A "Recovery" Paradox: Job Cuts In 2016 Are Highest Since 2009 As Initial Jobless Claims Tumble

The paradoxical divergence between the government's data on initial jobless claims, which in just over half an hour is expected to print at or close to another multi-decade low, and the actual number of layoff announcements by employers as tracked by Challenger Gray, and which continues to soar is puzzling to say the least.

While one can debate the veracity of the BLS' seasonally adjusted data, one thing is certain: when a company announces it will layoff thousands, it will. So for all those who suggest that all is well with the US jobs picture based on initial claims reports, here is the latest report from Challenger according to which the pace of downsizing increased in April jumped by 35% to 65,141 during the month of April, from the 48,207 layoff announcements in March.

Looking further back, in the first four months of 2016, employers have announced a total of 250,061 planned job cuts, up 24% from the 201,796 job cuts tracked during the same period a year ago. This represents the highest January-April total since 2009, when the opening four months of the year saw 695,100 job cuts in the aftermath of the biggest financial crisis in modern history.

Contrary to popular belief it is not just energy: "We continue to see large scale layoffs in the energy sector, where low oil prices are driving down profits. However, we are also seeing heavy downsizing activity in other areas, such as computers and retail, where changing consumer trends are creating a lot of volatility,” said John A. Challenger, chief executive officer of Challenger, Gray & Christmas.

That said, the energy woes continue and the sector announced another 19,759 job cuts in April, bringing the year-to-date total to 72,660. That is up 26 percent from the 57,556 energy-sector job cuts announced in the first four months of 2015. As energy bankruptcies are only set to accelerate from here, we anticipate many more delayed layoffs from this moment onward.

Computer firms announced 16,923 job cuts during the month; the highest total among all industries. That total includes 12,000 from chipmaker Intel, which is shifting away from the traditional desktop and laptop market and toward the mobile market. To date, computer firms have announced 33,925 job cuts, up 262 percent from a year ago, when job cuts in the sector totaled just 9,368 through the first four months of the year.

Some obligatory spin: "For all intents and purposes, the economy remains strong. The nation’s payrolls have experienced 66 consecutive months of net job gains, a trend that is likely to continue with the new report out Friday. The unemployment rate is at five percent, with a growing number of metropolitan areas at three percent or lower. Yet, job cuts are trending upward,” noted Challenger.

"However, it is not unusual to see heavy job cuts a strong economy. In December 1998, near the height of the dot.com boom, we recorded more than 103,000 planned workforce reductions. The fact is, companies are constantly retooling, and sometimes the best time to do that is when the economy is strong,” said Challenger.

A prime example of this dichotomy is IBM, where unconfirmed reports estimate as many as 14,000 layoffs in the first quarter (which is not included in any Challenger reports, due to the speculative nature of the figure). While the company has said little about the job cuts, it issued a statement touting 70,000 new hires in 2015 along with 25,000 open positions worldwide.

The closest IBM came to confirming workforce reductions was to say that it is “aggressively transforming its business to lead in a new era of cognitive and cloud computing. This includes remixing skills to meet client requirements” in its official statement.

“We are at a stage in the recovery, where it is not unusual to see hiring and firing occur simultaneously across the economy and often within a single company. Like IBM and Intel, companies are shifting strategies that require them to cut in some places while adding in others,” said Challenger.

Finally, the most adversely impacted state remains Texas, which with 71,186 layoff intentions, accounts for nearly a third of all statewide layoffs.

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