Wednesday, February 29, 2012

US Consumer Confidence & Jobs

Jobs aren’t plentiful yet, but they are less hard to get. That’s the opinion of the folks who responded to February’s survey of consumer confidence conducted by the Conference Board. Whenever this monthly survey, that is used to construct the Consumer Confidence Index, is released, I immediately search for the response rate to the question about whether “jobs are hard to get.” It fell sharply from 43.3% in January to 38.7% in February, the lowest reading since November 2008. Initial unemployment claims is a leading indicator for the JHTG response series. The drop in the former is signaling that fewer workers are getting fired, while the drop in the latter suggests that it’s getting easier to get hired.

The JHTG series is highly correlated with the official unemployment rate. This close relationship suggests that the jobless rate, which dropped from 8.5% during December to 8.3% during January, could soon fall below 8.0%. Increasingly, it seems to me that the Old Normal business cycle is still very much in gear. The abnormality was the depth of the recession, not the shape of the recovery. Some of our accounts who regularly talk to company managements are hearing that more companies are having trouble finding the employees they need. I wouldn’t be surprised by a hiring panic in coming months that lowers the JHTG response back down to its Old Normal levels of 20%-30%.

So what about that big 4.0% drop in durable goods orders during January reported yesterday? Why would companies hire more workers if they are reducing their capital spending? Not so fast: Durable goods orders are very volatile. They were up 7.5% during November and December. The recent volatility was undoubtedly exacerbated by the expiration of the 100% depreciation allowance at the end of last year. The upward trend in orders remains intact. This is confirmed by February’s strong batch of business conditions surveys reported by the Feds of Richmond, Kansas City, and Dallas. If you want to worry about something, then worry about home prices; they are still falling around the country. (More for subscribers.)

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

US Housing

Is the housing industry really recovering, or is it just the weather? The mild winter weather undoubtedly boosted the recent batch of housing indicators. However, record low mortgage rates and an improving labor market are also providing some lift to new and existing home sales, and to home improvement outlays as well. The pending home sales index, which reflects demand for existing homes, rose in January, and so did actual sales. However, some of the strength in the index was concentrated in the Northeast, where the winter has been mild. Then again, the index was also strong in the South, where the winters are always mild.

Existing home sales increased 4.3% in January to 4.57 million (saar)--the highest level since May 2010. The increase was the third in the past four months, with December’s pace revised down a bit. Sales to first-time homebuyers were up to 33% of the total in January from 31% in December. Investors purchased 23% of homes in January, up from 21% in December. Investors are more likely to have enough extra cash after they purchase a home to renovate it. That may explain why the S&P 500 Home Improvement Retail stock price index is up 58% since August 10, 2011. However, the recent spike in gasoline prices might cause some homeowners to put their renovation plans on hold. (More for subscribers.)

Monday, February 27, 2012

S&P 500 and Oil Prices

So far, the surge in oil prices hasn’t depressed either consumers’ or investors’ confidence. The Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan final index of consumer sentiment for February rose to 75.3 from 75.0 in January. A measure of French consumer sentiment rose to 82 from 81 last month, national statistics office Insee said on February 23. South Korea’s sentiment index rose to 100 in February from 98.

The S&P 500 is up 8.6% ytd despite the 17.4% increase in the price of Brent so far this year. Higher oil prices aren’t necessarily bearish for the stock market, up to a point. There has been a very strong positive correlation between the two since the second half of 2008. That’s partly because the Energy sector accounts for 12.3% of the market capitalization of the S&P 500. Moreover, the S&P 500 Energy sector tends to outperform (underperform) the S&P 500 when the price of oil is rising (falling).

However, as the saying goes in the commodity trading pits: The best cure for high commodity prices is high commodity prices. The risk for stocks is that the price of oil spikes to a level that depresses the global economy. Oil prices would then tumble as they have every time oil prices spiked in the past. Stock prices would probably follow suit.

In the past, oil price spikes preceded recessions as in 1973, 1979, 1991, 2002, and 2008. The one exception was last year’s spike. I think this year’s spike will be the second exception. That’s because I expect that there will soon be some relief on the upward pressure on oil prices if governments with Strategic Petroleum Reserves tap them. Furthermore, the US labor market has been improving significantly in recent months. Initial unemployment claims averaged 354,300 during the first three weeks of February, down from January’s average of 377,250. This suggests that payroll employment rose this month by at least as much as January’s 243,000 gain. (More for subscribers.)

