Misplaced Jobs Report Celebration

Guest Author: Dean Baker is an economist and Co-Director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, in Washington, D.C. – Full Bio here.

Okay, this celebration around the jobs report is really getting out of hand. Both the Post and Times had front page pieces touting the good news. The Post gets the award for being the more breathless of the two:

“The jobs numbers come amid other promising signs that the recovery is building momentum. The stock market wrapped up the first quarter this week with a 6.4 percent gain in the Dow Jones industrial average and continued to tack upward Friday, adding another 0.5 percent. Investors were pleased that the job growth was continuing — but not so fast that the Federal Reserve might want to apply the brakes by raising interest rates anytime soon.

Also contributing to the buoyant markets were reports from automakers Friday showing that auto sales rose in March. Sales of new vehicles were up 11 percent over a year before at General Motors, 16 percent at Ford and 23 percent at Honda.

A separate report Friday also showed continued strong growth in the manufacturing sector, with the Institute for Supply Management’s index of activity at the nation’s factories edging down to 61.2 from 61.4.  Numbers above 50 indicate expansion.”

First off, no one should include the stock market as indicator of the economy’s well-being.  Rich people are happy — that’s nice — it has little to do with the economy. The car buying is positive, but with so many of the cars now imported or largely comprised of imported parts the impact of this surge in sales is much less than would have been the case 30 years ago. The drop in the Institute for Supply Management’s index suggests that manufacturing is likely to make a marginally smaller contribution to growth in the months ahead, not good news. (The Bureau of Labor Statistics employment diffusion index for manufacturing, a measure of the percent of sectors that expect to add workers, fell from 66.0 in February to 63.0 in January, it had been 73.5 in January.)

As noted above, 216,000 jobs is not especially impressive, especially given the depth of the hole that our economic policymakers put us in. In only 15 of the 52 months from February 1996 to May of 2000 did the economy create fewer than 216,000 jobs. In most cases the weakness was caused by bad weather. And this was at a time when the working age population was more than 10 percent less than today.

It is also striking that neither paper seems to have mentioned the Commerce Department’s report on construction in February, which showed a 1.4 percent decline in February, following even larger declines in December and January. (The big news in this report was the 2.6 percent downward revision to the data originally reported for January.) Much of the story here is in non-residential construction as the building boom that resulted from the bubble in that sector is leading to a bust. The largest declines are in manufacturing construction where bio-fuel subsidies had led to a boom in ethanol plants in 2009-2010.

Anyhow, construction is certain to be a big drag on growth in the first quarter. It should knock at least a percentage point off GDP growth for the quarter.  I am forecasting many surprised economists and reporters.

I have one more point skunk to toss over at the celebrators. Here is the path of the employment to population ratio (EPOP) over the downturn.

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Note that we have only risen slightly from the low hit in December of 2009 and the EPOP (Employment to Population Ratio) is actually a hair lower today that it was a year ago. The drop in the unemployment rate over this period was entirely due to people leaving the labor force. Now is that good news or what?

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The Great Debate©:  Can Austerity Produce Recovery from The Great Recession? by Dean Baker

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