Thursday, February 14, 2019

More Job Creation Ahead

Popular Economics Weekly

The number of job openings reached a series high of 7.3 million on the last business day of December, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported yesterday. Over the month, hires and separations were little changed at 5.9 million and 5.5 million, respectively.

This means more job creation this year, even with January’s 304,000 new payroll jobs in the BLS unemployment report.  The gap between openings and hires is now 1.428 million, a new record and up from 1.304 million in November. It’s a very good number for growth prospects in 2019, as employers don’t look for this many new employees, unless they see a sunny future.

And the gap is likewise high between openings and those who were actively looking for work, at 1.041 million and next only in the record book to November's 1.098 million.

Year-on-year comparisons further underscore the yawing gap with openings up 29.4 percent vs only a 7.1 percent gain for hires. Given how difficult it is for employees to fill openings, the number of layoffs & discharges in the month fell 3.2 percent to 1.697 million.

And the number of employees who quit rose 1.0 percent to 3.482 million in what hints at worker mobility and the pull from higher paying rivals. This is the reason workers’ pay is also rising faster—with real, after tax wages up 2 percent.

There was a slide in business optimism that is temporary, in my opinion, since the NFIB Small Business Optimism Index slipped 3.2 points in January; as owners continued hiring and investing, but expressed rising concern about future economic growth. The 101.2 reading, the lowest since the weeks leading up to the 2016 elections, however remains well above the historical average of 98, but indicates uncertainty among small business owners due to the 35-day government shutdown and financial market instability. The NFIB Uncertainty Index rose seven points to 86, the fifth highest reading in the survey’s 45-year history.

“Business operations are still very strong, but small business owners’ expectations about the future are shaky,” said NFIB President and CEO Juanita D. Duggan. “One thing small businesses make clear to us is their dislike for uncertainty, and while they are continuing to create jobs and increase compensation at a frenetic pace, the political climate is affecting how they view the future.”
Another ‘blip’ that could be temporary was the fall in December retail sales, down 1.2 percent. But that may also be due to the December ‘uncertainties’—a lousy stock market, lousy weather, and the record government shutdown. Republicans got the message, which is why the “no wall” budget compromise just voted on will pass White House muster this time with no government shutdown.

Another reason for optimism this year is less than 2 percent inflation in both the wholesale and retail sectors should keep consumers buying. Wholesale producer prices in the Producer Price Index were pulled down by a 3.8 percent drop in energy that follows 4.3 and 5.1 percent monthly declines in December in November, the latter the month when oil collapsed from $70 to $50.

And happy consumers amid lots of available jobs means they also see a sunny economic future and will act accordingly.

Harlan Green © 2019

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Tuesday, February 12, 2019

What Green New Deal?

Popular Economics Weekly

The Green New Deal resolution introduced in the House by Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) as H. RES.____ is really the vision of what a fully-realized United States of America could look like, if its social and economic ills were remedied. But what Markey and Ocasio-Cortez propose will take at least a generation to accomplish, which a majority of Americans say they support, in the best of circumstances.

That’s because much of the current voting public is older folk suspicious of change; and doubtful the dire predictions on climate change are true. So it must be the Octavio-Cortez’s in generations coming of age that want a better future for themselves than is currently the case.

Markey and Ocasio-Cortez want to change more than environmental laws and regulations in order to eliminate greenhouse gases. They want to make democracy work for everyone in H. RES.____:
“…to promote justice and equity by stopping current, preventing future, and repairing historic oppression of indigenous peoples, communities of color, migrant communities, deindustrialized communities, depopulated rural communities, the poor, low-income workers, women, the elderly, the unhoused, people with disabilities, and youth (referred to in this resolution as ‘‘frontline and vulnerable communities’’).
Much of the business community will also be alarmed by the reversals in pro-corporate policies implemented since the Reagan era that tilted the economic playing field towards Big Business by allowing monopolistic behavior in many business sectors and weakening labor laws.

The Green New Deal wants to strengthen labor laws by “(G) ensuring that the Green New Deal mobilization creates high-quality union jobs that pay prevailing wages, hires local workers, offers training and advancement opportunities, and guarantees wage and benefit parity for workers affected by the transition.”

