Unemployment Rate Drops to 7.8% But Path to Recovery is Murkier

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Lynne Sladky / AP

Job applicants wait for the opening of a job fair held by National Career Fairs, Monday, Sept. 17, 2012, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

With the first presidential debate behind us, and the election just a month away, we have come upon that magical time of the year when the media filters each new datum through the lens of the election horse race. And so goes the Employment Situation Report — an estimate the Labor Department issues every month of how many jobs the American economy has added and what percentage of the labor force is unemployed. These estimates come with massive margins of error and are thusly absorbed with an appropriate degree of skepticism by market participants and economists, but the political punditry have no time for such subtlety. Therefore the monthly jobs report — especially in times of economic malaise — has taken on an aura of extreme importance, a hard number by which we can judge the President’s handling of the economy.

This morning’s report showed that the economy added an unremarkable 114,000 jobs, but that the unemployment rate actually fell by three-tenths of a percent to 7.8%. The new jobs number was almost exactly in line with economists predictions of 115,000, according to Dow Jones Newswires, but the drop in the unemployment rate was a surprise.

So why are these numbers giving us seemingly contradictory evidence? The first thing one must understand is that these two numbers are drawn from two different surveys. The new jobs number is rendered from the establishment survey, whereby the Labor Department surveys employers to determine how many new jobs they’ve added. The unemployment rate, on the other hand, is determined by a survey of households, in which the government asks individuals whether or not they and those in their household have jobs. So, the first reason why these two numbers appear to be at odds is that they are pulled from different estimates, each with its own margin of error.

Second, when the Labor Department releases its estimate for each month, it actually releases revised estimates for the previous two months — and the job market in July and August was apparently healthier than we had previously thought. The Labor Department revised job gains in those months from +96,000 and +142,000 to +141,000 and +181,000, respectively. In addition, a recent yearly revision by the Labor Department showed that job growth between April of 2011 and March of 2012 was much more significant than we thought. With these revisions in mind, the drop in the unemployment rate makes more sense.

Another piece of good news found in this month’s numbers is that the labor force participation rate — or the percentage of working age people who are working or actively looking for work — actually grew by 0.1%, representing a growth in the labor force of 418,000 people. For demographic reasons, the participation rate had been steadily declining since before the recession, but that decline accelerated in its aftermath, reflecting what many argued was a feeling of hopelessness that caused workers to give up looking for work altogether and drop out of the labor force.

Though this report is undeniably positive, it’s not a game changer. It doesn’t alter the fact that the American economy remains in a slow growth period that is typical following debt-fueled financial crises. However, it may very well change the trajectory of the upcoming presidential race as the candidates and their surrogates fall over themselves to spin the numbers as best they can. President Obama will point to the decline in the unemployment rate as evidence that his policies are working, and that America is slowly but surely getting back to work again.

Mitt Romney and fellow Republicans will have a bit harder time using the report to their advantage, given the large drop in unemployment and the rise in the participation rate. But the fact remains that 115,000 new jobs is nowhere near the pace of job growth needed to bring the country back to full employment anytime soon. And even if that number is revised up in coming months as many of the previous estimates have been, we’re still not seeing anywhere near the kind of rapid job growth that has accompanied past recoveries.

I’ll leave it to the expert political pundits to handicap which of these arguments will resonate with the American people, but it seems to me the more important question is which candidate has the better plan to promote future job growth. And in this context, neither candidate is inspiring. President Obama has laid out a plan for a further round of economic stimulus, but it is timid in scope and has little chance of overcoming a Republican filibuster. Mitt Romney’s plan — short on details as it is — calls for a simpler tax code and less regulation. But find me anybody in Washington who doesn’t want to streamline the tax code. And sure, a simpler tax code would likely promote economic growth, but once the tax debate truly gets underway, special interest lobbyist will descend on Washington like a swarm of locusts, to gut — if not completely scuttle — any proposed reform.

Considering Washington’s current aversion to further deficit spending,  the best case scenario — regardless of who is in the White House — is that the so-called fiscal cliff (a set of spending cuts and tax increases due to go into effect at the end of the year) is averted and a more gradual austerity package is put into place at the same time that the tax code is simplified. And then we have to hope that these gradual tax increases and spending cuts, whatever their magnitude, won’t slow down economic and employment growth.

21 comments
bwshook
bwshook

I'll bet my bottom dollar that after the election, the unemployment rate will be "adjusted" to 8.4%.  I believe Obama told the BLS what they should report on Friday, with the understanding of an "adjustment" made after Nov. 6th.

Mary Waterton
Mary Waterton

Unemployment drops to 7.8% and yet food stamps are at an all-time high, food banks are being stretched to the limit, and the labor force participation rate is at a 30 year low? Something doesn't smell right about that number. According to the economic experts, 5% is normal unemployment. How can we be 2.8% away from normal and things be so bad???

jumbo80
jumbo80

7.8%!  Happy days are here again! 

zrlx
zrlx

Good for Oba

RobertSF
RobertSF

Because of how it's calculated, the U3 number (there are six unemployment figures, and they use U3 as the official one) is fairly meaningless.

Here's a more common sense way. Ask the BLS what percent of America can find jobs? The answer hasn't changed in three years. See for yourself.

http://www1.picturepush.com/ph...

superlogi
superlogi

When you can explain to me how adding 114,000 jobs when you need 150,000 to keep up with population growth and drop .3% in the unemployed, I'll believe the number.  Until then, I'll just consider it another Obama manufactured miracle.

