Weather Metaphors and the June Jobs Report
The US Labor Department released its monthly jobs numbers for June 2012 this past week. Once more the numbers showed a dramatic slowdown in job creation for the third consecutive month. Job creation averaged around only 80,000 a month for April to June, about a third of that in the 1st quarter, January-March period earlier this year.
The reason most often offered for the jobs relapse in June and for the past three months—the third such mid-year jobs relapse in as many years—is that the weather last winter quarter was the cause of the last three months’ dramatic drop off in job creation. As the argument goes, the ‘good weather’ of this past winter somehow drew forward the economic activity and therefore job creation that would have been otherwise created the past three months. That explanation, however, is nothing more than an excuse designed to avoid an otherwise more fundamental analysis why job creation has been collapsing once again in recent months.
Never mind that the last three months’ job creation collapse represents the third consecutive mid-year slowdown in job creation. If good winter weather were the explanation for the latest, 2012, such slowdown, then good winter weather should have been the explanation for 2010 and 2011. But those previous winters were quite ordinary. Second, if winter weather were the primary cause in 2012, then an inspection of those sectors of the economy—construction, agriculture, transport, retail—over the past six months should show significant jobs gain in the winter months followed by the exceptional collapse in jobs in those sectors this past April-June. But there is no such evidence, if one bothers to take a look at these potentially seasonal sectors.
The industries that might conceivably have benefited seasonally from extraordinary better weather last winter—in effect pulling jobs into the winter quarter from this spring and thereby lowering net job creation this past three months—in fact produced very few additional jobs this past winter. We’re talking about around 20,000 jobs at most for all the preceding sectors noted—out of a reported total of 700,000 new jobs created in the winter quarter.
So if it wasn’t weather and seasonality that produced the 700,000 extra jobs over this past winter quarter, what then was responsible for that growth? Equally important, what then was responsible for the collapse in jobs the past three months, April-June, if it wasn’t winter weather effects? And will those real (non-weather) factors continue to have a similar impact on job creation going forward?
The ‘Good Weather’ Metaphor Explanation of Job Creation
When economists explain by resort to metaphor it is usually a good indication they have little idea as to what the actual causes may be.
The inordinate ‘good winter weather’ was no more responsible for job creation this past winter, and the consequence decline in job growth the past three months, than arguments that ‘sunspots activity’ can explain economic growth and job creation—i.e. an argument that in fact was once offered in the distant past by economists to explain economic growth despite its obvious ridiculousness. ‘The weather last winter’ thus represents a retreat by economists to past absurd modes of ‘analysis by natural metaphor’—in effect an excuse substituted for a real explanation and analysis of the sad state of the jobs market in the US today. Such explanations should be left to political and press pundits who are more inclined to avoid the facts than reveal them.
Actual Explanations of the Jobs Reports
So what might otherwise explain the 240,000 average job creation record of this past winter, followed by the dismal record of only 80,000 jobs a month on average created this past April-June?
The reasons are threefold and none has to do with weather hypotheses: (1) growing evidence of a problem with statistical methodologies used by the US labor department to estimate jobs; (2) the timing of policies, both fiscal and monetary, by the Obama administration and the Federal Reserve bank over the past three years; and (3) the convergence of global economic developments.
A Problem with Statistical Estimation?
As this writer has been arguing in publications the past six months, the 240,000 average jobs creation this past winter did not represent actual job creation. It was the outcome of statistical estimation methods by the US labor department that have consistently over-estimated job creation over the winter quarter for three consecutive years now. Without repeating the arcane details here (see the blog, jackrasmus.com), suffice to simply say those methodologies are based on an economy pre-2007, and are now, in today’s relative economic stagnation in the US (and increasingly globally), no longer as accurate and should therefore be fundamentally overhauled.
Ineffective Policy Responses to the Labor Market
The recent collapse in job creation is more obviously due, in part, to policies both fiscal and monetary of the past three years: specifically, with the timing of government policies in 2009, 2010 and 2011 that provided an insufficient dose of tax-spending stimulus earlier in the year that quickly dissipated by the following mid-year. The Obama administration has introduced three ‘fiscal stimulus programs’ (tax cuts and spending) to date that provided in each case a limited boost to the economy around year end that subsequently ran out of steam by the following mid-year. The reasons for the rapid dissipation of the stimulus are only in part due to the inadequate magnitude of each of the three programs. The rapid fading of the stimulus has been due even more so to the problems of composition and timing at the heart of the recovery programs.
Concerning monetary policy, the past three years have also been characterized by three Federal Reserve ‘quantitative easing’ policy programs that have also been ‘seasonal’ in their timing and impact, and subsequently therefore dissipated in their effects by mid-year as well.
Considering just the current year, 2012, an analysis that doesn’t rely on the excuse of ‘good winter weather’ must ask what happened in the winter quarter of this year that resulted in the definite slowing thereafter of the US economy, and job creation, the past three months? Among the possible real explanations, there was the spike in gasoline prices in the first half of this year, together with other inflation factors, that hit median households hard in the winter, with after-effects on consumer spending just felt in recent months. Food prices, utility cost increases, health insurance premium hikes, rental costs escalation—to name but the most obvious—are now having a major influence on real disposable income growth for the majority of US households. This is now showing up in recent months’ retail sales weakness and service sector spending slowdown, the latter of which represents 80% of the economy.