Let’s first understand where the phrase “Green New Deal” comes from. NYTimes’ Thomas Friedman declared in a 2017 Op-ed that a Rooseveltian, big government New Deal was needed to revive the American economy from its doldrums since the Great Recession, and save Earth from the dire effects of climate change that even the U.S. Pentagon predicts could be catastrophic for world peace.

Friedman summarized its goals as: 1. Zero-net energy buildings: buildings that can produce as much energy as they consume. 2. Zero-waste manufacturing: stimulating manufacturers to design and build products that use fewer raw materials and that are easily disassembled and recycled. 3. A zero-carbon grid: If we can combine renewable power generation at a utility scale with some consumers putting up their own solar panels and windmills that are integrated with the grid, and with large-scale storage batteries, we really could, one day, electrify everything carbon-free. 4. Zero-emissions transportation: a result of combining electric vehicles and electric public transportation with a zero-carbon grid.
The Green New Deal uses Friedman’s suggestions as a blueprint. Their resolution says:
“The October 2018 report entitled ‘‘Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5 of Celsius’’ by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the November 2018 Fourth National Climate Assessment report found that among other things—a changing climate is causing sea levels to rise and an increase in wildfires, severe storms, droughts, and other extreme weather events that threaten human life, healthy communities, and critical infrastructure”
Furthermore, “…global warming at or above 2 degrees Celsius beyond preindustrialized levels will cause— (A) mass migration from the regions most affected by climate change; (B) more than $500,000,000,000 in lost annual economic output in the United States by the year 2100; (C) wildfires that, by 2050, will annually burn at least twice as much forest area in the western United States than was typically burned by wildfires in the years preceding 2019.”
The U.S. Pentagon first raised similar alarms on global warming in a 2015 report to the Senate Appropriations Committee, because of the possibility of global conflicts caused by the struggle for depleted resources.

Climate change 'should be elevated beyond a scientific debate to a US national security concern', wrote the authors, Peter Schwartz, CIA consultant and former head of n-planning at Royal Dutch/Shell Group, and Doug Randall of the California-based Global Business Network.

“The document predicts that abrupt climate change could bring the planet to the edge of anarchy as countries develop a nuclear threat to defend and secure dwindling food, water and energy supplies.
The threat to global stability vastly eclipses that of terrorism, say the few experts privy to its contents,” according to the Observer and Guardian newspapers that first broke the story.

We should be debating how to achieve those goals, not whether it is desirable. The first step must be to eliminate our reliance on non-renewable, carbon-based fossil fuels that is endangering national and international security, as our planet warms while becoming ever more overcrowded.

The truth is it cannot be achieved without a more perfect union, rather than the conquer and divide mentality of certain segments of our current political and economic elites.

The Green New Deal resolves to revive our democracy so that everyone has the opportunity to benefit from it.

Harlan Green © 2019

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Friday, February 8, 2019

What is Driving Household Formation and Home Sales?

The Mortgage Corner

The growth in household formation, the major determinate of home ownership, is slowly returning to pre-housing bubble levels, according to a 2016 report by the San Francisco Fed’s economic research dept. This is a good sign for the future of new home construction as well, that has run a deep deficit since the end of the housing bubble.

The culprit in large part has been a millennial generation reaching adulthood—those born 1981 to 1996—that have been slow to leave home and form their own households, burdened with student debt and a slow to recover job market since the end of the Great Recession.

In 2014, the U.S. Federal Reserve released data about young households under the age of 35, (millennials), and perhaps one of the most striking data points was the low level of income. The median pre-tax income level for heads-of-household below the age of 35 was $35,300 per year. Comparable levels of income for previous years of the same demographic were $38,900 in 1995 and $43,900 in 2001 (all priced in 2013 dollars so we are looking at an apples-to-apples analysis). 
“The shares of young adults heading households now are similar to rates seen at the start of the housing boom,” said the SF Fed researchers. “Moreover, while more young adults are living at home longer, data suggest they are continuing to transition to higher headship rates as they get older…Given current 12-month annual headship rates by age group, the Census Bureau projections imply household formations averaging on the order of 1.4 to 1.5 million per year through 2020. That compares favorably to an average of a little less than 900,000 annually over the past five years.”
This could be boosting new-home sales, which eventually boosts housing construction. Sales of newly built, single-family homes jumped 16.9 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 657,000 units in November after an upwardly revised October report, reports the NAHB, and according to newly released data by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the U.S. Census Bureau. This is the highest sales pace since March 2018. However, on a year-to-date basis, sales are down 7.7 percent from this time in 2017.

