The Federal Reserve and the Bank of England have each recently backed away from “forward guidance” that they had given earlier in the form of thresholds for the unemployment rate. As a result of their changes in emphasis, they are both being accused of confusing the financial markets.
Once again this morning, the BLS employment release tells conflicting stories depending on whether one looks at the unemployment rate or job growth. The U.S. unemployment rate fell from 8.3% in July to 8.1% in August, continuing the gradual three-year downward trend (from its 2009 peak at 10 %). Political economy equations often say that the direction of movement of the unemployment rate in the period preceding a presidential election is the main economic determinant of whether the incumbent is re-elected.
The BLS this morning reported U.S. job gains of 163,000 in July, which is good news in the eyes of the financial markets. The jobs data had been disappointing over the preceding three spring months. Before that, during the winter months, employment growth was strong.
In terms of perceptions and politics, pundits will say that today’s report is good news for Obama’s re-election prospects, just as they said the spring jobs numbers were bad news for the President. But my interest is in economics and reality, rather than perceptions and politics. From a longer-term perspective, a few important facts have not been adequately discussed.
At first glance, the job numbers of the last week seem to offer a mixed and confusing picture. On the one hand, today’s headline from the Bureau of Labor Statistics certainly sounds like good news: the unemployment rate finally dropped below 10.0% — to 9.7%. On the other hand, today’s establishment survey of employment, which most of the time is a more reliable measure than the unemployment rate, still shows job change numbers that are negative. Furthermore, recent numbers on claims for unemployment benefits have been discouraging.
The economy has been on a roller coaster ride since the cyclical peak of December 2007. (See illustration.) The gradual slide of early 2008 turned into a terrifying freefall in the last quarter of 2008 (after the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy) and the first quarter of 2009. Now the train is probably at the bottom of the roller coaster valley.
The Index of Leading Economic Indicators, represented by the first car in the train, was this morning reported to have risen for the seventh consecutive month in October. Similarly, consumer confidence is substantially improved relative to February (though it, like all economic statistics, has experienced some bumps in the ride). The important middle cars, which represent measures of aggregate output, probably reached bottom in the early summer, and then started back up. The BEA’s advanced estimate for GDP growth in the third quarter was 3 ½ % .
The quip “There are three kinds of lies:lies, damn lies, and statistics” is variously attributed to Benjamin Disraeli or Mark Twain.What should the public make of government statistics, such as the monthly employment report released today, Thursday, July 2, by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)?
There is no lying in US government statistics.But there are always commentators who will use the numbers to make whatever point they want.One should learn enough to be able to interpret the numbers for oneself.That is the only way to prevent being misled.
Payroll employment peaked in December, and according to numbers released today had declined by 260,000 jobs as of April. (Source: BLS.) Since we have not yet seen a single negative number on GDP growth, this job loss is easily the most tangible statistical evidence we have so far that the much-heralded recession indeed may have started in the first quarter of 2008.
It has been noted that the unemployment rate started out from a low level — averaging 4.6 % in 2007 — so that even after a period of gradual increase, it remains relatively low by historical standards: 5.0% in April. This is still inside the range that has usually been considered by politicians as too low to generate serious discontent (and by central bankers as too low to put downward pressure on wages and prices). But why, then, is there so much popular dissatisfaction with the economy?