Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Labor Market Conditions Index forecasts further job softness

 - by New Deal democrat

Last summer I wrote that the Labor Market Conditions Index, a measure based on 19 components which was just reported just barely up +0.4 for January, was a useful addition to the forecasting toolbox.

Sprecifically, it has a 40 year history of signaling a turn in the economy.  Here is the entire history of the index: 

The index has with one exception (1981's double-dip) always failed to make a new high for at least 12 months before the next recession, sometimes much longer than that.  Further, it has always dropped below 0 and stayed negative for 6 months or somewhat more before the onset of the next recession.

Here is the Index over the last 5 years:

The Index appears to have made its cycle high at the beginning of 2012, with a secondary high in early 2014. But it has not turned negative.

Further, when the Index consistently leads the YoY% growth in jobs by 6 - 12 months, but YoY job growth (red) is a much  smoother measure:

Thus job growth serves as an important confirmation for the long leading part of the Index.

But a downturn below 0 in the LCMI, even partnered with a downturn in the growth of YoY jobs, hasn't always meant recession, as in the 1980s and 1990s.  That's where interest rates come into play.  In the 1980s and 1990s, as shown in the graph below (green), a marked increase in interest rates led to the declines in both the LMCI and YoY job growth.  

When that upturn in interest rates abated, the LMCI, and jobs, came back.  It was only when both weakened to the point where the LMCI was consistently negative, before interest rates declined, that a recession ensured.

Here is the same information for the period 2000 - present:

While the "taper tantrum" in interest rates briefly put a dent in the LMCI and YoY job growth, interest rates have calmed down since. In other words, more confirmation that we are probably past mid-cycle, but no imminent threat of an actual downturn.

On the negative side, since the LMCI does lead the much smoother YoY growth in jobs, it strongly suggests that YoY payroll growth is going to decline over the next 6 months or so.  

Six months ago I wrote that such a declien could "only happen if those payroll numbers generally come in under 225,000, and probably even below 200,000 through next winter." 

So here is jobs growth for the last 12 months:

Average growth for the last 6 months has been 218,000 per month. with 3 months upnder 200,000.

The LMCI forecasts that the decelerating trend in job growth will continue, which means I expect average jobs growth during the next 6 months to continue to average under 225,000.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Just When You Thought The Boys At Powerline Couldn't Become More Economically Incompetent ...

     I have a confession: the boys at Powerline utterly fascinate me.  On paper, they are smart guys: all of them are ivy league educated and all are lawyers with a large national firm.  And I'm sure that, if you needed a top-notch commercial litigator out of Minnesota, one of these guys would be on the list to call.

     But these guys just can't get anything right when it comes to economics.  I mean nothing.  You'd think that after making nothing but erroneous calls for an entire year, they'd call it quits.  But, you'd be wrong.

     The latest missive is from Scott Johnson, titled, "Talkin' Unemployment Blues."  Here's the opening paragraph:

President Obama made an appearance in the White House press room on Friday to take a victory lap over the fall of the official unemployment rate (U-3) to 4.9 percent (video below, about 15 minutes). Is that number for real? Referring to the hell he saw tending to wounded men during the Civil War, Walt Whitman held that “the real war will never get in the books.” By the same token,I wonder if the real unemployment will ever get in the books.

That's right.  At the beginning of his term, when the financial world was literally collapsing around him, Obama secretly fired the entire staff of the BLS so they could cook the statistical books.  That's why the unemployment rate climbed for the first few years of Obama's term, finally hitting 10% in 2010.  Then, the rate moved lower for the remainder of his term.  If he's going to hire people to manipulate the data, you'd think they'd do a better job than a gradual rate of decline.

     But that's not the best part.  Next, Johnson quotes Shadowstats.  Yes, he actually relies on data from Shadowstats.  Johnson even uses a graph from the website that shows a "real" unemployment rate of about 22.5%.  Note to Mr. Johnson: SS was debunked about 8 years ago by James Hamilton (a leading economist, BTW) and the BLS.  In quoting SS, you've basically demonstrated that you have no idea what you're talking about.

