Employment Picture Still Unclear

Popular Economics Weekly

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Marketwatch.com

The official unemployment rate fell for the third month in a row to 10.2 percent from 11.1 percent, the government said Friday. The hot pace of U.S. employment growth in the late spring gave way in July to a sharp slowdown in hiring as the economy added back just 1.76 million jobs, “underscoring the fragile nature of a recovery with the coronavirus still running rampant in many states,” said Marketwatch’s Jeff Bartash.

We have merely returned to the highest unemployment rate achieved during the Great Recession (10 percent) that ended in 2009. But it took until 2018 to return to anything resembling full employment (4 percent), another 8 years. Even then many millions were still either working part time that couldn’t find full time work, or had given up looking for work.

Will that happen again? So far we have only restored about 9.3 million, leaving more than half of the Americans who lost their jobs still unemployed.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics said today, “These improvements in the labor market reflected the continued resumption of economic activity that had been curtailed due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and efforts to contain it. In July, notable job gains occurred in leisure and hospitality, government, retail trade, professional and business services, other services, and health care.”

What’s more, an even larger 31 million people were collecting unemployment benefits in mid-July based on the most recent numbers available. And the divided Congress still hasn’t agreed to extend a $600 federal unemployment bonus that expired at the end of July, we know at this writing, which is another potential roadblock for the recovery, .

It’s a decided mixed picture, in other words, with most sectors adding workers at this moment, except for Mining/Logging and the Information services.

Overall business activity has been picking up in both the manufacturing and service sectors, according to surveys by the Institute of Supply Managers (ISM) released earlier in the week. But said surveys are also deceptive, since they tell us whether there is an increase or decrease in activity, but not actual numbers.

The service sector supply managers’ index rose to 58.1 percent with any number above 50 signifying expansion; 67.2 percent said business activity had ramped up and 67.7 percent had new orders. They included Health Care & Social Assistance; Retail Trade; Transportation & Warehousing; Wholesale Trade; Educational Services; and Construction among the 15 businesses that make up the survey, just as do the jobs’ numbers in the unemployment report.

“This reading represents growth in the services sector for the second straight month after contraction in April and May, preceded by a 122-month period of expansion,” said the ISM non-manufacturing report.

Manufacturing also did well in the ISM manufacturing survey.

“The July PMI® registered 54.2 percent,” said the report, “up 1.6 percentage points from the June reading of 52.6 percent. This figure indicates expansion in the overall economy for the third month in a row after a contraction in April, which ended a period of 131 consecutive months of growth.”

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FRED

And lastly, new applications for unemployment benefits, a rough gauge of layoffs, fell by 249,000 in early August to 1.19 million, touching the lowest level since the coronavirus pandemic began more than four months ago.

It was a surprising decline that also suggests some improvement in the labor market despite another surge in coronavirus cases in many U.S. states, as we said.

So it’s probably safe to say that congress has to get its act together and provide more recovery assistance if we want actual positive economic growth in the fall. The Fed’s easy money policy that has driven short-term interest rate to essentially zero can’t prevent an even deeper recession that began in February without more congressional aid.

That was the lesson we learned in the Great Recession. A divided congress that won’t act creates a divided country.

Harlan Green © 2020

Follow Harlan Green on Twitter: https://twitter.com/HarlanGreen

About populareconomicsblog

Harlan Green is editor/publisher of PopularEconomics.com, and content provider of 3 weekly columns to various blogs--Popular Economics Weekly and The Huffington Post
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