Wait a second, is this a recovery or isn’t it?

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This morning the Conference Board became the latest economy-watching group to call an end to recession. As you can see in the graph above, its index of leading economic indicators—which includes things like stocks prices, building permits and manufacturers’ orders—increased for the fourth month in a row. Its index of coincident economic indicators—such as industrial production, personal income and manufacturing sales—held flat, the first time it didn’t slide since October 2008. The group’s economists think that index will be turning positive before we know it.

And yet the jobs market—the way people most feel a recession—is showing renewed weakness. In another data release this morning, the Labor Department reported that weekly jobless claims are heading back up. That’s something of a surprise to economists, who broadly thought the figure would be lower.

For the week ending Aug. 15, initial claims for unemployment insurance came in at 576,000, up from 561,000 the week before. Since that weekly number jumps around a lot, it’s good to look at a four-week moving average. That grew, too, hitting 570,000 weekly claims, up from 565,750. Continuing claims also edged up (as of Aug. 8), though the four-week moving average fell slightly.

What gives? Well, to put those jobs numbers into context, consider that in a healthy economy there are normally 325,000 or fewer initial claims a week. We’re obviously a long way from that sort of figure. But on the upside, initial claims are holding below 600,000, which is one of those psychologically significant Dow 10,000 sorts of numbers. For the entire first half of 2009, we were above the 600,000 threshold. The first week of July we fell below it, and even though there’s been a little bouncing around, we haven’t recrossed that mark.

Does that mean the jobs numbers aren’t as bad as they look? Certainly not for the people being laid off. This could simply be an indication that we’re heading for yet another jobless recovery. That’s what the folks at the San Francisco Fed, among others, have been saying.

And that makes me wonder—if this is going to be our third jobless recovery in a row (1992 kicked off the trend)—what exactly we mean anymore when we talk about “economic recovery.” If having more jobs, and ones that pay livable salaries, isn’t one of the conditions for proclaiming economic health, then I’m not sure I completely understand what conversation we’re having.

Barbara!

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