David Rosenberg: A Bond Bull Turns Bearish

May 13th, 2013
in contributors, syndication

by John Mauldin, Thoughts from the Frontline

How do we get to full employment and improved national education from the launching point of David Rosenberg's very recent call (at the conference and elsewhere) that we will soon see inflation and the onset of a bond bear market? I must say that he surprised a few of us with his conversion from bond bull to bond bear. But the reason why he converted surprised us even more. I am not going to be able to do justice to his impeccably reasoned, highly detailed presentation in this short space, but let me hit some highlights.

Specifically, Rosie thinks that the Fed is going to be surprised by wage-push inflation. How could we see inflation in wages in such a soft labor market? That was the first question in my mind, and the following charts give me some reasons for my question.

Follow up:

The present unemployment rate is still higher than at any time in the last 60 years, except after recessions. The Great Recession ended four years ago, and unemployment is still stubbornly high. Indeed, this is the slowest "jobs recovery" we have ever experienced. The current level of unemployment has never been seen four years after the end of a recession.

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And those who lose their jobs are staying unemployed longer. The fact is that the mean duration of unemployment is still almost double what it has ever been. Average length of unemployment is 37 weeks. When the recession ended, it stood at 23 weeks. This is structural, not frictional, unemployment. Ninety million American adults now subsist outside the official labor force –It could be there's an underground economy that we need to capture. The pool of available labor for the business sector is shrinking 2% per year.

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Worse yet, the unemployment rate is still stubbornly high in spite of an unprecedented rise in the number of people who are no longer counted as being in the labor force. These are people who are no longer looking for jobs.We are back to workforce participation levels not seen since the 1970s. A good 5% of US citizens who are able to work are no longer are looking for work. Part of this trend is due to alternatives to employment becoming easier to pursue. Millions have been added to the disability rolls – some 4 million since the beginning of this century and almost 2 million since the beginning of the Great Recession (and still rising at an alarming rate!). Others have gone back to school, borrowing money in the form of student loans, which have topped over $1 trillion and are the only form of consumer credit that has been on the increase.

As a quick aside, we are also seeing skyrocketing rates of late payments as student loans overwhelm the ability of borrowers to pay. This is a true crisis brewing, as student loans are the only type of debt that cannot be discharged in bankruptcy. Student loans can make you an indentured servant for a very long time.

Some would-be workers find that in some states they can collect more on government assistance than they can earn by working lower-wage jobs, and thus they have no economic incentive to look for jobs that would actually lower their income. As I wrote in a recent letter, this is why we are seeing a large rise in non-reported incomes and jobs. And finally, there are those who are just discouraged. Jobs seemingly do not exist for their skill sets and in places where they can access them.

With so many people not participating in the labor market, isn't it reasonable to assume that if jobs again ever become available, these people will rejoin the official workforce? And wouldn't that create a shadow supply of workers that would keep wages suppressed for a long time?

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Wage Inflation?

Maybe yes and maybe no. Rosie makes the case that there are numerous jobs available and that the numbers are rising, and there is data that supports his argument. I will reproduce here a few of his charts (out of the 59 he showed!). Job openings are on the rise and are back to levels last seen in the middle of the previous decade.

And what about all the businesses that have jobs on offer but can't find people to fill them? The following chart is from Rosie's and my mutual friend William Dunkelberg, chief economist for the National Federation of Independent Businesses. While job openings are not at all-time highs, the trend is encouraging.

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The next chart shows the ratio of job openings to new hires. It is at a six-year high. As Rosie stated (inexact quotes, from my notes):

Looking for labor? Labor demand is not weak – JOLTS survey shows job openings up 10%, employers can't find qualified applicants. Firings plunge, layoffs 10% lower than in 2007. Number of job quitters rises – people leaving jobs to go to new ones, the 'take this job and shove it index.' 7.5% unemployment is actually the new 4.4%.

What are companies doing? More overtime, longer work week. Combination of rising wages, productivity growth heading lower. We've taken a lot of inventory out of the labor market. Keep your eye on unit labor costs. Correlation with inflation – unit labor costs are on the rise.

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Employees are increasingly willing to leave a job and go to another one, yet productivity has recently begun to fall.

Yet young people are having increasing difficulty landing jobs. People aged 20-24 are still unemployed at levels not seen unless a recession is involved (see chart below). And research keeps coming in that more than 50% of college graduates are stuck in jobs for which a degree is not needed.

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Even though the headline unemployment rate is falling, a large part of that drop is due to the precipitous plunge in the participation rate, as well as a rise in low-paying jobs. Curiously, it now seems a disproportionately high level of temporary jobs is no longer a precursor to economic recovery but is a new structural fixture.

Part of the responsibility for that increase in temporary employment can readily be laid at the feet of the Affordable Healthcare Act (Obamacare). Employers do not have to pay health insurance for temporary employees; that burden falls on the employee.

Healthcare for lower-wage employees can be a huge percentage of overall labor costs. While you may argue that employers should cover workers at all levels, the data coming in says that is not happening – thus the rise in temporary workers. Even an established employer like UPS is hiring new temporary employees in low-skill jobs at low wages without health insurance for their first year and cutting back on employees with major seniority (who cost more than double what new employees do), not giving them enough hours to survive and forcing them into the temporary market to meet their basic living needs.

We see evidence of this happening system-wide in the data showing lower hourly wages and a reduced number of hours in the work week. And those trends seem to be stabilizing. We are seeing the creation of a two-tier market, an upper tier for those with skills in demand and a lower one for those whose skills just do not command a premium in today's marketplace.

Rosie makes the argument that there is a shortage of skilled labor and that the price for those workers is going to rise, surprising the Federal Reserve, which still looks at historical data from a world that no longer exists. And he says this segment of the labor market is going to be large enough to create wage-push inflation.

It is an interesting argument, and contradicting David Rosenberg is generally not a good idea, although he did not convince Lacy Hunt or Gary Shilling, at least not at the conference. But at any turn there is always someone who has to lead the way. His arguments are something we must pay attention to.

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