100 people reading.”

Beth Jinks,  IBM’s Watson to Help Memorial Sloan-Kettering With Cancer, Bloomberg, March 22, 2012.

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There is reason to believe that code kernels for the first Turing-intelligent machine have already been written.

“Two revolutionary advances in information technology may bring the Turing test out of retirement,” wrote Robert French, a cognitive scientist at the French National Center for Scientific Research, in an Apr. 12 Science essay. “The first is the ready availability of vast amounts of raw data — from video feeds to complete sound environments, and from casual conversations to technical documents on every conceivable subject. The second is the advent of sophisticated techniques for collecting, organizing, and processing this rich collection of data.”

Brandon Keim, Artificial Intelligence Could Be on Brink of Passing Turing Test, Wired, April 12, 2012.

COMMENTS

The prevailing U.S. policy approach to creating jobs and distributing income reflects the traditional optimism of economists about long term employment and income distribution trends.  It treats employment growth and the widespread distribution of income through private sector payrolls as beneficial side effects of economic growth that require little attention from government.  The primary concern for government is providing optimal conditions for private sector investment.

The general optimism of economists about employment and income distribution includes a specific optimism about the impact of technology driven productivity growth.  Economists generally acknowledge that the implementation of new production technologies reduces the demand for labor in the industries in which those technologies are introduced.  But, they go on to argue that the workers who are displaced (or their children) find work in new industries (also created by the new technologies).  The net result is greater wealth for society and no permanent upward trend in unemployment.

Assumptions Underlying This Optimism Are Obsolete

In the past, this logic worked fairly well in the U.S.  Today, however, three key assumptions underlying this logic are violated in the real world.

The first assumption is that technological innovations will not be implemented faster than displaced workers can retrain for and find alternative work in emerging industries.  This assumption is no longer operative because unprecedented efficiencies in research and development fields, unprecedented fluidity of capital flows, and unprecedented levels of global competition are generating employment displacement and new skill requirements faster than human institutions can respond.

The second is that global market institutions will always evolve fast enough to keep the global capacity to consume growing as fast as the global capacity to produce grows.  The expanding role of debt financed consumption in the growth of global markets in recent decades and the prolonged duration of the financial and economic crisis that began in 2008 because of the tightening of credit show that this assumption is at least questionable.

The third assumption is that machines can displace only a small portion of human work activity.  This is no longer true.  Recent years have brought businesses massive increases in computing power, lower cost high capacity information storage, and computer programs that use highly sophisticated computational algorithms.  These hardware and software advances are now being deployed to mimic an expanding range of human work activities.

Job Creation and Income Distribution Must Become Direct Goals of  U.S. Economic Policy

If the assumptions on which economists rest their optimism about employment growth and income distribution are now obsolete, then public policies that succeed in stimulating private sector investment growth are unlikely to produce the employment growth and income distribution outcomes needed by the majority of people.  Creating good jobs and implementing policies that widely distribute incomes must become direct goals of government policy making, rather than secondary goals.

To continue with the current focus only on providing optimal conditions for private sector investment will only bring us more of what we now have: declining middle class incomes, more families living in poverty, and too much wealth owned and controlled by too few people.

The Transition To A Clean And Sustainable World Economy Will Change Job Descriptions, But It Will Not Increase Global Job And Income Growth

CONSIDER THE FOLLOWING ITEMS

“While there are conflicting views about whether any changes in total employment would be positive or negative, there are likely to be quite significant impacts in terms of shifting employment patterns between sectors as economic development shifts from “brown” to “green” economic sectors.”

Green Growth Studies: Energy, Preliminary Version, Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), 2011.

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“Across the range of issues to be addressed, policy initiatives should be designed in terms of: cost-effectiveness, adoption and compliance incentives, and ability to cope with uncertainty and provide a clear and credible signal to investors.”

Towards Green Growth, Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), 2011. 

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“Many countries are using a menu of policy incentives instead of a single policy approach. Policy makers realize that these incentives need to be coherent, stable and designed for the long-term to be able to attract the necessary funds for robust deployment and strong markets that ultimately will reduce the cost of renewable energy.”

