Saturday, August 8, 2009

B(L)S

This weekend we would like to take a look back at the economic contraction that the talking heads would have you believe is already over. Of course there is no way that it true. The extreme deficit spending we referred to in Federal Funhouse could result in a short euphoria before the creditors pull the plug - just like maxing out your credit cards before declaring bankruptcy. But the real economy is in horrible shape and nowhere is this more apparent than in the labor market.

Today's critical data comes from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Their
unemployment data released Friday was loudly trumpeted as good news when all it really said is we're bleeding to death a little slower. Others have commented on and analyzed this data so we'd like to take a longer view of things - examining the size of the pool of blood on the ground as it were.

We're going to use the BLS
monthly data for the last two years. Note that at the end of 2007, the potential labor pool (civilian non-institutional population) was 231.9 million and last month it was 235.9 million - an increase of 4 million potential workers. But the numbers for the labor force have lagged badly behind. At the end of 2007 it stood at 153.1 million and by July 2009, that had only increased to 154.5. Population growth would suggest that number should have been 155.5 million, with two thirds of the added adult population contributing to the labor force. Since the Labor Force is the basis for calculating the unemployment rate, clearly the current numbers are understated. As a mental exercise, let's see what happens if a million workers aren't shuffled off into statistical never-never land. That would be another million unemployed with an unemployment rate of 10.1%. I suspect that a lot of statistical games will go into keeping that number in the single digits as long as possible.

Further, the labor force participation rate (percentage of adult population in the labor force) has been falling since the late 1990s. This indicates that the recovery from the post-tech bubble crash never made it back to the highs of that period and the current further decline indicates that people think the economy is so bad they've quit looking for work. This allows the BLS to conveniently eliminate them from the unemployed category though they are still just as jobless. The bottom line is that the economy has to generate nearly 10 million jobs just to get us back to that lower high of the mid 2000s but it is still destroying jobs even as the population continues to grow.