Jon Hilsenrath Is Scratching His (And The NY Fed's) Head Over The Job Number Discrepancy And Okun's LawSubmitted by Tyler Durden on 03/12/2012 08:40 -0400
A month ago Zero Hedge, based on some Goldman observations, asked a simple question: is Okun's law now terminally broken? Today, with about a one month delay, the mouthpiece of the New York Fed (which in itself is nothing but a Goldman den of central planners, and Bill Dudley and Jan Hatzius are drinking buddies), Jon Hilsenrath shows that this is just the issue bothering his FRBNY overseers. In an article in the WSJ he ruminates: "Something about the U.S. economy isn't adding up. At 8.3%, the unemployment rate has fallen 0.7 percentage point from a year earlier and is down 1.7 percentage points from a peak of 10% in October 2009. Many other measures of the job market are improving. Companies have expanded payrolls by more than 200,000 a month for the past three months, according to Labor Department data. And the number of people filing claims for government unemployment benefits has fallen. Yet the economy is barely growing. Many economists in the past few weeks have again reduced their estimates of growth. The economy by many estimates is on track to grow at an annual rate of less than 2% in the first three months of 2012. The economy expanded just 1.7% last year. And since the final months of 2009, when unemployment peaked, the economy has expanded at a pretty paltry 2.5% annual rate." Hilsenrath's rhetorical straw man: "How can an economy that is growing so slowly produce such big declines in unemployment?" The answer is simple Jon, and is another one we provided a month ago - basically the US is now effectively "printing" jobs by releasing more and more seasonally adjusted payrolls into the open, which however pay progressively less and less (see A "Quality Assessment" Of US Jobs Reveals The Ugliest Picture Yet). After all, what the media always forgets is that there is a quantity and quality component to jobs. The only one that matters in an election year, however, is the former. As for whether Okun's law is broken, we suggest that the New York Fed looks in the mirror on that one.
When it comes to labor-wage parity, nowhere has this topic been more debated than in the context of China and the US. Specifically, with US wages declining consistently for the past 3 years despite commodity price inflation spiking with a 2-3 month lag following every coordinated central bank printing episode (such as the one we are experiencing now), many have proffered their predictions as to when Chinese secular inflation would make wage pay equivalent on both sides of the Pacific, and stop the exporting of jobs from the US to China (a good discussion on the topic can be found in "With China Forecast To Reach Wage Parity With The US In Five Years, Is A New Manufacturing Golden Age Coming To The US?"). And while labor equivalency between China and the US likely still has a ways to go, we have now crossed a critical Rubicon, as Chinese and European wages, at least in one part of European Union, have caught up. Net result, as Spiegel reports, carmaker "Great Wall this week became the first Chinese automobile manufacturer to open an automobile assembly plant inside the European Union in the latest move suggesting the country's carmakers are seeking to establish a beachhead into the European market." Yes, that's right: it is now cheaper for China to make cars in the European Union: "It used to be that European carmakers opened plants to assemble their cars in China. Now the Chinese have turned the tables with the opening of their first factory in Bulgaria, an EU country with low labor costs and taxes. Increasingly, Chinese carmakers are setting their sights on the European and American automobile markets." The ramifications of this landmark development are massive for virtually every aspect of the economy: for domestic labor migration, for inflation, for the trade balance, and certainly for US workers.
Between the Chinese 'surprise' RRR and the Iran export halt to UK and France (and escalating tensions), Oil prices are off to the races this evening. WTI front-month futures have just broken $105 (now up more than 10% in the last two weeks), the highest levels in over nine months and just 8% shy of the 5/2/11 post-recession peak just under $115. Brent (priced in EUR) remains off last week's intraday highs (as EUR strengthens) but still above the pre-recession peak but in USD it traded just shy of $121 - well above last week's peak. Of course, this will be heralded as a sign of demand pressure from a 'growing' global economy rather than the margin-compressing, implicit-taxation, consumer-spending-crushing supply constraint for Europe and the US that it will become in the not too distant future. As we post, The Guardian is noting that US officials are commenting that "Sanctions are all we've got to throw at the problem. If they fail then it's hard to see how we don't move to the 'in extremis' option." The impact of any escalation from here is gravely concerning with PIMCO's $140 minimum and SocGen's $150-and-beyond Brent prices rapidly coming into focus - and for those pinning their hopes on the Saudis coming to the rescue (and fill the Iranian output gap), perhaps the news that our Middle-East 'allies' cut both production and exports in December will stymie any euphoria.
