Relevant and even prescient commentary on news, politics and the economy.

The US economy: July’s not looking any better

Next week the Bureau of Economic Analysis will release its estimate of Q2 US GDP growth. Of 69 economists polled, the bloomberg consensus is that the US economy grew at a 1.8% annualized rate spanning the months of April to June over January to March. In all, this quarterly growth rate implies just 1.9% annualized growth during the first half of 2011. Not much of an expansion.

Economists have put their ‘hope’ into the second half of 2011. But high frequency data show that the third quarter is setting up to be a doozy as well. This is too bad because we’re talking about jobs and the welfare of American families here.

I like to follow two weekly indicators to get a feel for the labor market and the corporate trucking business. The message is clear: the economy is not improving.

First, the bellwether of the state of the US labor market – weekly initial unemployment claims – continues to disappoint. In the week ending July 16, seasonally adjusted initial claims increased 10,000 to 408,000. The 4-week moving average was 421,250, which is just 19,000 below its May peak of 440,250. This week’s report fell on the BLS’ survey week, so the July employment report is likely to be another weak one (weak is of course a euphemism for the June report).

The chart below illustrates the annual growth rate of the non-seasonally adjusted 4-week moving average of initial unemployment claims. I use this for comparison to the second series, diesel consumption, which is not seasonally adjusted. I include the recession bars for association with the business cycle. Claims really are more of a coincident indicator – but the frequency is helpful for gauging the state of the real economy.

The weekly claims are not indicating a recession – they are contracting on an annual basis. However, the contraction in claims is slowing, -8.4% Y/Y, which is much slower than the average -13% annual drop in claims during the first quarter of 2011. Unless claims start to fall more precipitously, the labor market will continue to be stuck in neutral – not good.

Second, the US Energy Information Administration releases weekly estimates of distillate fuel oil supplied to the end user in thousands of barrels per day (real). This is important because roughly 90% of this number is comprised of diesel fuel.

Given that diesel fuel is a primary input to construction and commercial
and industrial trucking, the weekly series serves as a high-frequency
indicator of domestic demand for goods that are transported across the
country. There are seasonalities to this data , but the message is clear:
demand for diesel fuel suggests that wholesale demand is inherently weakening.

Unlike diesel prices, which can be impacted by number of factors including taxes, refining capacity, and most recently by IEA’s petroleum release, consumption measures absolute demand.

The chart below illustrates the same representation of demand for distillate fuel (primarily diesel) as the annual growth rate of the 4-week moving average. The latest data point is July 15. The annual decline was a bit less severe in the week of July 15 – but this series is quite a bit more volatile, and the downward trend in fuel consumption has been established.

As of last week, these two high frequency indicators demonstrate no marked improvement in domestic demand through July.

Rebecca Wilder

Wilder’s News on Europe

Rebecca Wilder has shifted to publishing her insightful articles on Europe back to her Newsneconomics platform, but will continue to publish on US topics and US/Europe connections on Angry Bear.

I think that the shift is smart…the audience for Angry Bear is focused more on the US and as the election cycle is already quite heated probably will remain so. The material on Europe tends to get lost.

The Financial Times, for instance, picks up her material rather quickly through the Newsneconomics name. Therefore, for now Rebecca has chosen to write for Angry Bear and to keep us abreast of the Eurozone through Newsneconomics.

Such an arrangement allows for a different audience to communicate with each other in comments, many who are economists and readers who live in the Eurozone and whose primary interest is in their own news.

But Eurozone news remains quite pertinent to Angry Bear readers, hence I will post excerpts and a link to her posts through Angry Bear.

Ireland’s Bank run by Rebecca Wilder

I knew that the Irish deposit base was shrinking – I just didn’t realize the severity of the situation. In sum, €21.4 bn in household and non-financial business deposits have been drawn down since their respective peaks.

Irish businesses in aggregate have been in a silent bank run since 2007, households since 2010. So how big is €21.4 bn? Roughly 14% of Irish GDP.

The current labor market expansion: third poorest performer 24 months after the recession’s end since 1948

It’s now two years after the end of the Great Recession, and the unemployment rate has ticked downward just 9 pps (percentage points) since its 10.1% peak. Pundits call this an expansion since GDP has fully retraced its recession losses; but the unemployment rate tells a very different story.