Thursday, February 23, 2012

World Oil Demand

The price of Brent crude oil is up again this morning over $124 a barrel. It’s up from $107.65 at the end of last year as a result of increasing tensions with Iran following the imposition by the US and Europe of tough new sanctions on Iran. They are already reducing the ability of Iran to export crude oil. Last year, Iran exported about 2mbd. That is likely to get cut by half or more. That’s not enough to explain why oil prices are soaring given that global oil supply is around 88mbd. Of course, concerns are mounting that the diplomatic and economic confrontation with Iran could turn into a military conflict that would disrupt oil traffic coming out of the Persian Gulf. This certainly explains why oil prices are rising.

Global oil demand, on the other hand, is weakening and suggests that oil prices could fall sharply if the Iranian issue can be resolved without push coming to shove. As I’ve explained previously, I believe that the sanctions are rapidly crushing Iran’s economy and may force the Mullahs to give up their ambitions to build nuclear weapons. This may take some time, of course. Meanwhile, if oil and gasoline prices continue to rise, I expect that the Obama administration will coordinate a global release of supplies from the Strategic Petroleum Reserves, as occurred last summer in response to the drop in Libya’s exports.

The latest data compiled by Oil Market Intelligence show that global oil demand flattened during January at 89.1mbd, based on the 12-month average. Old World oil demand (in the US, Western Europe, and Japan) fell to 37.7mbd during the month, back to the global recession lows of 2009. New World oil demand rose to a new record high of 51.4mbd. (More for subscribers.)

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Fundamental Stock Market Indicator

The S&P 500 is back at last year’s peak, which puts the index 101% above its March 9, 2009 cyclical low. It remains 13% below its record high of 1565.15 on October 9, 2007. Our Fundamental Stock Market Indicator (FSMI) is also flirting with its 2011 high. As of the week of February 11, it was at 104.2, up 106% from its cyclical low of 50.6 during the week of April 4, 2009. Last year’s peak was 108.7 during the week of February 26.

Holding the FSMI down since 2009 has been the Weekly Consumer Comfort Index (WCCI), which has been hovering in a range between 45 and 60 (WCCI plus 100) since early 2008. It has risen just over the top of this range to 60.2 during the week of February 11 from 55.2 at the end of last year.

The other component of the FSMI is our Boom Bust Barometer, which is the ratio of the CRB raw industrials commodity spot price index to initial unemployment claims. It had a V-shaped recovery from the week of March 28, 2009 through the week of March 12, 2011, when it soared from 50.8 to 159.6, which just slightly exceeded the previous cyclical high during the week of August 11, 2007. It then dipped to an October 29, 2011 low of 132.3. But it is back up to 148.1 during the week of February 11. (More for subscribers.)

Tuesday, February 21, 2012


The latest Commitments of Traders report compiled by the CFTC shows that large speculators and small traders were net long a record 101,926 contracts on February 14. Each contract is for 42,000 US gallons, or 1,000 barrels, of gasoline. During the week of February 10, gasoline inventories in the US stood at 232 million barrels. In other words, speculators and traders, in effect, held a record 43.8% of US inventories.

They must be betting that the confrontation with Iran will worsen, pushing gasoline prices still higher. They certainly can’t be betting on strong US demand for gasoline. Over the past 52 weeks, gasoline usage fell to 8.88 million barrels per day, the lowest since November 28, 2003. Americans are driving less and driving in more fuel efficient vehicles. (More for subscribers.)

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Old Normal

Americans seem to have decided to tune out all the noise coming out of Europe, the Middle East, and Washington and get back to business. They want to get back to the old normal. While Bill Gross sees a world full of new normals and paranormals, the old normal business cycle continues to show that it is still in gear.

In the chart above, I overlay the performance of initial unemployment claims following the past four cyclical peaks. The latest cycle looks just like the past three cycles and even the earlier ones too. Jobless claims spike up in recessions. They peak at the end of recessions. They fall sharply early during recoveries. Then they meander for a while at relatively elevated levels above 400,000, causing widespread anxiety that the recovery is jobless. Then they drop closer to 300,000-350,000.

That pattern seems to be playing out again and is being confirmed by lots of other economic indicators showing that Americans are getting back to business and doing their darnedest not to get distracted by the apocalyptic scenarios that have been in fashion since the near-death experience of 2008. Let’s review the latest batch of upbeat indicators that confirm the happy trend of initial unemployment claims:

(1) Manufacturing is humming along. Factory output soared 0.7% during January led by a 6.8% jump in motor vehicle production, which accounted for more than half the gain. Also driving the index higher was a 1.8% increase in business equipment, which was attributable to a 2.5% increase in transit equipment, along with gains of 1.5% in industrial and 1.8% in information processing equipment. The latter is at a fresh record high. Auto assemblies jumped in January by 8.2% to 10.2 million units (saar), the highest pace since February 2008.