Report of the Secretary-General – Promotion of new and renewable sources of energy (Advance unedited copy), UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Division for Sustainable Development, August 15, 2011.

COMMENTS

Global job and income growth are in trouble whether the world makes the transition to a cleaner and more sustainable economy slowly or quickly.  If the transition is done slowly the world will suffer large job and income losses due to the negative impact of environmental pressures on economic growth.  Losses will also occur because of a poorly designed “green” investment strategy.

If the transition is done quickly, job and income losses due to environmental pressures will be reduced, but more losses will be caused by the “green” investment strategy itself.

The current strategy for transitioning to a clean and sustainable global economy relies heavily on market competition and traditional governmental policy tools to put downward pressures on the costs of producing cleaner energy and to motivate business enterprises to create alternatives to resources that are being depleted.  Thus, the current strategy leaves the institutional forces that are slowly eroding global employment and income levels in tact.

At the core of those institutional forces are the scope and intensity of competition among business enterprises and governments.  Global scale communications, trade agreements, investment flows, and commodity flows now bring many more investors and business enterprises virtually face to face in the same markets.

Faced with many more competitors, business enterprises invest heavily in finding ways to reduce labor costs.  Moreover, governments abet these efforts by helping their domestic business enterprises with policy structures and financial subsidies that encourage investments in machines rather than workers.  In this economic environment, job destruction and wage reductions in some sectors and regions of the world economy generally outpace job creation and wage growth in other sectors and regions of the world economy.

An accelerated “green” transition will exacerbate the gaps between job creation and job destruction, wage growth and wage decline.  It will shift more investment funds to the energy sector, which is very machine and technology intensive.  More investment funds will also go to enterprises engaged in the development and production of resource alternatives, enterprises that tend to be more highly automated and employ fewer workers that the enterprises they replace.  The net result will be a further decline in global demand for workers and lower wages.

The transition to a clean and sustainable world economy can be done without harm to employment and income growth, but only by simultaneously reducing system wide downward pressures on job and income growth.  This can be done by making increased governmental management of global market forces and the increased use of governmental employment and income programs (to supplement private sector employment and compensation levels) components of the “green” transition strategy.

Policies of U.S. States Have Negligible Impact on Employment Growth

State Groups by Tax Rank
Data Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Census, Tax Foundation.
States Top % By Tax Rank
Data Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Census, Tax Foundation.
States Bottom 5 By Tax Rank
Data Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Census, Tax Foundation.

Annual Change in Distribution of Percents of State Populations That Are Employed

2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005
Range 15.6% 14.5% 13.9% 14.0% 14.1% 14.5%
Minimum 30.9% 31.3% 30.9% 30.5% 30.6% 30.7%
Maximum 46.4% 45.8% 44.9% 44.5% 44.7% 45.2%
         
2006 2007 2008 2009 2010
Range 14.4% 14.3% 14.8% 16.0% 15.6%
Minimum 31.1% 31.1% 30.6% 28.7% 28.3%
Maximum 45.5% 45.4% 45.4% 44.6% 44.0%

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What is striking in the first chart above (employment change for groups of states defined by Tax Climate Ranking) is that the patterns of change are so similar across the groups.  One might easily imagine the changes are choreographed.

This much unity of change is not consistent with the oft stated assertion that state policies have a large impact on state level employment change.  It is much more consistent with the proposition that state level employment change is driven primarily by economic forces that transcend state boundaries.

This interpretation is supported by variations within Tax Climate Ranking groups (second and third charts).  If state economic policies produced large employment effects, one would expect states with very different Tax Climate Rankings to proceed along visibly different employment change paths, while states with similar Tax Climate Rankings would proceed along similar employment change paths.  This isn’t the case.

The differences among the patterns of change for the closely ranked top ten states and among the patterns of change for the closely ranked bottom ten states appear to be greater than the differences among the patterns of change for groups of states.

Other employment change charts using the same formats  (not included here) display very similar patterns.  Again, patterns of change across groups are very similar  and differences within groups are as large as differences across groups.