(click to enlarge)

The chart illustrates the unemployment rate after 24 months since each recession’s end spanning 1948 to June 2011. The business cycle dates are set by the National Bureau of Economic Research. The rates are indexed to the first month of each cyclical recovery for comparison, and the raw data are referenced in the table at the end of this post.


Spanning the business cycles since 1948, the average decline in the unemployment rate is 20 pps from its peak to 24 months after the recession’s end. In the ’07-’09 ‘expansion’, the unemployment rate has fallen by less than half the average, -9 pps since the first month of recovery, July 2009.

In terms of relative labor market performance 24 months into the recovery/expansion, this cycle is the fourth worst – really the third worst since 24 months into the 1980 recovery is the 1981-1982 recession.

Technically, we’re not seeing a jobless recovery, since the unemployment rate peaked early on in the recovery (month 4); but it might as well be. Sticking with the household survey, employment (as opposed to the nonfarm payroll) is down by near 7 million since the economic peak and down 644 thousand since the recession’s trough. Yes, employment is net down since the recession ended. These numbers are affected by the annual population controls, but the trend (or lack thereof) is loud and clear.

The labor market is festering – we need a real policy response now.

Rebecca Wilder

Chart data (before index construction)

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

US labor market: wage and salary growth vs. payroll growth

I’ll make this quick, since I’m going to get in trouble for writing on a national holiday. But the pace of annual jobs growth is too slow to generate strong wage and salary income. Much empirical research has been dedicated to the estimation of consumption functions, generally finding that labor income is the primary driver of consumption (here’s a primer at the Federal Reserve Board). However, by extension jobs growth is highly correlated with wage and salary growth, roughly 50% of personal income – this is the relationship I analyze here.

Roughly half of the BEA’s measure of personal income comes in the form of wage and salary, so called labor income and simply referred to as ‘wages’ from here on out. This is highly correlated with nonfarm payroll growth, both in nominal and real terms (92% and 79%, respectively, since 1996). The chart below illustrates the correlation between real wage growth and nonfarm payroll since 1982 (I use real wage so as to account for the effects of inflation).

The annual pace of real wage gains and jobs growth have declined over time (jobs growth is measured using the nonfarm payroll). Simply eyeballing the data, there’s a structural shift roughly around 1996, as listed in the table below.

Using these two time periods, 1982-1995 and 1996-05/2011, I estimate a simple model of real wage growth on nonfarm payroll growth. The chart for the 1996-2011 model is illustrated below; and for reference, the regression results across both time periods are copied at the end of this post.


Note: I do not have time for a full blown econometric analysis. I did, however, perform statistical tests for serial correlation in the errors, unit roots in the transformed data (none), and general modeling tests.

I come to two general conclusions regarding the relationship between real wage growth and jobs growth over time:

(1) Real wage growth has become more persistent over time. In the first period, 1982-1995, just one lag was required to expunge the errors of autocorrelation. Spanning the second period, 1996-2011, three lags were required. The sum of the coefficients on the three lags is 0.87 in the later sample, or current wage growth is highly dependent on previous periods – sticky if you will.

(2) Nonfarm payroll growth has become less significant over time. Spanning the years 1982-1995, the coefficient on annual payroll growth was 0.27 – for each 1pps increase in the annual payroll growth, the trajectory of annual real wage growth increased by 0.27pps. The coefficient dropped to 0.17 in the sample spanning 1996-2011. This is probably a consequence of service sector jobs growing as a share of the labor market. I’d like your ideas in comments as well.

Clearly this is a very simple model but it does highlight that wages are likely stuck in the mud for some time. In May, annual real wages fell 0.6% over the year, having decelerated for 5 of the 7 months since November 2010. Real wages can pick up, but it takes time AND jobs growth faster than the 0.67% annual pace in May 2011.

Ultimately, what this analysis tells me is with wealth effects slowing markedly – the trajectory of the S&P decelerated and house prices continue to fall – it’s going to take a burst of payroll growth to get real wage and salary growth back on track enough to finance US domestic consumption. One caveat to all of this negativity is that oil prices are coming off – this will boost real wage and salary growth directly.

Rebecca Wilder
P.S. I guess this turned out somewhat less ‘quick’ than I had anticipated – not in trouble yet! Gotta go.