The capacity utilization rate is tracing out an old normal V-shaped recovery. It rose to 77.0% in manufacturing during January. That’s the highest since April 2008. The utilization rate for selected high-tech industries (Computers, Semiconductors, and Communications Equipment) dropped again last month from a January 2011 peak of 80.8% to 69.5% this January. Excluding these industries, the utilization rate for low-tech industries remained at 78.9%, the best since June 2008. Among the industries with the tightest capacity were Machinery (85.0%), Paper (83.8%), and Petroleum (87.9%). Capacity in the auto industry jumped from 60.5% near the end of 2010 to 71.9% in January, the highest since August 2007.

(2) Homebuilders continue to see better signs. Housing starts rose last year to 657,000 million units (saar) during December, up 25% y/y. That improvement was led by a 78% increase in multi-family housing starts. Now comes the latest survey data from the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) showing that single-family housing starts may join the housing recovery this year. The NAHB’s Housing Market Index is a good leading indicator of such construction activity. Debbie reports that the index rose for the fifth month in a row during February to the highest reading since June 2007.

(3) It’s sunny in New York. The FRBNY’s February Empire State Manufacturing Survey indicates that manufacturing activity in New York State expanded for a third consecutive month. The general business conditions index rose six points to 19.5, its highest level in more than a year. The new orders index, at 9.7, was positive but down slightly, and the shipments index was little changed at 22.8. In a special question about their capital spending plans, substantially more respondents indicated that they planned increases (46%) than reductions (25%) in overall capital spending in 2012. (More for subscribers.)

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

US Retail Sales

The price of gasoline is making the evening news again. Yesterday, NBC made a big deal about rising gasoline prices. The national average pump price rose to $3.40 a gallon during the week of February 1 from a recent low of $3.22 during the week of February 21. Last year, it peaked at $3.96 in mid-May, and seems to be heading there based on the jump in gasoline futures prices in recent days. The evening news segment didn’t report that natural gas prices are trading near record lows. Instead, the next story after the one about rising gasoline prices was about the tensions in the Persian Gulf between American and Iranian naval forces. The point of the story was that it wouldn’t take much for some shots to get fired over there, which could then send gasoline prices soaring over here.

That sort of anxiety might be creeping into the Consumer Sentiment Index, which edged down during mid-February to 72.5 from 75.0 during January. On the other hand, Debbie reports that Bloomberg’s Consumer Comfort Index increased for the fifth week in the past six weeks.

Retail sales of gasoline service stations did climb by 1.4% during January to $539.4 billion (saar), but they’ve been around that level for the past year. They currently account for 11% of retail sales. Americans have been responding to high gasoline prices by driving less. The Federal Highway Administration reports that vehicle miles traveled in the US fell to 2.96 trillion in the 12 months through November, the lowest since May 2009. This series actually peaked at a record 3.04 trillion miles back during November 2007. The 52-week average of gasoline usage fell in early February and the lowest since February 2004.

While consumers are driving less, they continue to shop. Retail sales rose to a fresh record high in January. The 0.4% m/m increase was weaker than expected, but matched consensus expectations of a 0.7% increase excluding autos, which declined 1.1%. That didn’t jibe with the unit auto sales data showing a 4.6% increase during the month.

Nevertheless, inflation-adjusted retail sales, excluding building materials (which are included in residential investment in the GDP accounts), rose to a new cyclical high during January and the best reading since February 2008. The three-month percent change in the three-month average of real retail sales excluding building materials rose 7.4% (saar), suggesting a solid increase in the consumer spending on goods in the GDP accounts for the first quarter.

The question is why are Americans driving less? Unemployment and underemployment remain high, and reduce the number of people driving to work. More likely, in my opinion, is that Americans are aging along with the Baby Boomers, and older people tend to drive less than younger ones. (More for subscribers.)