For those charts the same employment change data were sorted differently.  One set of charts displays patterns of change for ten groups created by sorting the employment change data on percent of total population employed in 2000 (on the assumption that different initial employment levels might correspond to different policy histories and thus produce divergent change patterns).  The second set displays patterns for groups created by sorting the data on change in the percent of total population employed from 2000 to 2010 (on the assumption that differences among states in how well they performed over the decade might reflect policy differences other than Tax Climate that would produce noticeable differences in patterns of change).

The last item above, the table showing the distribution of percents of state populations employed,  offers more evidence that state employment levels change in unison.  Over the course of the decade the highest percent of population employed and the lowest percent change together, producing an almost constant range between highest to lowest.  Again, this is much more in keeping with conclusion that economic forces that transcend states in scope, not state policies, drive employment change at the state level.

A Plausible Explanation

It would be very surprising to find policy differences across states large enough to produce large differences in patterns of employment growth.

First, the states are part of a national governmental system in which constitutional provisions limit the policy options available to states, state governments are very similarly organized, and policy makers generally agree on the beneficence of the free enterprise system.  These factors inhibit the development of large policy differences among states.

Second, when a state enacts a policy or set of policies that seem to provide it with investment and employment growth advantages over other states, those other states adopt those or similar policies very quickly.  Thus, large policy differences will not persist.

Third, U.S. states are exposed to economic forces that are global in scope.  Global financial and production corporations move large volumes of money and commodities  across state and national boundaries.  So do many local businesses.  Ownership often transcends state and national boundaries.   States are subject to the policy rules of numerous  bilateral and multilateral trade and investment agreements entered into by the U.S.

These global economic forces are certainly powerful enough to overwhelm the effects of policies limited in scope to state boundaries and to wash away the employment change differences among states that policy differences might otherwise produce.

Tax Cuts, Stimulus Spending, Low Interest Rates Do Little to Create Jobs

“In carrying out its QE2 purchases, the Fed had to follow standard operating procedure for “open market operations”: it took secret bids from the 20 “primary dealers”authorized to sell securities to the Fed and accepted the best offers. The problem was that 12 of these dealers — or over half — are U.S.-based branches of foreign banks (including BNP Paribas, Barclays, Credit Suisse, Deutsche Bank, HSBC, UBS and others), and they evidently won the bids.

…According to Scott Fullwiler, Associate Professor of Economics at Wartburg College, the money multiplier model is not just broken but obsolete.”

Ellen Brown, Why QE2 Failed: The Money All Went Overseas,  Huffington Post, July 11, 2011,

In the past 60 years, job growth has actually been greater in years when the top income tax rate was much higher than it is now. … in years when the top marginal rate was more than 90 percent, the average annual growth in total payroll employment was 2 percent. In years when the top marginal rate was 35 percent or less—which it is now—employment grew by an average of just 0.4 percent. … if you ranked each year since 1950 by overall job growth, the top five years would all boast marginal tax rates at 70 percent or higher. The top 10 years would share marginal tax rates at 50 percent or higher.

Michael Linden, Rich People’s Taxes Have Little to Do with Job Creation, Center for American Progress, June 27, 2011,

“Of particular note, we find that fiscal policy is less effective in lifting recovery growth in more open economies. In open economies, fiscal stimulus may spill over to higher growth in partner countries by increasing demand for imported foreign goods and services. This finding suggests the need for more coordination in fiscal stimulus across countries, so that the spillover to other countries is offset by equivalent increases in foreign demand for domestic goods and services.”

Cerra, Valerie, Ugo Panizza, and Sweta C. Saxena, International Evidence on Recovery from Recessions, Working Paper, International Monetary Fund, 2009.

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In the current U.S. open economy environment (put into place over decades of pro-globalization policy shifts) neither larger tax cuts for consumers nor larger tax cuts for corporations nor lower taxes for the wealthiest Americans nor Federal Reserve actions to lower borrowing costs for banking institutions have had the positive U.S. job growth effects we desire.  Millions of working people are unemployed and most U.S. families are experiencing either stagnant income levels or falling incomes.