Service sector jobs rose by about 250,000 in both the first and second quarters. But the composition of those jobs created in this sector differed significantly in the 2nd quarter compared to the 1st. Service sector jobs this past quarter have tended to be heavily weighted toward part time and contingent work. Since March more than 500,000 involuntary part time (i.e. non-agricultural) jobs have been created, along with more than 100,000 temps and who knows how many middle management & professionals laid off who immediately designate themselves as ‘self employed’ and thus avoid the unemployment rolls.
Given weak to non-existent real disposable income growth, businesses have begun to add only part time jobs in the 2nd quarter in anticipation of a potential slowdown in services spending. Simultaneously, they are also eliminating full time jobs, as more than 700,000 full time jobs were eliminated the past three months. In other words, a kind of ‘churning’, from full time to part time employment has been occurring in recent months. And when that occurs, few net jobs are added.
Another ‘non-weather’ factor explaining the real slowing of job creation the past quarter is attributable to the global slowdown in manufacturing that inevitably began to penetrate the US manufacturing sector by the late spring 2012. Much has been hyped since late 2010 by large corporations and the Obama administration about how manufacturing is ‘going to lead the way’ to recovery and job creation in the US. But according to the Labor Department’s Table B-1 for June, manufacturing jobs grew by only 68,000 over the winter quarter, and since March by half that, at 34,000. Moreover, virtually all that roughly 102,000 manufacturing job creation in the first half of 2012 represents jobs for managers, supervisors and other professionals in the industry. Net job creation involving production and non-supervisory workers in manufacturing have actually declined by 170,000 from March through June 2012. This represents clear evidence that employers are now, effective the 2nd quarter, cutting back on production employment as the global manufacturing slowdown begins to impact the US in recent months. That job cutting will accelerate in coming months, given that new orders for factory goods in June fell at the worst rate since 2009.
A third real, non-weather, explanation involves job hiring trends involving government workers. Their numbers have been steadily declining over the past three years. Especially hard hit has been local government, and therefore teachers. Layoffs and decline in jobs reported for this group does not occur in the winter quarter, but does in the spring quarter. That also therefore, in part, explains the 2nd quarter fall off in job creation. But the ultimate causes here are government policies since 2009. Obama policies provided subsidies to the public sector to prevent (not create) job layoffs for one year. After mid-year 2010, those subsidies were gone and state and local governments began deep spending cuts that continue to the present.
Finally there is the Construction industry. Good weather also does not explain what’s happened with jobs in the industry. Employment in Construction declined by 13,000 in the industry over the 1st quarter, as typically occurs in winter months. But it has continued to decline, on a seasonally adjusted basis, from April to June, by another 42,000. That’s because there is no job recovery in Construction. The press has been contorting itself to try to pry some evidence that somehow housing is recovering. Because home prices did not fall last month, and home sales are bouncing along a bottom, according to the press that somehow constitutes recovery. However, the only evidence of growth in the industry is apartment construction—predictable since tens of millions have lost their homes since 2007 and must live somewhere. But construction employment has been unaffected by this ‘faux recovery’ in construction. Construction jobs declined by 13,000 in the first quarter of 2012, and then another 42,000 in the second.
When economists who should know better simply repeat the ‘weather’ as responsible for the April-June collapse in the monthly rate of job creation they in effect parrot the prevailing ‘spin’ of politicians and their media friends who prefer the public does not point fingers at their policy failures ultimately responsible for the jobs collapse. There has not been a bona fide job creation program since the current recession began. There have been massive tax cuts for business that never got invested to create jobs; there have been bail outs of banks who were supposed to lend to smaller businesses to invest and create jobs but didn’t; and there has been a turning over of jobs programs to manufacturing corporate CEOs, like GE’s Jeff Immelt, whose idea of a jobs program is more free trade and more deregulation, in exchange for hiring a couple thousand jobs temporary status workers in the US at half pay.
Converging Global Economic Slowdown
Combining with the preceding real explanations is an accelerating slowing of the global economy, led by a contraction in manufacturing across all major economies. This slowing began well back, in late summer 2011, recovered slightly and now is trending down once again more strongly. This time it also includes China, Brazil, India and other economies—in addition to the Eurozone wide recession now well underway and the clear slowing of the US economy in recent months as well.
Manufacturing was touted as the solution to job creation in late summer 2010, and the Obama administration made a concerted shift toward it as the solution to a then faltering recovery. That shift has produced little to nothing in terms of job creation, however. The third jobs relapse in as many years is therefore on the horizon this summer.
But one doesn’t need a weatherman to know which way the jobs winds are blowing in America.
Jack Rasmus is the author of the just published book, OBAMA’S ECONOMY: RECOVERY FOR THE FEW, published by Pluto Press and Palgrave-Macmillan, April 2012. He blogs at jackrasmus.com.