A Recovery, If We Can Keep It?

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JONATHAN COHN DECEMBER 2, 2011

A Recovery, If We Can Keep It?

[Guest post by Matt O'Brien]

Note: This post has been updated.

First, there were “green shoots.” Then came “Recovery Summer.” Now, there are yet again signs that a stronger economic recovery may be gaining momentum in the United States, with the November jobs report offering the latest reason for guarded optimism.

The headline-grabber was that the unemployment rate declined 0.4 percentage points to 8.6 percent. This was for both good and bad reasons. The good was 120,000 jobs were added in November—more on that in a bit. The bad was that roughly half of the fall in the unemployment rate was due to people leaving the workforce.

That such a mixed report seems like reason to cheer partly reflects diminished expectations. Over the summer, fears ran rampant that a double-dip recession was imminent. Decent employment growth since then has, at least temporarily, vanquished those concerns. But job growth has barely kept pace with population growth over this period. Full employment would be decades away at this rate.

It’s not fully clear, though, at what rate jobs are being added. As Gary Burtless, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told me, the November jobs report was “a continuation of the pattern we’ve seen for the past few months, in which the payroll numbers initially look much more discouraging than the household number.” What does this mean exactly? The BLS relies on two indicators to measure employment. The first is the payroll figure, which looks at hirings and firings to calculate roughly how many jobs were added or lost. It’s inexact because the BLS uses so-called “birth/death” models to estimate how many jobs small businesses that are too small to report to them have created or eliminated. The second, and generally less reliable, measure is a survey of households—simply asking whether or not people are employed.

The payroll and household numbers have diverged significantly the past few months. In November, the payroll report (which is the official number) showed that 120,000 jobs were added. The household survey showed 278,000 jobs added. While nobody thinks the economy is generating nearly 300,000 net new jobs a month, it does seem that the payroll numbers have systematically underestimated the strength of the economy. Indeed, the most unambiguous positive in the most recent jobs report was that estimates for job growth in September and October were cumulatively revised upward by 72,000. That’s still not enough to bring unemployment back to tolerable levels before the end of President Gingrich’s first term, but it is enough to actually bring unemployment down. It’s the difference between Recovery 2020 and Recovery 2030.

As for the group that most desperately needs a recovery—the long-term unemployed—the story was muddled. Those officially out of work 27 weeks or longer did decline by 185,000, but it’s not clear how much of that was driven by the long-term jobless actually finding work, as opposed to them becoming too discouraged to keep looking for employment. Considering that the workforce shrunk, the latter explanation seems more likely. Another inauspicious sign was that hours worked and worker salaries—usually considered harbingers of whether employers plan to add new positions—stayed flat and went down slightly, respectively, for the month. There is no hiring spree on the horizon.

Meanwhile, austerity at the state and local level continues to hamper growth. While the private sector added a net of 140,000 jobs, government cut 20,000 positions. The conservative recovery continues.

But it is a recovery. Since the double-dip scare back in July, the employment-population ratio, which measures how many working age people have jobs, has ticked up from 58.1 to 58.5 percent. Growth has picked up a bit—though, to state the obvious, we won’t see full employment for quite some time. (Hello, Congress and the Federal Reserve). To be sure, the economy has given us several head-fakes the past two years, with seemingly stronger growth quickly fizzling out, but for now the private sector seems to be expanding faster than most expected a few months ago. Unless, of course, Europe implodes.

Matt O'Brien is an intern at The New Republic.

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posted in: jonathan cohn, economy, united states, gary burtless, matt o'brien

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