  • Consumers do buy more with their tax cuts, but a large part of the job creation effect goes to other parts of the world because so much of what we consume is imported
  • Banks do increase their lending, but a large part of the lending is used to finance projects outside the U.S.
  • The corporations do use their tax breaks to increase investments in new plants and facilities, but an increasingly large part of those investments go into emerging market areas of the world
  • Wealthier Americans do use tax savings to increase stock holdings, and thus contribute to the pool of investment funds, but more and more the wealthy purchase stocks in corporations that are expanding operations in emerging markets because that is where the highest returns are being obtained.

U.S. job creation and income distribution policies are out of date.  They were designed for the affluent manufacturing nations operating in the much less economically integrated world of the mid twentieth century.  Major changes in the U.S. policy approach to creating jobs and distributing income will be required to put things right for U.S. families.

U.S. Private Sector Investment Strategies Do Not Favor U.S. Employment Growth

“At GE, our success is predicated on accurately assessing the dynamic forces that are reshaping our world and having a strategy in place to make the most of the opportunities they present.”

Our Viewpoints, GE Website

“International revenues from Industrial (ex NBCU) were $13.4 billion, up 23% representing 59% of total Industrial revenues. GE revenue for the Industrial segments accelerated in growth regions, including double-digit increases in India, China, Southeast Asia, Africa, Russia, Australia, Canada, and Latin America.”

GE Corporation Press Release, July 22, 2011, GE Website

According to a Fox Business story, GE had a worldwide workforce of 287,000 at the end of 2010, of which the U.S. share was 133,000.

Bob Sechler, GE’s Worldwide Workforce Down 5.6% In 2010 At 287,000, February 25, 2011, Dow Jones Newswires.

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Burdening the U.S. private sector with creating enough job growth to achieve something close to the frictional rate of unemployment (unemployment due mainly to brief periods of unemployment between jobs) is misguided in the current world economic context.

First, U.S. corporations are legally required to pursue the investment strategies that best serve their stockholders.  Many more opportunities for profitable investments in facilities and workforces are emerging in other parts of the world than in the U.S.

Second, neither U.S. corporations nor other U.S. businesses are legally required to create jobs for U.S. workers, except to the extent they have entered into contractual agreements to do so.

Private sector job growth must be supplemented by government programs to produce public sector jobs and/or to reduce demand for jobs by engaging potential workers in paid alternatives to private sector employment.  Such activities might include paid educational leaves, paid parental leaves for up to a year, career change leaves, longer annual vacations, etc.

Only by creating such a combination of socially recognized entitlements to income can we restore the U.S. middle class to good financial health and again produce success in reducing the number of Americans living in poverty.

Private Sector Role in U.S. Job Growth Overstated

“Close to $2 of every $10 that went into Americans’ wallets last year were payments like jobless benefits, food stamps, Social Security and disability, according to an analysis by Moody’s Analytics… By the end of this year, however, many of those dollars are going to disappear, with the expiration of extended benefits intended to help people cope with the lingering effects of the recession. Moody’s Analytics estimates $37 billion will be drained from the nation’s pocketbooks this year.”

Motoko Rich, Economy Faces a Jolt as Benefit Checks Run Out, New York Times, July 10, 2011

“In terms of jobs, between 2000 and 2006, the number of federal contract workers increased from 1.4 million to 2.0 million. This compares to 2.7 million federal employees. In short, 43% of all employees who do the government’s work are actually employed by private businesses.”

Kathryn Edwards and Kai Filion, Outsourcing Poverty: Federal contracting pushes down wages and benefits, Economic Policy Institute, February 11, 2009.

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During the last half of the twentieth century, U.S. unemployment was kept generally low by a combination of private sector investment flows, the expansion of public sector employment at all levels of government, public sector investments in programs that increased private sector hiring (like the interstate highway system, Medicare, Medicaid, and the space program), and public sector investment flows into programs that diverted large numbers of potential workers from the private sector labor pool for varying periods of time (funding to increase high school attendance, programs like the GI Bill for diverting workers into educational activities, the federal welfare system, and generous government pension programs and increased funding for Social Security that intice older workers to leave the workforce and to leave earlier).

Taken together, all these elements of government spending substantially reduced the number of workers who were seeking jobs but could not find them – the definition of unemployment.

The private sector did only part of the work of reducing unemployment in the past and it can only do part of the work now.