Except for the drop in the workweek and aggregrate hours worked the February employment report was almost a duplicate of the January employment report. In both January and February the payroll survey reported a slight drop in employment and the household survey showed a modest increase in employment. Essentially both reports are showing changes so close to zero that they are well within one standard error of zero.
Generally, the payroll report is considered the better report. But at cyclical turning points the household survey tends to lead the payroll survey. I think that is because the household survey does a superior job of capturing trends changes among small firms and small business tends to respond more quickly to cyclical changes than large firms.
Both reports increase my confidence in last months analysis that the economy is in a transition mode. The period of wide scale lay-offs has ended but firms have yet to begin wide scale employment.
The pre-report apprehensions about the impact of the February snow storms were ill-founded.
The payroll survey reports how many people firms have on their payrolls. So even if people were not able to make it to work, they were still on firms payrolls. Consequently, the storms had no impact on firms payrolls. In the household survey the people who did not make it to work because of the storm would still think they had a job so they would report that they were employed.
Where the storms would have an impact is on the average work week and aggregate hours worked. Consequently the drop in aggregate hours worked and the weakness in weekly average hourly earnings probably was due to the storms. But we will have to wait until next month to really know.
Many look at weekly earnings as a leading indicator of consumer spending, and I know I am sometimes guilty of this. But the historic record is that real earnings is actually a lagging indicator of consumer spending at cyclical bottoms. Over the course of an expansion, and at cyclical peaks real income is very much a concurrent indicator of consumer spending. but at bottoms consumer spending is driven more by lower rates, better consumer confidence and lower inflation. Retail sales are highly skewed with the upper 40% of the income spectrum accounting for over 60% of retail sales. So the important factor is people who have stayed employed and those whose income stems from non-wage sources deciding to spend. Often this
is driven by greater wealth; especially from the stock market and rebounding home prices.
We are getting the higher stock market this cycle, but not the rise in home prices.
Historically, once the unemployment rate peaks, as it apparently has this cycle, it continues to fall for one to two years. Even in the last two cycles when the peak unemployment rate lagged the economic trough by months the unemployment rate continue to fall once it had peaked.
So the standard forecast, even by the administration and the CBO, that the unemployment rate will remain around 10% is a forecast of something that has never happened. I’m not saying that weak growth and high productivity can not keep the unemployment rate near the peak of 10%, but it is something that has never happened.