State and local governments should be listed as a primary risk to the US outlook

I don’t see why the aggregate state funding gap is not numero uno on the ‘risks’ to the US outlook (I usually hear oil, Europe, China, etc., in my line of work). According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the State budget gap is not expected to clear at least through 2013. From the CBPP report “States Continue to Feel Recession’s Impact“:

Three years into states’ most severe fiscal crisis since the Great Depression, their finances are showing the clearest signs of recovery to date. States in recent months have seen stronger-than-expected revenue growth.

This is encouraging news, but very large state fiscal problems remain. The recession brought about the largest collapse in state revenues on record, and states are just beginning to recover from that collapse. As of the first quarter of 2011, revenues remained roughly 9 percent below pre-recession levels.

Consequently, even though the revenue outlook is better than it was, states still are addressing very large budget shortfalls.

Better put: state revenues are rising more quickly than expected from a low base following the most precipitous drop ‘on record’. Not feeling too confident here.


Whether or not this ‘surge’ will continue depends on the labor market, corporate profits, and retail sales – heck, aggregate demand. There’s an obvious connection between retail sales and state sales tax revenue, and retail sales are weakening. In May, the pace of the 3-month moving average of retail sales slowed to 0.27% (from a peak of 1.09% in October 2010), while that of real retail sales fell 0.11% over the month (raw data here). Lower gas prices will help; but without significant relief in the labor market (from the private sector), the pace of revenue growth is unlikely to be maintained.

It’s not just the states – the health of state and local government’s (or lack of) matters A Lot for the US economy.

On average, state and local governments jointly are the largest single contributor to aggregate compensation in the 1990’s and 2000’s (roughly), according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis.

Since 1987, State and Local governments have accounted for an average 13% of total compensation of the US economy. So the outlook for 13% of aggregate compensation essentially depends on jobs growth in these sectors.

The trend for job growth has been decidedly negative for state and local governments. State and local governments have net-fired workers every single month since November 2010.

State and local governments are doing something they’ve not or rarely done before: hinder nonfarm payroll growth. In May 2011 (the latest data point), state and local governments dragged annual total payroll growth by 2% and 20%, respectively. Local government payroll was 11% of the total in May. This is not good.

Federal government support to state and local governments is set to decline significantly next year (see figure 2 on html of CPBB report). So it’s up to the private sector to provide sufficient income growth to offset the likely decline (latest data is 2009) by the giant of aggregate compensation, state and local governments, for years to come. I’m skeptical.

Rebecca Wilder

Consumption and compensation: explicit and implicit wealth effects in finance

Readers of this blog know that I am in finance, specifically global fixed income. This blog post covers wealth effects in the financial industry, which is a relatively dominant share of total US compensation, 7.3% in 2009 and likely higher now (data are truncated at 2009). My view is that economists underestimate the wealth effects on consumption in the financial industry, given that financial wealth affects not only portfolio net worth but also the present value of labor income. Therefore, the sell-off in global risk assets may hit consumption more than expected in coming quarters, given that finance is the fifth largest industry, as measured by total compensation, on average spanning the years 1989-2009.

Why US consumption matters. The outlook for the US economy is of utmost importance to that for the world, given that the US will hold an average 22.1% of World GDP through 2016 (measured in $US), according to the IMF April 2011 World Economic Outlook. And the outlook for the US consumer is of utmost importance to that of the US economy, given that personal consumption expenditures hold a large 71% share of 2010 US GDP. Therefore, holding the US consumer share constant, US consumption is expected to be 15% of the global economy on average through 2016.

How wealth usually matters for US consumption. In economics, one of the drivers of consumption patterns ‘now’ is the wealth effect, usually defined as the shift in consumption due to changes in tangible (home values) and intangible (paper assets, like stocks and bonds) net assets.

(click to enlarge)

(Read more after the jump!)
The chart above illustrates the ‘wealth effect’ on consumption as the ratio of net worth to disposable income (blue dotted line) as it’s correlated to the consumption share (outlays really, see table 1 for the breakdown) of disposable income (green line). The consumption (outlay) share is is 100 less the saving rate.

A large part of the Fed’s quantitative easing program (QE) was targeted at stimulating the positive wealth effects on consumption via higher risk asset prices. I would argue that this has been largely successful to date. The two year moving average of the consumption share (green solid line) fell precipitously following the financial crisis, only to generally stabilize since Q1 2009; this is largely coincident with the outset of QE1.

