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Economic Insights

What could lift the U.S. jobs market out of its torpor?

While the jobs market stumbles along, as it has for some time, there is much talk about change. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) worries about the ill effects of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). The White House, not surprisingly, takes a more upbeat view. Some commentators, seemingly simply bored of well-established slow-growth patterns, talk about a pickup, perhaps only for something new to say. But the fact is that little has changed. The same forces that have kept jobs growth slow remain in place and likely will continue in place for the foreseeable future. The statistics released regularly by the Labor Department confirm the fact.   

The Statistical Landscape
Right up through the latest releases, the data tell a consistent story, one of progress, but at a depressingly slow pace. In the latest figures for March, for instance, payrolls grew by 192,000. That was a welcome improvement over the weather-depressed monthly hiring rate of 114,000 recorded for December and January.1 But considering that the earlier, extremely slow rate called for a bounce as the weather improved in March, the figure was actually disappointing, slower, in fact, than the 203,000 a month averaged in 2013. Had it not been for that weather-based bounce, the March report would have been still less encouraging. It is noteworthy in this regard that manufacturing actually shed 1,000 jobs during that month, and almost half the jobs gains occurred in only four sectors: construction, transport and warehousing, retail trade, and health services. All but the last are extremely weather sensitive. It also is noteworthy that an additional one-fifth of the jobs growth recorded for March occurred in temporary employment—hardly a sign of a turn to robust hiring.   

There is no implication here of another decline. That is not at all likely. Rather, the point is to question recent talk of acceleration. Each month, of course, will continue to have its own ups and downs. Behind such statistical noise, however, nothing different is happening than has prevailed throughout this recovery. In 2013, for instance, the best month for new job creation, February, showed 280,000 net new hiring; the worst, December, saw only 84,000. In 2012, the best month, January, saw net hiring of 360,000, while the worst, June, saw only 88,000. In 2011, the best month, April, saw net hiring of 322,000, while the worst, January, saw only 70,000. This year has run true to this form.  Some optimists have pointed to declines in weekly claims for unemployment insurance. But these only reflect those let go from their job. It is only reasonable that firing would slow in the fifth year of recovery. Relief on this front does not necessarily mean firms have become more enthusiastic about new hiring, as the above comparison shows.

The Whys
This recovery’s pattern is distinctly different from past benchmarks. On average, during the four previous recoveries—in the early 2000s, in the mid-1990s, in the mid-1980s, and in the mid-1970s—payrolls grew an average of 250,000 a month. This recovery so far has averaged a monthly gain of 137,000. Economic historians will surely devote much time to explaining this recovery’s atypically sluggish nature. No doubt the aging of the American workforce has something to do with it. But until detailed analysis uncovers all the influences, two factors present themselves as reasons: 1) the lingering legacy of the great recession of 2008–09 and 2) the uncertainties brought by the ambitious legislation produced in Washington in 2009 and 2010.

Much commentary has dwelt on the effect of legislation, but it would be a mistake to underestimate the recession’s continuing impact. Especially because the downturn had its roots in a financial collapse, it has left lasting scars on many managements and colored their decision making accordingly. The signs are evident in the huge cash reserves companies continue to carry, much larger, absolutely and relatively, than in past recoveries.  Even now, five years after the upturn began, nonfinancial firms hold cash and cash equivalents on their balance sheets equal to a whopping 11.3% of total liabilities. No doubt this preference for cash stems in no small part to the failure of banks during the financial crisis to honor previously arranged lines of credit. But whatever its specific cause, it speaks to a continuing caution that has held back capital spending, certainly compared with past recoveries, and even the mergers and acquisitions that would normally occur with so much available cash, though these just recently have begun to accelerate. This abiding reluctance to spend for expansion and expend these reserves has surely held back hiring.

The Dodd-Frank financial reform legislation has compounded these effects. Setting aside whether this legislation is good or bad, effective or not, it is comprehensive enough to sow much doubt about the nature of future financial arrangements, the availability of credit going forward, possible covenants-attached loans, the nature of the credit available to firms, and the cost of that credit, both the rate and any fees that may arise. Though the law passed some years ago, little clarity has emerged, for the legislation left much implementation at the discretion of regulators who have hardly made their positions definite. Indeed, they have yet to write many of the rules required of them by the law. The “Volcker rule,” for example, to prevent banks from proprietary trading, took two years to evolve and still remains ambiguous.

The ACA has had its retarding effects on jobs growth from both the demand and the supply side. Again, setting aside whether the legislation is good or bad, effective or not, its breadth could not help but affect hiring decisions. Managements in small, medium, and large firms have commented for years now that they cannot calculate the cost of a new employee. It is not, they insist, that the legislation would raise the cost of hiring.  Rather, it is that the ambiguity leaves them in doubt where to bring the size of their workforce. They have, accordingly, postponed hiring decisions. Many had hoped, as 2014 approached, that the law’s implementation would bring clarity. But so much has been postponed and modified, uncertainties have remained. 

Meanwhile, recent CBO work suggests that on the supply side of the labor market the law has discouraged job seekers. The problem, according to these non-partisan analysts, is the government insurance subsidy for low-income people. Because that subsidy goes away as incomes rise, it acts like a tax on additional earned income, up to 85% in some cases, according to the CBO analysis. Many, the CBO concludes, will, as a consequence, decide against work.

And Looking Forward
Some of this burden surely will lift over time. The worst memories of the great recession will fade and with them the fears they have engendered. The provisions of Dodd-Frank and the ACA will become clearer, allowing managements to make definite calculations about the cost of hiring, borrowing, and expansion generally. Any ill effects of the ACA on labor supply will stabilize, too. If, as now seems likely, they enlarge the ranks of the permanently unemployed and underemployed, wages will adjust so that job seeking should resume for others. But as the patterns of the last few years make clear, this relief will likely arrive only very gradually. The rollout of the ACA certainly makes clear that ambiguity will hang over this important law for a long time to come. For the jobs market, then, progress will continue, as it has to date, but at the plodding pace to which all have grown accustomed.    

 

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

CRITICAL RELEASES IN THE WEEK AHEAD

Milton Ezrati examines the key economic and financial releases scheduled for the coming week.

KEY MOVER:

Unemployment Rate for April*
Payroll Employment for April*
Fri., May 2, at 8:30 a.m. ET
Previous: 6.7% • Prospect: 6.7%
Previous: 192,000 Prospect: +150,000

The payroll figure should come in a bit weaker than in March, which had the benefit of a catch-up for the weather-depressed payroll growth during the winter months. The unemployment rate should stay up, possibly even rise, despite job creation, as frustrated workers return to the search. 
*Source: Department of Commerce.

OTHERS TO WATCH:

Existing Home Sales for March*
Tues., April 29, at 9:00 a.m. ET
Previous: -0.08% • Prospect: +0.3%

Though housing prices are far from strong, the January decline was an aberration, perhaps weather related, that should see a correction back toward trend in February.
*Source: Standard & Poor’s.

Factory Orders for March*
Fri., May 2, at 10:00 a.m. ET
Previous: +2.2% • Prospect: +1.2%

December and January saw such extreme setbacks that the orders growth in March, catching up, should continue above the fundamental trend, almost as much as it did in February.
*Source: Department of Commerce.

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