Economic Notes

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Friday’s headline non-farm payroll employment gain (establishment survey) of 163,000 jobs was surprisingly positive, but far less informative about economic prospects than investors appeared to assume. The household survey, which is used to calculate the unemployment rate, actually showed a drop in civilian employment of 195,000 jobs in July. The increase in the unemployment rate would have been greater if not for the fact that another 150,000 people left the labor force altogether and were therefore not counted as unemployed. The picture was particularly weak for workers 20 years of age and older (where 213,000 jobs were lost), but was slightly rescued by a gain of 18,000 jobs among 16-19 year-olds. While the difference between the establishment and household surveys was unusually large, these disparities aren’t entirely uncommon, and don’t have a great deal of predictive value for either series. It's probably most accurate to say that the July employment figures were mixed.

Even focusing on the bright spot, which is the establishment survey figure, one immediate fact to note is that year-over-year growth in non-farm payrolls fell below 1.4% back in April, following a brief excursion above that level, and has remained weak since then. As the chart below indicates, a decline in year-over-year payroll employment growth below 1.4% has occurred just before, or already into, each of the past 10 recessions, with no false signals. As usual, we’re skeptical of drawing inferences from a single indicator, and this instance may be different. But given the collapse in new orders and other measures of economic activity across numerous Fed, ISM and global surveys (and a continued decline in the most leading signal that we infer from our unobserved components models), there seems to be little reason for that expectation.

non-farm payroll growth falls below 1.4 percent year over year

Keep in mind, as we’ve noted regularly over the years, that employment is a lagging economic indicator. The “stream of anecdotes” school of economic analysis may treat every economic report as having equal weight in determining the course of the economy, but the actual sequence is generally as follows: falling consumption growth and new orders -> falling production -> falling employment. The latest employment report appears to be little more than the wagging tail of an already sick puppy, and the tail is not likely to wag that dog to health.  

In contrast, the latest JP Morgan global manufacturing report observes that "production and new orders both fell for the second month running in July, with rates of contraction gathering pace." The chart below presents the global purchasing managers index (PMI), which has now weakened to levels last seen during the last two recessions.

jpmorgan global manufacturing pmi 2004 to 2012

global manufacturing output 1999 to 2012

With regard to Europe, it’s interesting how the semantics of the phrase “everything necessary” has been used to obscure the differences between Euro-area countries when it comes to monetizing bad debt. The distinction can be seen in a comment last week by German government spokesman Georg Streiter: “The ECB president said that the ECB will do everything necessary to preserve the euro and the government will do everything politically necessary to preserve the euro.” As long as the phrase is shortened to “everything necessary,” everyone is in agreement. The differences are in the subset of actions that constitute “everything.” For the German government, it is everything politically necessary. For Finland, it is everything necessary provided that collateral is pledged for every loan. For the German courts, it is everything legally necessary. While everyone can be unanimous about their commitment to doing “everything necessary,” it’s important to recognize that “everything” means something different to each party.

Even Mario Draghi had to resort to oxymorons to explain why the ECB did not initiate bond purchases last week despite what investors had taken as a pledge to do so, saying that the endorsement of bond purchases among ECB council members was “unanimous with one reservation” (he then left to enjoy some jumbo shrimp in a plastic glass, but they were found missing, leaving Draghi and his broken fix for an enduring Euro alone together in the deafening silence).

My impression regarding the Euro remains unchanged – liquidity will not durably counter insolvency, and the solvency problem among peripheral European countries is too great to be addressed without debt restructuring. ECB purchases of distressed sovereign debt would most likely have to be permanent purchases, and would therefore represent a fiscal transfer at the expense of stronger countries that would prefer to use the proceeds of money creation for the benefit of their own citizens. Doing those purchases indirectly – the ECB buying the debt of an ESM with a banking license, and the ESM buying distressed debt – does not change the arithmetic. Very reasonably, Germany is only willing to mutualize the debts of its neighbors if it can exert centralized authority over their fiscal policies – in Angela Merkel’s words “liability and control belong together.” But while Europe is geographically united, it is culturally and politically diverse, and a surrender of national sovereignty to the required extent is unlikely.

As a result, the Euro is likely to be pulled apart, and the tensions will probably be greatest across geographic and socioeconomic fault lines. From a geographic perspective, Finland (which insists on good collateral even for EFSF actions) and Italy (where popular sentiment against the Euro is strongest) have the greatest divide. From a socioeconomic standpoint, Germany (which is strongly anti-inflation and more oriented toward free enterprise) and the southern European states of Greece, Italy, Spain and Portugal (which have high debt ratios, heavily socialized economies, and very fragile banks) seem to be the furthest apart. The real question is who will get the Euro if the wish-bone snaps – the stronger more solvent states, or the weaker more inflation-prone states. Until the answer is clear, it will be difficult to anticipate the future direction of the Euro’s value. I would expect the least amount of systemic disruption in the event of an exit from the Euro by the stronger European countries, but that would also be associated with the maximum amount of Euro depreciation as the remaining members are left to inflate as they (and the ECB) please. All of this will be extraordinarily interesting, but it will not be easy.

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About John Hussman PhD