Even builders recognize they are dependent on new household formation. “Solid job growth and growing household formations should support future demand for housing even as builders continue to address mounting affordability woes,” said NAHB Chief Economist Robert Dietz. “Builders are doing all they can to hold the line on costs to meet this demand, particularly at the entry-level market.”
Existing-home sales aren’t doing so well. Existing-home sales ran at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.99 million in December, the National Association of Realtors said Tuesday. That was the lowest since November 2015. Sales were down 6.4 percent for the month, and 10.3 percent lower than the year-ago rate.
Lawrence Yun, NAR’s chief economist, says current housing numbers are partly a result of higher interest rates during much of 2018. “The housing market is obviously very sensitive to mortgage rates. Softer sales in December reflected consumer search processes and contract signing activity in previous months when mortgage rates were higher than today. Now, with mortgage rates lower, some revival in home sales is expected going into spring.”
But there is also the problem low inventory. There was just a 3.7 months of unsold inventory at the current sales rate. This is much too low to sustain sales anywhere near normal rates, especially in the affordable range. “…there is still a lack of adequate inventory on the lower-priced points and too many in upper-priced points,” said Yun.

We therefore maybe seeing the end of a not so virtuous circle. A fully-employed economy is drawing more millennials to form households and purchase homes. It’s about time, as the oldest cohort of millennials are approaching 38 years of age.

And reinforcing the good news on the household formation front is that more millennial women are marrying—some 1.2 million were newly-weds in 2016, according to PEW Research. That means even more households are being formed

Harlan Green © 2019

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Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Can U.S. Economy Weather Trade Wars?

Financial FAQs

Why is manufacturing doing so well in the face of rising tariffs—in January when mid-winter business activity tends to slow? Consumers flush with cash from rising wages and full employment are powering higher domestic demand. Exports, on the other hand, have declined because of the rising costs of materials and parts, causing buyers to switch to exports from other countries that aren’t affected by the trade wars. Manufacturing exports had the slowest growth in two years.
The Institute of Supply Management reported that its January manufacturing index registered 56.6 percent, an increase of 2.3 percentage points from the December reading of 54.3 percent. The New Orders Index registered 58.2 percent, an increase of 6.9 percentage points from the December reading of 51.3 percent. The Production Index registered 60.5 percent, 6.4-percentage point increase compared to the December reading of 54.1 percent. The Employment Index registered 55.5 percent, a decrease of 0.5 percentage point from the December reading of 56 percent.”
Any number over 50 indicates that a majority of managers are reporting expanding business in the various sectors that the ISM Indexes measure. The question then is how long can consumers keep this up, while foreign demand for U.S. goods continues to decline? There is very little optimism that the tariff wars will subside soon, given that the revamped NAFTA Treaty has yet to pass Congress, and Democrats in particular not happy with Trump’s cosmetic tweaks that do little to change it.
Brookings’ analysis was that “After a year and a half of negotiations, the three parties are going to end up with a new trade deal that looks remarkably similar to the old NAFTA.”

The ISM’s Non-manufacturing Index for the service sector is also growing robustly, which means that most of the U.S. economy will continue steady growth; at least for the first half of this year and maybe longer if interest rates remain at their current lows.
“The NMI® registered 56.7 percent, which is 1.3 percentage points lower than the December reading of 58 percent. This represents continued growth in the non-manufacturing sector, at a slower rate. The Non-Manufacturing Business Activity Index decreased to 59.7 percent, 1.5 percentage points lower than the December reading of 61.2 percent, reflecting growth for the 114th consecutive month, at a slower rate in January. The New Orders Index registered 57.7 percent, 5 percentage points lower than the reading of 62.7 percent in December. The Employment Index increased 1.2 percentage points in January to 57.8 percent from the December reading of 56.6 percent.”
The problem with the Trump administration’s bargaining style in levying punitive tariffs on exports from friend and foe, on top of the fact that appearances seem to be more important than substance, is that such bully tactics turn off foreign countries who have lots of choices doing business elsewhere than with the U.S.

