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The US unemployment rate: European levels without the European safety net

Jobs growth is a lagging indicator of economic activity, so the June report confirms that the US economy has been in a deep rut (Marshall Auerback calls it a ‘fully-fledged New York City style pot hole’). Yes, the US economy is growing; but sub-2% really ‘feels’ like stagnation, if not recession for many. As always, Spencer provides a fantastic summary of the employment report here on AB: ‘bad news’, he says.

I call it abysmal, both relative to history and on a cross section. The chart below illustrates the unemployment rates across the G7 spanning 1995 to 2011.

Across the G7 economies, the level of the US unemployment rate is second only to France. This is true on a harmonized basis as well.

The speed at which the US unemployment rate reached European levels was abrupt. Only the UK has seen such a swift deterioration in labor market conditions.

The chart above illustrates the same time series as in the first unemployment chart, but the rates are indexed to 2005 for comparability. France’s high level of unemployment is structural. In contrast, the US level of unemployment is NOT, not even close.

The chart above illustrates the components of the OECD’s indicators of employment protection. Also, see a short note by the Dallas Fed highlighting the differences between the French and US labor markets (and the 1994 OECD jobs study).

The French labor market is quite rigid, which leads to a structurally elevated unemployment rate and expansive unemployment compensation (see this follow up to the OECD 1994 jobs strategy report). The US Labor markets is much more fluid, which is why the unemployment rate has surged relative to comparable economies in Europe (see second chart).

European levels of unemployment without the European safety net.

The chart illustrates the maximum number of months that a worker can claim unemployment insurance for the year 2007. In normal times, French workers can collect benefits for up to 23 months by law, where the US worker collects for just 6 months. The tax and benefit policies data are updated infrequently, and listed on the OECD’s website (excel file link).

Seriously, shouldn’t Congress be focused on the depressed state of the US labor market, rather than a ‘scaled back’ version of deficit cutting? Addressing one will clearly impact the other – it goes both ways. Unfortunately, the government’s pushing in the wrong direction (cutting deficits brings further unemployment rather reducing unemployment drops the deficits).

Rebecca Wilder

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Crib notes for G7 unemployment rates

Unemployment rates across the G7 illustrate a broad-based labor recovery. Fantastic – now let’s get to the underlying stories.

(Note: The US is the first to release the June 2010 figures. All other unemployment rates, except for the UK, are current as of May 2010.)

Germany, France, and Italy: Germany’s labor market is ostensibly improving, as the unemployment rate continues its descent. However, don’t be fooled by these statistics: the German government is subsidizing firms to drop hours in lieu of outright layoffs.

And across the Eurozone, fiscal tightening will drive unemployment rates up; look at what fiscal austerity got Ireland.

The United States: Spencer, as usual, gives his insightful take on the US employment release: not good. The real problem is that the US private sector is sitting on an iceberg of debt; and the only way to avoid the economic pain of large-scale default is by dropping leverage via nominal income (wages) growth.

Workers have NO pricing power. How can they when the employment to population ratio dropped 0.2% to 58.5% in June? Note that 58.5% is consistent with a 1970′s-1980′s style labor force with fewer females working. Wages are going nowhere until the labor market improves substantially, and the private sector can’t do it atop the iceberg of debt. We need the government’s help there.

UK: The pace of the labor market deterioration is slowing (not evident in the unemployment rate, which dates to just March, but more evident in the claimant count). However, the unemployment rate is expected to rise as the government’s self-imposed austerity measures are put into play. Furthermore, look for weakening labor conditions to push further default amid big household leverage.

Canada: The labor market is strong as illustrated by the marked improvement in the employment figures. Expansionary policy was very likely too expansionary, and the Bank of Canada has initiated its tightening cycle. The economy is hot right now.

Update: A reader notes that April GDP was released a couple of days before this article published. Indeed the economy posted 0% economic gain in April – not hot over the month. However, the jobs picture remains solid on a month to month basis, as May 2010 employment gains were +25,000 and all (in net) in the “full time” category. Being a small-open economy, much of Canada’s economic outlook depends on external factors, especially the outlook of the US economy.

Japan: The labor market is weak, as most industries posted job losses in May 2010 (access Japanese labor data here).

Rebecca Wilder

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G-20 communique abandoning stimulus in about face

The Financial Times points us to the G-20 communique abandoning stimulus because “they recognize financial market concerns”:

Finance ministers from the world’s leading economies ripped up their support for fiscal stimulus on Saturday, recognising that financial market concerns over sovereign debt had forced a much greater focus on deficit reduction.

The meeting of the Group of 20 finance ministers and central bank governors in Busan, South Korea, also dropped proposals for a global banking levy, instead giving countries leeway to do what they thought best for their domestic circumstances.

The communiqué of the meeting made it clear that the G20 no longer thought that expansionary fiscal policy was sustainable or effective in fostering an economic recovery because investors were no longer confident about some countries’ public finances. “The recent events highlight the importance of sustainable public finances and the need for our countries to put in place credible, growth-friendly measures, to deliver fiscal sustainability,” the communiqué stated…

“Financial market concerns” are what? The economy, which is ultimately Main Street? Or profit for the industry? And how do you help your Congressman and Senator see the differences enough to help your own situation with making enough to live somewhat comfortably?

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Foreign exchange reserves are hot hot hot

by Rebecca

The G7 G20 Leader’s statement, number 20., regarding the IMF’s mission and governance (bold font by yours truly):

The IMF should continue to strengthen its capacity to help its members cope with financial volatility, reducing the economic disruption from sudden swings in capital flows and the perceived need for excessive reserve accumulation. As recovery takes hold, we will work together to strengthen the Fund’s ability to provide even-handed, candid and independent surveillance of the risks facing the global economy and the international financial system.

