Most of the business media is content to rehash headline data, simply passing on what the large wire services report with no further analysis. The headline, then, becomes the “conventional wisdom.”
Such was the case on the first Friday of April with the reporting of the unemployment rate. The conventional wisdoom was that there was some disappointment in that, using the Establishment Survey of the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the nation only created 120,000 new jobs. But the unemployment rate itself sank to 8.2 percent. For that we should be grateful, at least according to the conventional wisdom.
The accompanying chart tells quite a different story. It is a long-term chart. The period measured (horizontal axis) begins in 1988, so it covers about a quarter of a century. The right hand vertical axis measures the “headline” unemployment rate. That’s the headline rate most often reported. In government jargon, it is known as the U-3.
The scale is inverted, so a rising line means the unemployment rate is falling. This unemployment rate is supposed to measure the number of people looking for work who can’t find it as a percentage of all people with and without jobs. The left hand scale is a measure of the employment rate in its most basic form. Most readers won’t recognize this, as it is seldom reported, but it measures the number of people employed as a percentage of the population. As such, it is a better measure of the job market in that, unlike the unemployment rate, its definition can’t be changed (more on that later).
Looking at the chart, note that in the late 1980s, 63 percent of the population was employed. This rose to nearly 65 percent at the turn of the century. After falling to 62 percent in the 2001-02 recession, it rose back to 63 percent in 2007. Since the Great Recession, this measure of employment has been bottom bouncing just above 58 percent.
But what is really noticeable is the huge divergence between the two since 2010. The question to be asked is, “How can the ’employment rate’ show little to no improvement, while the ‘unemployment rate’ would lead one to conclude something altogether different?” The answer lies in how things are defined.
In 1994, BLS redefined the term ‘discouraged worker.’ This person was counted as unemployed only if he or she had been ‘discouraged’ for less than a year. After that, he or she was longer counted as ‘looking for work.’ Today, with jobs so hard to find, we clearly have many people who have been out of work for more than a year but are still actively seeking employment. Our social safety net even recognizes jobs are hard to find – unemployment insurance payments are available for 99 weeks. But our measurement of “unemployment” stops counting people as unemployed or even looking for work after 52 weeks. They are simply defined away! This goes a long way toward explaining the increasing discrepancy between the two series.
This past weekend, I made an off-the-cuff observation to my wife as we visited a fast food establishment with the grandchildren in tow. I noted employees seemed to be a lot older than what I remembered from a few years back. In recent blogs, both David Rosenberg (Gluskin Sheff) and John Hussman (Hussman Funds) wrote about the changes in the distribution of job creation since the end of the recession in June 2009. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, total employment in non-agricultural industries (seasonally adjusted) has grown 2.15 million since that time. For workers 55 and older, employment has grown by 2.98 million.
That means that employment has continued to contract for those under 55 years of age since the recession’s so-called end! How can that be healthy?
There is a term business media uses called “financial repression.” Essentially, it refers to the zero interest rate environment in which savers and retirees are no longer able to live off the interest on assets they accumulated prior to retirement. So they re-enter the labor force, working for minimum wages to supplement now inadequate retirement incomes.
The employment picture, then, when viewed from this lens, is much worse than the headline data and conventional wisdom would have you believe. I don’t think this is a surprise to most Americans, but it would certainly help if the business media stopped pretending.
Robert Barone and Joshua Barone are Principals and Investment Advisor Representatives of Universal Value Advisors, LLC, Reno, NV, an SEC Registered Investment Advisor. Statistics and other information have been compiled from various sources. Universal Value Advisors believes the facts and information to be accurate and credible but makes no guarantee to the complete accuracy of this information. Universal Value Advisors, LLC is a registered investment adviser with the Securities and Exchange Commission of the United States. A more detailed description of the company, its management and practices are contained in its “Firm Brochure”, (Form ADV, Part 2A). A copy of this Brochure may be received by contacting the company at: 9222 Prototype Drive, Reno, NV 89521, Phone (775) 284-7778. Robert Barone (Ph.D., Economics, Georgetown University) is a Principal of Universal Value Advisors (UVA), Reno, NV, an SEC Registered Investment Advisor. Dr. Barone is a former Director of the Federal Home Loan Bank of San Francisco, and is currently a Director of Allied Mineral Products, Columbus, Ohio, AAA Northern California, Nevada, Utah Auto Club, and the associated AAA Insurance Company where he chairs the Investment Committee. Information cited has been compiled from various sources which UVA believes to be accurate and credible but makes no guarantee as to its accuracy. A more detailed description of the company, its management and practices is contained in its “Firm Brochure” (Form ADV, Part 2A) which may be obtained by contacting UVA at: 9222 Prototype Dr., Reno, NV 89521. Ph: (775) 284-7778.