Friday, July 2, 2010

US Jobs Slipping Away?

Lucia Mutikani of Reuters reports, Weak private hiring in June shows tepid U.S. recovery:

U.S. private payrolls rose only modestly in June and overall employment fell for the first time this year as thousands of temporary census jobs ended, indicating the economic recovery is failing to pick up steam.

The employment figures from the U.S. Labor Department on Friday followed a raft of weak reports this week on consumer spending, housing and factory activity that have heightened fears the economy could slip back into a recession.

But even though private-sector hiring in June was well below levels needed to bring down unemployment on a sustained basis, analysts said the figures were not consistent with an economy on the brink of another recession.

"We are still on track for a fairly moderate recovery," said Julia Coronado, an economist at BNP Paribas in New York. "There have been some concerns that maybe we are heading for a double-dip. The report eases those concerns in the sense that we are still creating private sector jobs."

Private hiring rose by 83,000 after adding only 33,000 jobs in May. Total nonfarm employment actually dropped 125,000 -- the largest decline since October -- as the government laid off 225,000 temporary census workers.

The unemployment rate fell to 9.5 percent, the lowest level since July 2009, from 9.7 percent in May, but only because a flood of jobless workers gave up their employment search.

President Barack Obama, whose approval ratings have been battered by the weak economy, expressed disappointment in the numbers even though he said they showed the recovery moving forward.

"We're not headed there fast enough for a lot of Americans," he said at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland. "We're not headed there fast enough for me, either."

Economists polled by Reuters had expected private employment to grow by 112,000 jobs, although some had scaled back their projections in recent days. The jobless rate was expected to edge up to 9.8 percent.

U.S. stock indexes closed down for a fifth straight day. Prices for government debt slipped as bond investors, who had driven a rally in recent days, focused on the report not being as bad as had been feared. The U.S. dollar fell against the euro.

EUROPEAN DEBT CRISIS BLAMED

Also on Friday, the Commerce Department said that factory orders in May suffered their biggest tumble since March of last year.

Analysts blamed the moderation in the recovery from the longest and deepest recession since the 1930s on the sovereign debt crisis in Europe, which is expected to stunt growth in the region as governments tighten belts to cut budget deficits.

"The European debt crisis is having a negative impact on consumer and business confidence," said Chris Rupkey, chief economist at Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ in New York. "I don't think the outlook for the second half is that negative, but the jury is out on this until we see next month's jobs report."

A poor labor market in an election year is the worst nightmare for Obama and could cost the Democratic Party dearly in November mid-term elections.

Obama, who has called job creation his No. 1 priority, has tried to put the blame on the policies of the previous administration. But Republicans say a roughly $800 billion package of tax cuts and spending pushed by Obama has not worked.

"The writing is on the wall for President Obama's stimulus policies and everyone -- taxpayers, economists, and the rest of the world -- sees it but him," said House Republican Leader John Boehner.

With the economy still in a fragile state, the Federal Reserve is also in a bind. It has held benchmark overnight interest rates close to zero since December 2008 and has pumped more than $1 trillion into the economy.

Fed officials believe a sustainable recovery has taken hold, but are watching cautiously and financial markets do not expect the central bank to raise rates until the middle of next year.

Last month, payrolls in the dominant services sector rose 91,000 after increasing 20,000 in May. Temporary help employment rose 20,500, while retail hiring fell 6,600.

In the goods-producing sector, employment fell by 8,000 after increasing by 13,000, pulled down by declines in construction. Home building activity has dropped sharply since late April when a tax credit for homebuyers expired.

Employment in the factory sector, which has led the recovery, rose by just 9,000 after a gain of 32,000 in May. Cash-strapped state and local governments were also a drag on employment last month.

Analysts were disheartened by the shortening of the workweek to 34.1 hours from 34.2 hours in May and a slip in average hourly earnings. The decline in earnings is worrisome on two fronts: it could crimp consumer spending, and it may add to downward pressure on already weak inflation.

"This leaves the Fed on extended hold. Recent data also heightens concern that the disinflation process has not yet found a trough," said Michael Feroli, an economist at JPMorgan in New York.

In June, just over 45 percent of the total 14.6 million people unemployed had been out of work for more than 27 weeks, little changed from May.

Nigel Gault, U.S. chief economist at IHS Global Insight was interviewed on Yahoo Tech Ticker stating that the unemployment rate fell for "all the wrong reasons":

The U.S. job market remains anemic. Employers cut 1250,00 jobs in June, more than expected. The job cuts came as the government let go 225,000 temporary census workers, as expected. Meanwhile, the private sector gained 83,000 jobs, the sixth-consecutive monthly increase but still less than most economists forecast.

Yet the unemployment rate fell to 9.5% in June from 9.7%, the lowest level in nearly a year. Unfortunately, it dropped “for all the wrong reasons” says Nigel Gault, U.S. chief economist at IHS Global Insight. The unemployment rate is lower simply because the labor market shrank, as more than 650,000 people gave up on the job search last month.

More telling is the "real unemployment" rate, or U6. Including people working part-time and those who've given up looking, the real unemployment rate is 16.5%.

Gault says the lousy job market reflects an economy still weak and companies making due with less. At the current pace, the road to recovery will be long and bumpy.

The Daily Kos summarizes the grim statistics:

  • About 14.6 million Americans remain unemployed.
  • 45.5% the unemployed, or 6.8 million Americas, have been out of work for 27 weeks or more. The ranks of these long-term unemployed remains at a post-Depression record.
  • There are now 7.9 million more Americans out of work than when the recession began in December 2007. (Roughly 15 million more are underemployed or have dropped out of the labor force -- and thus the statistical calculations).
The statistics are grim, and it's obvious that growth is moderating, but it's too early to conclude that hiring will not pick up in the months ahead.

One area where hiring is picking up is on Wall Street. But Catherine Rampell of the NYT asks whether this comeback can be sustained:

New data from the New York State’s Labor Department have shown a sharp increase in financial industry jobs, with the city adding 6,800 positions from the end of February through May. That’s the largest three-month increase since 2008, and it has understandably attracted a lot of buzz in the econoblogosphere.

But my colleague Eric Dash, who covers the banking industry, warns that people may be reading too much into this number, since it is not adjusted for seasonal changes.

Eric writes me:

The banking industry’s hiring boom may be short-lived. Wall Street typically experience a pickup in hiring during the spring and early summer. Most bankers will not join a new firm until late January or February, when they receive their annual bonus paycheck. The banks, meanwhile, are hesitant to hire in the fall to avoid guaranteeing big year-end bonus payouts along with a forced vacation, known as garden leave.

Finally, I had a chat with Stefane Marion, Chief Economist at the National Bank of Canada, who told me "leading indicators are up, but I need confirmation in the form of job growth".

Stefane mentioned on-line ads are up, which is positive. I checked out the Conference Board's Help Wanted Online Index:
  • Job demand remained essentially unchanged in May and June but up over 500,000 nationally during the first 6 months of 2010
  • Demand for sales workers continues to climb
  • Job demand is strong in several States in the Northeast including NY, NJ & PA
The bottom line is that even though this report was anemic, it's too early to throw in the towel on US jobs. The recovery will be tepid, especially if private sector employment doesn't pick up convincingly, but there is always a lag between employment and leading indicators. Below, I leave you with Nigel Gault's take on Friday's weak jobs report.

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