ZeroHedge’s post on the apparent breakdown of Okun’s “Law” highlights the ongoing tragicomedy of how the science of central economic planning eventually confounds, and then consumes itself. Economics is, after all, a social “science”, an elaborate study of human beings and, most importantly, human interactions. Robert Okun, for his part, merely observed in 1962 that when “output” (whatever statistical measure is en vogue) rises by 3%, the unemployment rate seems to fall by 1%. For some reason, economics assumes that if it is true in the past, it will be true forever, so it was written into the canon of orthodox economic practice. Economics has inferred causation into that relationship, giving it a layer of permanence that may not be warranted. Econometrics has always had this inherent flaw. The science of modern economics makes assumptions based on certain data, and then extrapolates them as if these assumptions will always and everywhere be valid. There is this non-trivial postulation that correlation equals causation. In the case of Okun’s Law, it seems fully logical that there might be causation since it makes intuitive sense – more economic activity should probably lead to more jobs, and vice versa. But to assume a two-variable approach to something that should be far more complex is more than just dangerous, it is unscientific. In fact, Okun’s Law has already been adjusted somewhat, most famously by Ben Bernanke and Andrew Abel in their 1991 book. It was upgraded to a 2% change in output corresponding with a 1% inverse change in unemployment. Apparently with the economic “success” of that period, Okun needed a re-calibration.
Okun's rule-of-thumb relates the long-term empirical finding that a country's unemployment rate is closely related to a country's output (or GDP) - perfectly sensible and comprehensible. In fact to be a little more explicit, it is the change in unemployment that is more notable in its relationship to the potential GDP (the output gap). His original work noted that a 3% increase in output corresponds to a 1% decline in unemployment rates (and/or rise in labor force participation, rise in hours worked, and rise in labor productivity) but as Goldman Sachs notes this week, Okun's Law has broken. As they point out, even though US real GDP growth has averaged a meager 2.5% pace since the end of the recession, the unemployment rate has fallen almost two percentage points from its peak. There are three implications, in our view: the unemployment rate is hopelessly miscalculated (and is much higher); potential growth is much lower than economists have been expecting (not such good news for real growth); and the multiplier effect of money has dropped structurally (in other words the implied money flow from more workers is not circulating the way it empirically has to juice growth). It seems to us that none of these are good for growth as the reality of a higher unemployment rate (BLS adjustments aside) is negative, lower potential for growth impacts earnings expectations (as we are already seeing in company and analyst outlooks which has perplexed those market watchers pinning their hopes on the jobless rate), and the balance sheet recessionary impacts of the 'employed' minimizing debt rather than maximizing potential gain is a further drag. Either way, as Goldman notes the potential growth rate going forward (2012 and 2013) is likely to remain quite weak, in the neighborhood of 2% in line with the CBO's dismal views and this could be further exacerbated by the drop in labor force participation we have noted vociferously.
Last week we heard from Nomura's bearded bear as Bob Janjuah restated his less-then-optimistic scenario for the global economy. Today his partner-in-crime, Kevin Gaynor, takes on the bullish consensus cognoscenti's three mutually supportive themes in his usual skeptical manner. While he respects the market's potential view that fundamentals, flow, valuation, and sentiment seem aligned for meaningful outperformance, it seems actual positioning does not reflect this (yet). Taking on each of the three bullish threads (EM policy shift as inflation slows, ECB has done and will do more QE, and US decoupling), the strategist teases out the reality and what is priced in as he does not see this as the March-2009-equivalent 'big-one' in rerisking (warranting concerns on chasing here).
Update summary added.
Just a headline on Reuters, citing Medley Global Advisors:
- FED WOULD CURTAIL ASSET BUYING IF COMPELLING EVIDENCE OUTPUT GAP CLOSING QUICKER THAN EXPECTED
Is the Warsh-Hoenig-Plosser-Fisher-Kocherlakota mutiny about to go nuclear? We will bring you the report if we see it.
Could it be that the fundamental economic indicator that is gospel not only to Goldman Sachs, but to Ben Bernanke in estimating and determining monetary policy, the output gap, provides a flawed reading of the economy? As a reminder, Ben Bernanke has repeatedly expressed little regard for either commodity inflation or US dollar exchange as having an impact on overall US inflation. As Askari and Hochain state: "according to [Bernanke's] theory, inflation was related only to the output gap. As long as the output gap was negative, that is, if actual gross domestic product was below potential GDP, the economy was at no risk of inflation. Hence, he argued that the central bank had to adopt an aggressive money policy until the output gap closed. Such is the policy prescription from what is called the Taylor Rule or the Phillips Curve. Because potential GDP is not a measured macroeconomic variable, it can be estimated in millions of ways. There are, therefore, millions of ways for estimating an output gap, making the concept difficult to use as a policy tool." The problem with these millions of estimations, is that especially courtesy of the Greenspan created bubble over the past 20 years, the American economy is, ironically, not a true representation of itself. And thus, the output gap estimates need to be normalized for a "bubble free" GDP environment. It is precisely this issue that none other than the St. Louis Fed addresses in its latest paper: "Has the Recent Real Estate Bubble Biased the Output Gap?" The conclusion is startling: based on a production function output gap normalization (an approach "based on a relation between available productive inputs (such as capital and labor), their current utilization rates, and aggregate production"), Bernanke could be fatally wrong about the economy's "capacity for inflation" courtesy of the CBO's overestimated output gap, and that his loose monetary policy could end up being a disastrous precursor to rampant (and not distant) hyperinflation, due to his blatant avoidance of simple logic when interpreting the economic output gap.
"Over the full ten-year period, we now see the deficit cumulating to $10½trn, up from $9trn previously." - Goldman Sachs