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Trucks & Trains

Keep on trucking! This seems to be our economy’s new motto. The American Truck Association (ATA) Tonnage Index sank to a cyclical low of 100.2 during April 2009. That was the weakest since January 2002. It has been recovering since then and rose to 116.6 during November of last year, which matched the previous cyclical high during 2008. The truckers must have put the pedal to the metal during December because the ATA index soared 6.8% to a record high of 124.4. This is yet another indicator suggesting that the recovery is over and that the economy is expanding into record territory. Let’s have a closer look at the truck tonnage data and see if they are confirmed by railcar loadings, which is another very useful transportation indicator:

(1) Truck Tonnage. For all of 2011, truck tonnage rose 5.9% over the previous year--the largest annual increase since 1998. Tonnage for the last month of the year was 10.5% higher than December 2010, the largest year-over-year gain since July 1998. ATA notes that trucking serves as a good barometer of the US economy, representing 67.2% of tonnage carried by all modes of domestic freight transportation, including manufactured and retail goods.

(2) Total Railcar Loadings. I monitor the weekly data on railcar loadings by smoothing out the data using 26-week moving averages. On this basis, total loadings have stalled around the recent cyclical high in recent weeks. They are 19% above the 2009 low, but still 10% below the 2006 record high. Car loads, which carry bulk commodities, remain on a gradual uptrend. Intermodal loadings, which include containers and trailers, are also on an uptrend, which has stalled recently.

(3) Railcar Loadings by Product. Since early 2009, there have been V-shaped rebounds in car loadings of chemicals & petroleum products and metals & related products. Still depressed are coal, nonmetallic minerals, pulp & paper products, and waste & scrap material. Lumber & wood products remain depressed, but have been gradually trending higher since early 2010. Most encouraging, and consistent with the Double Recovery scenario, is that motor vehicle loadings rose to a new cyclical high in early February. They are highly correlated with auto production.

(4) Intermodal. The ATA truck tonnage index is most highly correlated with intermodal railcar loadings, especially intermodal containers. The difference between total intermodal loadings and intermodal containers is the relatively small loadings of intermodal trailers, which remain near the recent recession lows. The loadings of intermodal containers rose in January to a record high, confirming the strength in truck tonnage during December. (More for subscribers.)

Sunday, February 12, 2012

S&P 500 Forward P/E

In a new publication, we chart the relationship between the S&P 500’s forward P/E and various indicators of Risk On/Off since 2007. There is a very high correlation between this P/E and the Citigroup Economic Surprise Index, the 10-year Treasury bond yield, expected inflation in the TIPS market, industrial commodity prices, the price of crude oil, the euro, and the inverse of the trade-weighted dollar.

Let's dive in by reviewing the performance of the S&P 500's P/E since 2007. It has swooned three times and then recovered:

(1) It dropped 38.4% from a cyclical high of 15.4 during the week of June 1, 2007 to a cyclical trough of 9.5 during the week of November 21, 2008. It then rebounded 57.9% to a cyclical peak of 15.0 during September 18, 2009.

(2) It took a dive from the 2010 peak of 14.6 during the week of January 15 down to 11.5 during the week of August 27, 2010. It then rebounded again to a 2011 peak of 13.5 during the week of February 18.

(3) It fell during the spring of 2011 and took another dive last summer to a low of 10.4 during the week of August 12. Since then, it has rebounded 19.2% to 12.4 in early February.

Can the market's P/E move still higher? I think it could rebound back up to 14-15. It has certainly lagged behind the rebound in the Citigroup Economic Surprise Index. This index is up sharply from a 2011 low of -117% on June 3 to 73% on February 10. It is back at its previous five cyclical highs. However, the P/E has been peaking at lower lows since early 2007. (A positive reading of the Economic Surprise Index shows that economic releases on balance are beating the consensus. The more the data moves forex markets, the more significant its weight in the index. It is calculated daily on a rolling three-month basis and using a time decay function to replicate the limited memory of markets.)

In the past, the market’s valuation multiple tended to rise when bond yields decreased, and vice versa. In the past, rising inflationary expectations often were negative for equity valuations, while falling ones were positive. There relationships have turned topsy-turvy since early 2007, when falling yields and inflation rates started to be associated with falling rather than rising P/Es. That’s because yields and inflation rates are so low that investors fear that they may be harbingers of deflation and depression.

So why haven’t bond yields risen along with the P/E since late last year? The Fed’s Operation Twist has clearly distorted the bond market. Without it, yields would have undoubtedly risen. They still could if the program is terminated on schedule at the end of June. Meanwhile, the expected inflation rate embodied in the 10-year TIPS market has risen from a low of 1.7% on October 3 to 2.2% in early February. So far, that's been bullish for the P/E. (More for subscribers.)