This is already showing signs of affecting U.S. growth, since consumers cannot maintain their higher consumption (largely fueled by borrowing) forever. The BEA’s Q3 2018 GDP final growth estimate was 3.4 percent, down from Q2’s 4.2 percent. Fourth quarter’s initial GDP estimate has been held up by the government shutdown.

Why the slowdown? “The deceleration in real GDP growth in the third quarter primarily reflected a downturn in exports and decelerations in nonresidential fixed investment and in Personal Consumption Expenditures (i.e., consumer spending),” said the BEA. “Imports increased in the third quarter after decreasing in the second.”

A continuation of this picture could be a sign of further growth problems, if the trade wars aren’t resolved soon.

Harlan Green © 2019

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Saturday, February 2, 2019

Very Strong January Employment

Popular Economics Weekly

Total nonfarm payroll employment increased by 304,000 in January, and the unemployment rate edged up to 4.0 percent, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported today. Job gains occurred in several industries, including leisure and hospitality, construction, health care, and transportation and warehousing.

This is an unusually high jobs number for January, especially after the robust December payroll numbers, which were downgraded to 222,000 private payroll jobs from the original 312,000 jobs total.

The big mystery is with average hourly wages rising at 3.2 percent, there are still no signs of inflation. And that is keeping both short and long term interest rates extremely low. The 10-year Treasury yield has now sunk to 2.65 percent; very unusual for this late in a recovery cycle. It means mortgage rates for a 30-year conforming fixed rate are now 3.75 percent with a one point origination fee for the most credit-worthy borrowers, which is a rate last seen during the Fed’s Quantitative Easing cycles that pushed down long term rates to near post-WWII lows.

And it is keeping the Fed from raising short term rates further, as well, which is boosting consumers’ spending, who are fully-employed and flush with cash from the best wage and benefit increases in 11 years.

The Labor Department said the impact of the partial federal government shutdown contributed to the uptick in both the unemployment rate, at 4.0 percent, and the number of unemployed persons, at 6.5 million. Among the unemployed, the number who reported being on temporary layoff increased by 175,000. This figure includes furloughed federal employees who were classified as unemployed on temporary layoff under the definitions used in the household survey.

Companies that provide leisure and hospitality — hotels, restaurants, gambling, recreation — added 74,000 jobs in a surprisingly strong gain, reports the BLS. Construction firms took on 52,000 new workers, particularly in fields geared toward commercial building. Health-care providers hired 42,000 workers. Transportation and delivery companies beefed up payrolls by 27,000. And retailers increased staffing by 21,000.

Why such low inflation and interest rate numbers? Macro-economists are saying there is a huge amount of liquid assets sloshing around the world from extremely high savings rates by individuals and central banks. Central banks have not really begun to tighten their purse strings, even 10 years into the recovery from the Great Recession. The EU is worried about slowing economic growth, for one, while China is also showing signs of lower growth.

So the American Fed cannot afford to be in a crediting tightening mode, which would put a damper on U.S. growth. Multi-national U.S. corporations aren’t repatriating much of the $2.4 trillion in overseas profits, either, which means most of their profits aren’t being put to work to improve American productivity or future growth.

In fact, even the 2017 Republicans’ Tax Cut and Jobs Act hasn’t helped, as I said yesterday, which MarketWatch’s Howard Gold has labeled the “Shareholder and CEO Enrichment Act of 2017.”

The bottom line seems to be the U.S. is back in the goldilocks growth mode; growth is neither too hot (because of low inflation), nor too cold (with full employment), which is a conundrum of sorts, as former Fed Chair Alan Greenspan was wont to say. It doesn’t fit some economic models.

But many major economists—such as Harvard economist Larry Summers, IMF’s Olivier Blanchard, Nobelists Paul Krugman and Joe Stiglitz—believe it’s a perfect time to put some of that excess cash to better use than boosting stockholder and CEO incomes. Why not use it to begin to build for future growth in all the sectors that would secure a better future—education, infrastructure, R&D, healthcare? All that’s lacking is the political will.

Harlan Green © 2019

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