Back to why I brought up finance. There’s another effect in play here, more specifically related to the compensation structure in the financial industry. See, along with the tangible and intangible net asset values, total wealth includes the present value of labor income, i.e., the present value of lifetime compensation.

For all industries except finance, lifetime income is generally not associated with financial markets and risk assets, except via interest payments on fixed income. However, in finance total compensation is directly impacted by asset values via the bonus structure, often a large part of total compensation. Therefore, when asset markets are challenged, this likely affects the present-value of labor income adversely.

There’s an outsized wealth effect of net asset values in the financial industry: the direct wealth channel (net asset worth) plus the indirect channel (present value of labor income) on consumption.

Why is the financial industry important? It’s pretty simple: financial compensation is a large part of total US compensation, 7.3% in 2009, which has grown an average of 6% annually since 1988 in nominal terms. (Note: you can get this data from the BEA’s industry tables).

As financial markets take a turn for the worse – the S&P grew 5.4% December 31, 2010 through March 31, 2011 and is now down 4.1% since March 31, 2011 – the adverse wealth effect is likely to be stronger in the financial industry than in any other industry. For north of 7% of total US compensation, labor income is challenged in expectation, which is likely to drag consumption.

Purely anecdotal evidence. This strong wealth effect exists in my household. Both my husband (equities) and I (fixed income) are in finance; and when markets are challenged, we tend to save more. And it’s not because our stock portfolio is showing holes – actually, we don’t have much of a stock portfolio – it’s because our household income falls in expectation via the ‘bonus’ component of financial salaries.

I haven’t seen any work done on this wealth effect channel – but it does beg the question of whether there will be further downgrades to the US economic forecast if risk assets continue to sell off.

Rebecca Wilder

Who cares about the unemployed…

…it seems that way, at least, when I listen to much of the rhetoric coming out of Washington.

But it’s not just Washington, it’s Wall Street, too. In my line of work, finance, market participants grapple with the monthly economic data flow, eyeing each release as if it’s telling a new story about the current prospect for US economic growth – that it isn’t just treading water. ‘Consensus’ economists forecast their expectations for the economic release of the day, the market then trades based on the surprise to which the data beat or disappointed expectations. Day in, day out, that’s what we do.

I have a problem with this automated way of viewing the world. It’s tough to hear Wall Street economists defend their forecasts, stating that ‘oil’ or ‘Europe’ are the primary risks to the outlook; or that the structural unemployment rate has risen markedly so that harmful inflation is right around the corner. Step back, take a look at where 2.7% annual growth (current Consensus for 2011) actually gets the US labor market (see chart below).

The biggest risk to the outlook is not oil, it’s unemployment. The longer that the labor market remains idle – in fact, the labor force is now trending downward – the lower will the average skill level will go. Then you’re going to get something much more structural, the so-called positive feedback loop.


People move to the US for the American Dream – I wonder where they’ll go now…. Germany?

The chart above illustrates the harmonized G7 unemployment rates indexed to 2007 for comparability. The latest readings (June mostly) are listed in the legend.

The US labor market, as measured by the unemployment rate, deteriorated much more precipitously than that in any other G7 country. Germany stands out as the sole labor market that’s shown any marked improvement, furthering a trend that started with the the Hartz Concept. (I just did a Google search of the Hartz commission and came across this Economist article written in 2002 – remarkable.)

Policy drives the structural level of unemployment, not the other way around. In the US, there are currently no true boundaries to the supply of labor, rather it’s demand. Congress should be targeting job creation and aggregate demand, not the 2012 elections.

Stephen Gandel is right: there is no upside to high unemployment, just downside. You want to drop the deficit? Create jobs and aggregate demand so that the population ‘can’ pay taxes.

Rebecca Wilder

Here’s to hoping: wage, salary, and income gains

There are reasons to expect the second half of the year to be be stronger than the first. Here are two: (1) the rebound in industrial activity following supply chain disruptions, and (2) possible impetus to investment spending coming from the depreciation allowance that expires this year. These factors, though, are just dressing up what may be weak underlying demand. Why? Because without significant jobs growth, it’s unclear that we’ll see the wage, salary, and income generation needed for a healthy continuation of the deleveraging cycle.