Thursday, February 9, 2012

China: Inflation & Monetary Policy

Keynesian economists over at the IMF want to stimulate the Chinese to stimulate their economy. The IMF’s China economic outlook report released on Monday urged the Chinese to increase their government budget deficit to 2% of GDP rather than aiming to lower this percentage. What’s the panic about? Well, you see, if Europe’s economy falls into a recession, the Chinese should step on the fiscal accelerator just as they did in late 2008. The IMF recommends cuts in consumption taxes and new subsidies for consumer-goods purchases and for corporate investments in pollution-control equipment.

Do you think that the Chinese need or welcome such advice? The Keynesians have spread fiscal recklessness throughout the world, and want to make sure that China participates. In any event, the Chinese are better at monetary than fiscal policy recklessness. No central bank on earth has pursued quantitative easing for as long or on a bigger scale as has the People’s Bank of China (PBoC). The PBoC’s assets have increased by 170% over the past five years to a record $4.44 trillion in December. That compares to $2.87 trillion at the Fed and €2.74 trillion at the ECB. The PBoC accomplished this feat by accumulating foreign exchange reserves, which accounted for a record 83% of the central bank’s assets at the end of last year, up from 40% at the start of 2002.

All this liquidity has the potential to boost inflation in China. It did just that over the past three years as the y/y CPI inflation rate rose from a cyclical low of -1.8% during July 2009 to a recent cyclical peak of 6.5% during July 2011. The PBoC responded by, in effect, “sterilizing” some of the increase in its foreign exchange reserves by increasing bank reserve requirements since November 2010. But faced with a slowing economy, the PBoC lowered its reserve requirement ratio by 0.5 percentage point in December, the first such cut since December 2008.

Additional easing was expected this year after December’s CPI report, released last month, showed that the inflation rate was down to 4.1%. However, this morning, we learn that it rose to 4.5% during January. The problem may be a temporary seasonal blip in food prices. Excluding food, the CPI was up only 1.8%. Also encouraging is that China’s PPI inflation rate fell to 0.7% during January, the lowest since November 2009. This rate tends to be a leading indicator for the China’s CPI. (More for subscribers.)

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

US Commercial Banks

Friday’s WSJ reported: “The rainy-day funds that U.S. banks have been tapping to boost their earnings could soon begin to dry up, and that doesn’t bode well for bank profits. Many banks have been ‘releasing’ reserves against bad loans since the worst of the crisis passed and the economy began recovering. That money flows to the bottom line, helping some banks boost earnings at a time when lending and trading profits have been soggy.”

The article examined Q4 data released by the top 10 US-owned commercial banks. A less alarming picture is provided by data for all FDIC-insured institutions, though the data are only through Q3-2011. The data show that their provisions for loan and lease losses have been below their net charge-offs since Q1-2010. That’s after exceeding charge-offs from Q1-2006 through Q4-2009.

A better way to see what is happening is to cumulate the data since 1984. That shows that reserves for losses jumped from $131 billion at the end of 2007 to a record high of $290 billion during Q4-2009, and fell to $230 billion during Q3-2011. In other words, there is room for reserves to fall some more and boost earnings this year as long as net charge-offs continue to decline, as they have been every quarter since Q1-2010. (More for subscribers.)

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

S&P 500 Earnings & Valuation

Consensus expected S&P 500 estimates continued to fall for 2012 and 2013 during the week of January 27. They were down to $105.92 and $119.24, respectively, at the end of last month. Forward earnings--the time-weighted average of the two--has been remarkably flat around $107 since mid-August. The bull market from March 2009 through April 2011 was earnings led. Since then, the S&P 500’s volatile trading range reflected the volatility in the forward P/E. I believe that stock prices can move higher over the rest of this year along with the valuation multiple if investors anticipate that earnings growth will pick up in 2013.

I see three major risks for the bulls, which are discussed in our Morning Briefing today. In brief, the most immediate concern is that Greece won’t agree to the terms required by its troika of lenders (IMF, ECB, and EU) to reform its economy, triggering a default by Greece on March 20. Another risk is that push comes to shove in the Persian Gulf, sending oil prices soaring. Finally, given the strength of US employment, a spike in US bond yields could pose another threat for equity bulls. (More for subscribers.)

