Thursday, June 05, 2008

Mid-Cycle Meltdown?: Jobless Claims June 05 2008

Today, the Department of Labor released their latest read of Joblessness showing seasonally adjusted “initial” unemployment claims declined 18,000 to 357,000 from last week’s revised 375,000 claims while “continued” claims declined 16,000 resulting in an “insured” unemployment rate of 2.3%.

It’s very important to understand that today’s report continues to reflect employment weakness that is wholly consistent with past recessionary episodes and that unequivocal clarity will more than likely come in the next few releases.

Historically, unemployment claims both “initial” and “continued” (ongoing claims) are a good leading indicator of the unemployment rate and inevitably the overall state of the economy.

The following chart (click for larger version) shows “initial” and “continued” claims, averaged monthly, overlaid with U.S. recessions since 1967 and from 2000.

As you can see, acceleration to claims generally precedes recessions.

Also, acceleration and deceleration of unemployment claims has generally preceded comparable movements to the unemployment rate by 3 – 8 months (click for larger version).

In the above charts you can see, especially for the last three post-recession periods, that there has generally been a steep decline in unemployment claims and the unemployment rate followed by a “flattening” period of employment and subsequently followed by even further declines to unemployment as growth accelerated.

This flattening period demarks the “mid-cycle slowdown” where for various reasons growth has generally slowed but then resumed with even stronger growth.

So, looking at the post-“dot com” recession period we can see the telltale signs of a potential “mid-cycle” slowdown and if we were to simply reflect on the history of employment as an indicator of the health and potential outlook for the wider economy, it would not be irrational to conclude that times may be brighter in the very near future.

But, adding a little more data I think shows that we may in fact be experiencing a period of economic growth unlike the past several post-recession periods.

Look at the following chart (click for larger version) showing “initial” and “continued” unemployment claims, the ratio of non-farm payrolls to non-institutional population and single family building permits since 1967.

One notable feature of the post-“dot com” recession era that is, unlike other recent post-recession eras, job growth has been very weak, not succeeding to reach trend growth as had minimally accomplished in the past.

Another feature is that housing was apparently buffeted by the response to the last recession, preventing it from fully correcting thus postponing the full and far more severe downturn to today.

I think there is enough evidence to suggest that our potential “mid-cycle” slowdown, having been traded for a less severe downturn in the aftermath of the “dot-com” recession, may now be turning into a mid-cycle meltdown.