On the bright side, the Q1 2011 Gross Domestic Income, GDI, report does show a smart rebound in wage and salary accruals. The problem is, that corporate profit growth, which generally leads wage and salary accruals growth, is slowing. (GDI is the income side of the BEA’s GDP release and you can download the data here.)

The chart illustrates annual domestic profit and wage/salary growth spanning 1981 Q1 to 2011 Q1. The series are deflated by the GDP price index. Real domestic profit growth has been robust, peaking at 65% Yr/Yr in Q4 2009 and decelerating to 7% in Q1 2011. The surge in corporate profits brought real wage and salary accruals growth to a 2.1% annual pace in Q1 2011.

With higher input costs and slowing productivity gains, domestic profit margins are likely to be squeezed unless demand re-emerges smartly. The implication is that real wage and salary accruals growth may be nearing ‘as good as it gets’ territory during the aftermath of a balance sheet recession.

And labor’s losing it’s share of the pie. The chart below illustrates the various component contributions to annual gross domestic income growth. (the best that I could do on size vs. clarity – click to enlarge)

The data are quarterly data spanning 1981 Q1 to 2011 Q1 and deflated by the GDP price index. Wage and salary accruals have become a smaller part of income growth in the last decade. Spanning 1981-2000, the average contribution to income growth from wage and salary accruals was 1.5% (simple average), where that spanning the years 2001-current was just 0.3%. The average corporate profit contribution held firm over the same two periods, roughly 0.3%.

Growth momentum has slowed over the period, however, the deceleration in wage and salary contribution is quite striking. I can’t explain it even with the ‘demographic shift’; but this trend is likewise reflected in the employment to population ratio.

Wages, income, spending power, consumption, saving – they’re all different ways to say the same thing: earned income can be spent in one of three ways, on taxes, consumption, or saving. And in this recovery, saving via income gains is important as households further deleverage. We can’t afford compensationless expansion.

The key to growth in 2011 and 2012 is wages, salaries, and income – here’s to hoping.

Rebecca Wilder

Update: Spencer has a foreboding point in comments from my earlier post on GDP. He notes that inflation measured by the GDP deflator probably understates the impetus to domestic prices – domestic purchases is more appropriate at a 3.8% annual rate. The implication, according to Spencer via Email is, “If the inflation rate is really 3.8%, not 1.9 %, it strongly implies that the dominant cause of the economic weakness is higher inflation, not supply chain disruptions.”

GDP – a disappointing report

Yesterday I addressed the weak high-frequency indicators, specifically with respect to leading indicators of investment spending on equipment and software (durable goods). I argued that Q2 has not started off well, given that the real core orders for capital goods are down compared to the January to March average.

The BEA reported that Q1 2011 growth was 1.8% on a seasonally-adjusted and annualized basis, which is unrevised from the first release but the composition of spending changed somewhat. On the margin, Q1 2011 looks a bit less stellar (if you can call 1.8% annualized growth ‘stellar’) with consumption growth being revised downward to 2.2% over the quarter (previously 2.7%). Below is an illustration of the Q1 2011 contributions to GDP growth before 8:30am (1.75%) and after 8:30am (1.84%).

I think that the story is pretty simple: higher gasoline prices is even worse for consumption than initially anticipated, and inventory accumulation remains a large driver of economic performance.

It’s still way to early to predict what the entirety of 2011 will bring – the IMF forecasts 2.8% annual growth – but the bar’s rising on the quarterly growth trajectory to attain that level of growth. I suspect that forecasts will be revised downward.

Although this is purely conjecture since the April figures are only recently rolling out, Q2 2011 growth is unlikely to be much better. Investment spending is already looking weak for April. And consumption growth may be lackluster on auto sales (H/T spencer) – durables consumption accounted for half of the quarterly growth rate in consumption (0.66% contribution to total GDP quarterly growth). Government spending is a drag, so it’s up to net exports!

Let’s look at what’s happened to the spending components of GDP during the ‘recovery’.

The chart illustrates the cumulative growth in the spending components of GDP (ex inventories). Exports and imports have bounced back on a strong rebound in international trade, 21% and 20%, respectively. Domestic spending is being driven largely by investment spending: consumption is 4% above it’s lows, while fixed investment spending is up 8% (of course, the decline was much larger). Government spending is broadly unchanged (-0.2%) since the outset of the recovery.

There’s much more to this report, like profits and wages, so I’ll revisit if time permits.

Rebecca Wilder