Monday, February 6, 2012

US Employment Indicators

January may have marked the transition from a “jobless recovery” to a “job-full expansion” for the US economy. Payroll employment rose 243,000 during the month, the best m/m gain since April 2011. Household employment jumped 847,000 during the month, the best gain since January 2003. Actually, the transition may have started a few of months ago. Over the past five months, payroll employment rose 183,400 per month on average. That follows a soft patch in employment, with payrolls up only 79,750 per month on average from May through August. However, January’s employment report was the first one during the current economic upturn that was strong across the board. Even the Naysayers seem to be at a loss to put a negative spin on this report. The latest employment figures certainly support my Double Recovery scenario. Here are some more thoughts about the latest employment numbers:

(1) The monthly first estimates of payroll employment are prone to large revisions. As a result, I prefer to focus on the revisions of the previous two months. November and December estimates were raised by 60,000. Upward revisions are typical during economic expansions. By the way, do you recall how depressed everyone was by last August’s estimate released on September 2? It was unchanged. The latest revised number now shows a gain of 85,000.

(2) What happened to all those workers in the transportation and warehouse industry who boosted payroll employment by 50,200 during December? They were supposedly mostly temporary workers, who were supposed to be let go in January. That’s why I expected that January’s payroll gain would be around 150,000 rather than 200,000. Well, it turns out that the new seasonal adjustment factors resulting from the annual benchmark revisions smoothed transportation and warehouse payrolls in December to a gain of only 6,700. In January, this category actually rose 13,100.

(3) Birthers need to get a life. Every month, critics of the Birth/Death adjustment claim that it is bogus, especially since it always seems to boost the employment figures, even during recessions. The adjustment is used by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) to incorporate the impact of business births and deaths. Actual data are available with a minimum lag of nine months. The BLS reports that the actual net birth/death residual for April 2010 to March 2011 was approximately 12,000 below the forecasted amount used in the monthly estimates for the time period. This is a relatively tiny forecasting error. (More for subscribers.)

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Global PMIs

Last year, I argued that much of the weakness in US and global economic activity was a temporary consequence of the parts shortages attributable to production disruptions following Japan’s earthquake and tsunami. Also weighing growth down was the Fed’s QE2--starting November 2010 and ending June 2011--which perversely stimulated higher food and fuel prices and depressed consumers’ purchasing power and spending. Those drags dissipated during the summer, but all the commotion over American and European debt issues prolonged the soft patch. Now, though, the US economy shows more signs of recovering from last year’s setbacks.
In the US, January’s Purchasing Managers Index for manufacturing (M-PMI) rose from 53.1 during December to 54.1 during January. That’s the best reading since June 2011. Between then and now, manufacturing participated in the economic soft patch. Actually, the M-PMI has been improving for the past three months. The major components of the M-PMI were mostly solidly above 50: new orders (57.6, up from 54.8!), production (55.7, down from 58.9), employment (54.3, down from 54.8), order backlogs (52.5, up from 48.0), and exports (55.0, up from 53.0).

Just as manufacturing is giving a lift to the US economy, it is doing the same to the global economy. How can this be happening given all the dire predictions for Europe? The answer in a word is “Globalization.” The end of the Cold War marked the beginning of Globalization, which is the integration of national economies through rapidly proliferating and rising free trade.

That process was briefly (and painfully) interrupted in late 2008 and early 2009 as the US financial crisis morphed into a global credit crunch that shut off the availability of trade credits. I suppose it could happen again if the European financial crisis morphs into another global credit crunch. That’s not happening so far. The flood of liquidity provided by the world’s major central banks is keeping global capital markets wide open for business, helping to offset the impairment of lending by banks, especially in Europe. (More for subscribers.)

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

US Employment Indicators

Are jobs hard to get? The answer to that question is provided once a month in the Conference Board’s survey of consumer confidence. I think that this is among the most important data generated by this survey and the similar one conducted by the Survey Research Center at the University of Michigan.

I am expecting to see fewer respondents to the Conference Board’s survey saying that jobs are hard to get. I reckon this will happen before mid-year. That’s because the response rate to this question tends to lag initial unemployment claims by about 6-12 months. During economic recoveries, the pace of firing tends to drop, as indicated by falling jobless claims. Then, with a lag, the pace of hiring starts to pick up, as indicated by the decline in the percentage of respondents saying that jobs are hard to get.

In other words, the initial unemployment claims series tends to be a leading indicator for the labor market. (It is, in fact, one of the 10 components of the index of leading economic indicators.) But it’s the jobs-hard-to-get series that confirms that labor market conditions are improving enough to have boosted net employment gains. Not surprisingly, the jobs-hard-to-get response is highly correlated with the number of unemployed workers. (More for subscribers.)