Last week I was in New York talking with Emerging Market strategists and economists. Most of them attended the IMF meetings in Istanbul, Turkey – according to them, the monster takeaway from the meetings was that the sky’s the limit in terms of FX reserve accumulation (in EM economies). Put this way, the IMF is unlikely to be successful in its aforementioned goal of preventing the “need” of excess reserves, at least over the near term.

Key markets in Asia (China, or South Korea) and Latin America (Brazil) remained rather resilient to the credit crunch late in 2008 due to sufficient (even excessive) reserves holdings. Brazil, for example, was able to supply private-sector financing needs by draining FX ($USD) reserve holdings. South Korea and other Asian economies, too.

The chart below illustrates reserve holdings across key countries in LATAM (Latin America) and Asia – notice the sharp drop at the end of 2008.

It’s an incredulous thought: that policy makers in EM countries – whether the reserve accumulation was for precautionary reasons (LATAM) or stemming from export-led growth (Asia) – won’t be filling the reserve coffers at increasing rates; the process is already underway.

Reserves in Brazil are now 230% higher than they were in 2007 (January), 197% in China, 190% in Thailand, and 163% in Hong Kong. Hong Kong is interesting; amid their strict dollar peg, the Hong Kong Monetary Authority is accumulating reserves faster than most countries (Hong Kong will be the country to watch as the peg against the dollar is sure to result in some inflationary pressures, given that Hong Kong’s economic fundamentals are stronger than those in the US at this time – another post).

Record inflows of late into EM financial markets (bonds and equities) are providing plenty of liquidity and contributing to reserve accumulation of late. However, having sufficient FX reserves has proven to be the best insurance out there against a stoppage in external financing. And as long as inflation pressures remain muted, acquiring reserves is not too costly economically (there are administrative costs, though, from sterilization when US Treasury rates are near zero).

The Treasury recently released the Semiannual Report on International Economic and Exchange Rate Policies; it states that officially no foreign central bank has explicitly manipulated their currency since 1994 but pointed the finger at China for their currency policies that inhibit the unwinding of global current account imbalances. An excerpt from page 3:

Although China’s overall policies played an important role in anchoring the global economy in 2009 and promoting a reduction in its current account surplus, the recent lack of flexibility of the renminbi exchange rate and China’s renewed accumulation of foreign exchange reserves risk unwinding some of the progress made in reducing imbalances as stimulus policies are eventually withdrawn and demand by China’s trading partners recovers.

It’s farcical to think that the G7 can browbeat EM countries into curtailing excessive reserve accumulation. To be sure, export growth is simply not going to grow China at rates sufficient to maintain jobs growth (9% or so) and reserve balances are likely to be increasingly focused inward domestically (supporting the financial system, local governments, etc.). However, what seems to be very real is that targeted reserve accumulation, in whatever currency but still heavily weighted in $US, buffered EM countries from catastrophe and is not going away.

Rebecca Wilder

P.S. for those of you who want to know a bit more about reserve accumulation in China, Brookings wrote a nice topical piece earlier this year.

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by Rebecca
Cross posted from Newsneconomics

These are interesting times in global economics, especially from the policy perspective. And although there was a sense of global urgency across the G7 (Canada, France, Germany, Japan, Italy, UK, and US) and the G5 (Brazil, People’s Republic of China, India, Mexico, and South Africa) late in 2008 and early in 2009, policy makers now face very different economic circumstances. The global downturn was (mostly) ubiquitous, but the upswing will not be. The G5 are likely to initiate explicit exit strategies before the G7, as growth, domestic demand, and inflation rebound first.

The downturn in the developed world was very severe, as illustrated by the sharp contraction of GDP of the G7 countries. And across the G5, some countries experienced similar declines, however given the nose-dive that was global trade, the economic resilience via expansionary policy in India and China has been rather remarkable. 

Domestic demand, underpinned by robust fiscal and monetary policy pushed auto sales forward in the G5 and simply offset some of the decline in retail sales in the G7 (see charts below). I used auto sales in the G5 as a proxy for retail sales, as I could not access a retail sales in India (not even sure they offer the statistic). Impressively, though, retail sales remained strong in the UK. Auto sales in China, Brazil, and India have been hot – the real question here is: what is the underlying demand for goods and services in these countries, especially in China.

Monetary policy – driving down interest rates in order to stimulate consumption via the credit markets – was very successful in the G5, but much less so in the ailing G7.

And finally, inflation has been quite resilient in some countries, notably in the UK and India. As such, the Bank of England has a real trade-off with which to contend: inflation (as measured by the CPI), 1.6% over the year, remains sticky and remarkably close to target, 2.0%. The Reserve Bank of India is seeing food prices drive inflation steadily upward. expect India to be one of the first emerging markets to start tightening (The Bank of Israel was the first).

There are a lot of question marks right now – the biggest is when central banks and fiscal authorities start to pull back. Especially in the G7, too early and one risks the feared W, but too late, and inflation becomes an issue.
Across the G7, rate hikes are unlikely to occur until well-into 2010, and maybe even 2011 for some. Across the G5, however, late 2010 is more likely an upper limit, however, some countries like Mexico are seriously struggling and policy will remain loose for some time. (See RGE Monitor Nouriel Roubini’s latest, “Thoughts on Where We Are” – unfortunately, a subscription is required.)

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