Reflections on Last Friday’s Jobs Report: The News Still is Bad
Stocks reacted positively to the jobs report released Friday morning before selling off sharply that afternoon on geopolitical fears. The report, which showed non-farm payrolls increased by 315,000 for the month of August, was largely in line with the expectations of market watchers, with major surveys held in the run-up to the release of the report yielding predictions of roughly 300,000.
Of itself, the rally was somewhat unexpected since the report seemed to back the hawkish stance reiterated by Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell at Jackson Hole last week. At the meeting he restated the Fed’s commitment to further tightening. The implied probability of Fed futures data has shifted accordingly, with oddsmakers having raised the possibility of a further .75 point hike to 75 percent.
With various indicators suggesting inflation might be peaking or slowing, many over the summer had come to hope such data would convince the Fed to signal a readiness to ease up on tightening credit conditions. After all, the economy was slowing. For example, while the figures reported on Friday were in line with estimates, they were still well short of July’s half a million. At the same time, unemployment increased from 3.5 to 3.7 percent.
And, frankly, there are reasons to look askance at these numbers. For one thing, they are likely to be revised, with like reports over the past two decades seeing an eventual average adjustment of plus or minus 55,000. If the report was “just right,” not too hot to stoke inflation, not too cold to stall the economy, such a regular adjustment would be problematic. In addition, there are large discrepancies between federally withheld taxes and purported hiring, and between the Labor Department’s household survey and the Census Bureau’s employer survey used in headline unemployment numbers – both of which suggest the labor market is actually much weaker than the headline numbers make out.
For example, the Census Bureau’s unemployment figure does not include those who after becoming unemployed eventually give up looking for work and drop out of the labor market.
As the above figure illustrates, the Great Financial Crisis and pandemic-era have led to serious declines in overall labor force participation rates. Millions of workers never returned following the shuttering of the economy in response to COVID, amplifying what was already predestined to be a period of demographically induced labor market tightness. As the legions of America’s baby boomers retired, economists had predicted much of the current labor market predicament decades ago.
A shortage of workers, continuing supply chain disruptions, and epic monetary mismanagement having coincided, it is little wonder retail sales and housing are slowing; critical commodities, such as copper and oil, are trading down; and consumer confidence is just up from its lowest level in 70 years of measurement.
With signs pointing increasingly negative, talk of a “soft landing” is going the way of “transitory” inflation. Seemingly determined not to back down, to regain price stability, a “growth recession” is now the target. Far from backing off rate-hikes for fear of impending recession, as it did in 1974, Fed officials now openly admit that tightening may continue into 2023, with rates being held at that level for some time after.
With the chances of a decrease in the size of September’s rate hike, from .75 bps to .50 bps, getting smaller, and stocks still expensive by historical standards, as measured by the price to earnings ratio, a sell-off on the jobs report Friday would have seemed more in line with the broader macroeconomic conditions.
But whereas job numbers can be massaged or spun, the response of markets to word that gas supplies to Germany from Russia were going to be suspended for an indefinite period just hours after the G7 announced their price capping strategy, was a reminder that some news is just unambiguously bad.
As the war in Ukraine grinds on and the global economy weakens, we can expect more such news.