Raymond Chuang
Raymond Chuang

Unfortunately, when you look at the numbers more closely, the jobs situation is NOT really improving, given the large number of people giving up looking for a job or in underemployed situations. It's time for major regulatory and income tax reform so American businesses are _encouraged_ to keep jobs in the USA and expand business operations.

snowleopard (cat folk gallery)
snowleopard (cat folk gallery)

So the administration is still cooking the books; they artificially boosted by recalculation the July and August employment rates, thus granting an artificial 'boost' or 'gain' to the rate of unemployment.

Propaganda, hype, lies and blatant hypocisy on the side of Team Obama.

He has failed in all domestic and foreign matters; now he has again failed in a desperate, last ditch effort to make himself appear as a success.

No October surprise - just an October farce.

kawliga
kawliga

During this election any good news for the American people the GOP will

consider bad. They would like nothing more than for the unemployment

rate to go up and the American people to fall flat on their face so they

can point a finger at the President. They should rejoice in the drop

in unemployment but say they could do better instead of crying that its

all smoke and mirrors.  You can bet that if the GOP held the White House that these numbers would be the greatest thing ever.

tv22
tv22

What these numbers tell me is that the Obama administration simply is unable to do basic math and wants to continue this myth that everything is okay.    There are facts here and the facts are that fewer people got jobs than entered the market - last month and all the revised months as well.

How about reporting how many people have full time jobs versus how many people are eligible to work full time? 

mantisdragon91
mantisdragon91

 How about reporting about all the job bills being stalled by Republicans in the Congress and Senate.

tv22
tv22

Name "all the job bills".  Why doesn't the Senate take up a budget? 

Dan Bruce
Dan Bruce

So much for the "43 straight months with unemployment above 8%" talking point. Oh, wait, I forgot that Romney is the one who has been saying that. The fact that the facts have changed will make no difference to him, since his campaign is not based on truth.

snowleopard (cat folk gallery)
snowleopard (cat folk gallery)

I believe you mean Obama's not based on truth; these figures have been based on the convienently recalculated July and August figures - they cooked the books once again in a desperate, vain effort to make him appear credible after his massive loss in the first debate.

Dan Bruce
Dan Bruce

Your proof?

Ashram13
Ashram13

What I know is that .3% reduction in the U3 is not impressive and not necessarily indicative of any meaningful positive trend.

Look at the bigger picture.  It's a drop well below 1% and probably within a statistical margin of fluctuation.  The only value of the drop is the symbolic value; it's below 8.0%.

To that I say, "so, what?"  Symbolism can only go so far.  The reality is that unemployment and non-participation are still unacceptably high and anyone trying to spin this as a serious positive are deluding themselves because the only good news is the .3% drop and nothing else.  There is nothing in place to explain a long term trend meaningfully explaining the drop, much less indicating that the rate will fall further in the next U3 report.

Then there's the allegation that, while the U3 has improved by .3%, the U6 remains about the same at 14.7%. How can that be explained?

If unemployment and non-participation continues to improve in reflection of an actual long term trend along with an explanation on why the trend is there, then perhaps I'll concede.

However, the numbers are more likely to change again in just fractions in either direction, indicating a nominal statistical fluctuation.  All the while, the fundamental problems causing our economic malaise are still in full force and to which nobody in government is seriously ameliorating:

1. unprecedented uncertainty driven by horrifically excessive sovereign debt originating from the taxpayer's assumption of huge liabilities (TARP), substantial taxpayer investment in risky private sector enterprises (Ener1, Solyndra, etc.), significant increases in public entitlement spending ("cash for clunkers", SNAP, "Obamacare"), high levels of spending on military and law enforcement including homeland security and the TSA, and all with spending at a rate that far outstrips tax revenue, even if we were to impose tyrannical tax increases across the board (more than merely increasing the tax rate of the "1%"); in summary, the government is spending money faster than can be covered by the budget while borrowing money from creditors to make up for the shortfall; all the money that's in circulation, as in the hands of everyone and everything from poorest private individuals all the way to the biggest and richest corporations, as well as all assets held by the same, do not come even close to covering over $16 trillion in government deficits (and that's not even including the interest to the principal that's owed)

2. the FED's desire to trade off higher lending risk from those liabilities, and the diminished lending as well as increasing interest rates that goes along, with keeping the rates low and increasing the money supply to encourage lending and borrowing but also at the increased risk of monetary inflation, especially if the market indicates the debt guarantees backing the additional money supply is of little to no value (which would be when entities, particularly other nations, begin selling U.S. bonds en masse if they believe they're too toxic to keep, of which the risk of such a sell-off increases if credit reporting agencies decide to downgrade the USA's credit worthiness because of sovereign debt)

AgeMingle. C 0 M
AgeMingle. C 0 M

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Dr Sam
Dr Sam

ROMNEY, EAT YOUR HEART OUT!  How about that, Mr. serial liar?

captwasabi
captwasabi

Uh, you realize that the group lying here is Team Obama, right?

Or did you read a different article?

RobertSF
RobertSF

Do you know how U3 is calculated?

Did you know that the percent of Americans who can find work hasn't changed in three years? That's a better picture than U3.

http://www1.picturepush.com/ph...