     But using SS isn't the best part.  The best part is Johnson links to a report from the St. Louis Federal reserve on the labor force participation rate (LFPR).  Here's that report's conclusion:

The BLS projections show the LFP rate continuing its decline, reaching 62.5 percent in 2020 (using the 2010-2020 medium-term projection). Since 2000, the BLS has projected the long-term decline in the LFP rate, indicating that the high LFP rate that we saw in 2000 might be a figure of the past. In particular, the decline in women's LFP since 1999 is not expected to reverse. The BLS does not expect the large decline in the LFP rates for the youngest group, 16-24-year-olds, to reverse either. To the extent that the decline for the youngest group is due to the time spent at school, it is possible that these workers will show a higher labor force attachment once they are out of school.

In other words, the reports shows that: demographers and statisticians have known about this decline for some time.  They have also studied it and can explain it.  While Johnson thinks the report bolsters his credibility, it only shows that he's clueless.    As in totally clueless.

     Memo to Powerline: econ is not your thing.  It's really not.



The problem with YoY measures, and a compensating rule of thumb

 - by New Deal democrat

There is a serious problem with simple YoY measures:  they miss turning points.  By the time a YoY measure has changed from positive to negative, or visa versa, the turning point is usually long past.

A good example of this turned up last week in a discussion by Mike Shedlock of jobs reports.  He posted the following graph of the YoY% change in jobs:

and made the following comment:
Jobs are a horribly lagging indicator. Recessions invariably start with the economy adding jobs as noted by the red squares in the above chart....  The peak of the job losses in most recessions is after the recession is over.
Now, I don't mean to pick on Shedlock.  As I have frequently pointed out, even though I disagree with him at least 80% of the time, I appreciate that he always dives into the data, and makes me think.

But as to jobs, the fact is, especially when going into recessions, they don't lag at all (although they have lagged somewhat coming out into the last 3 "jobless recoveries"). The BLS seasonally adjusts the monthly jobs numbers, and when the monthly seasonally adjusted numbers turn from positive to negative, that almost always coincides with the onset of recession.  Because there is a lot of month over month noise, I have averaged the numbers quarterly in the two graphs below covering the last 60 years:

Here is a close-up on the last 2 recessions, with monthly rather than quarterly numbers:

The bottom line is, when we have monthly or quarterly seasonally adjusted data, that is what we should use.  Waiting for a YoY number to turn positive or negative will just cause you to miss the actual turning point.

But frequently there is no choice, because there is no seasonal adjustment.  Most of what I report in my "Weekly Indicators" columns has this issue -- for example, consumer spending measures, the Daily Treasury Report, and rail traffic.

To not miss turning points, I use a rule of thumb:  if a series has improved/declined 50% or more from its best/worst YoY measure (adjusted for inflation if necessary), it has probably made a top/bottom, and turned.  It's not exact, but it is much better than waiting for the YoY number itself to turn. Whether the turning point using this rule of thumb is a little early or a little late depends on whether the turning point is U-ish or V-ish (inverted for tops).  If it is U-ish, the rule of thumb probably leads some.  If V-ish, the rule of thumb probably lags.

For example, the YoY measure of jobs tends to have inverted U-ish tops, and V-ish bottoms.  Applying my rule of thumb to the last 7 recessions, YoY% job growth declined 1/2 off its high 5 times before the actual onset of recession, with a median lead of +3 months.  The 1/2 YoY% of job grain off the bottom lagged each time, with a median lag of -8 months. (When it comes to jobs, the bottom of the V tends to coincide with the month the recession ends!

Thus recently I have been watching a number of indicators that have turned "less bad:"    rail traffic, steel production, and temporary staffing. I am also watching two that have become somewhat "less good:"  tax withholding and gas usage.

In re rail traffic, I also read an article last week that said we were heading into recession because of the big decline in YoY traffic, using this graph:

But note that YoY rail traffic bottomed in early 2009. It was about 1/2 the way back towards positive territory by October 2009.  Waiting for it to turn positive meant you would wait until early 2010 (in real time Shedlock made this exact mistake!).  At its recent worst, rail traffic was off about -20% YoY.  If it declines to less than -10% for about a month, that will strongly suggest that the bottom of the industrial recession has been made.