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Clarity Comes November 6

12:00 AM, Oct 6, 2012 • By IRWIN M. STELZER
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Friday’s jobs report might, but only might, have been the last one that will have any effect on the race to the White House. By the time the next report is published on November 2, only four days before the election, about 40 percent of all voters will have cast early or mail ballots. But the American Enterprise Institute’s Karlyn Bowman, a polling analyst, says that although we don’t really know how many undecided voters there are, “the best bet” is that about 5 percent of voters are undecided—7 percent in the key swing state of Florida. My own guess is that these Hamlets, if indeed they ever resolve their doubts and do vote, are unlikely to be among the early voters, and so just might be influenced by incoming data in the next 30 days.

Obama and Romney

Here are the facts. Total non-farm payrolls rose by 114,000 in September, with 104,000 of the new jobs added in the private sector. Previous estimates for July and August were increased by 86,000, primarily due to an upward revision in the number of government jobs added. Average hourly earnings and weekly hours worked, and the labor force participation rate all ticked up. The headline unemployment rate, computed from a separate survey of households rather than businesses, fell from 8.1 percent in August to 7.8 percent in September, prompting some conspiracy theorists, among them former GE boss Jack Welch, to claim the Labor Department cooked the books to bring the unemployment rate below that prevailing when President Obama took office, just in time for the election. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis says she is “insulted,” as well she should be.

Now, for the spin. The Obama camp, reeling from their man’s truly dreadful performance in the first debate with Mitt Romney, says the glass is half full and filling up, slowly, but filling nevertheless. The economy Barack Obama inherited was losing 700,000 jobs a month but, thanks to the president’s financial reforms, bail out of the auto industry, stimulus package, and tough treatment of China and other unfair traders, it has added about 5.2 million jobs since the recession ended. Most important, the unemployment rate is now below 8 percent, as the president promised it would be, and that is lower than when the president inherited the economic mess created by his predecessor’s disastrous tax and deregulatory policies. So say the Obama spinners. The president himself jubilantly proclaimed, “We have come too far to turn back now.”

Mitt Romney sees the glass as more than half empty, and leaky. The five million jobs added since the end of the recession are only half of those lost since Obama was elected, despite the hugely expensive stimulus that contributed to the addition of over $5 trillion to the national debt, a 50 percent increase in four years. There are still 12.1 million unemployed workers, and 23 million either unemployed, involuntarily on short hours, or too discouraged to look for work, a consequence of the slowest recovery since WWII. Include these workers in the total and the U-6 unemployment rate (to use the technical jargon) remains stuck at 14.7 percent.      

Perhaps worst of all, some 4.8 million workers have been unemployed for 27 weeks or longer—the government’s definition of long-term unemployed—their skills atrophying, their savings (if any) dwindling, and their psyches badly bruised, a job being more than a pay check. This dire situation, claims Romney, is the result of the rising health care costs to be loaded onto employers by Obamacare, the drag on business investment created by the president’s anti-business rhetoric and regulatory spree, and soaring deficits.

The Manhattan Institute’s Diana Furchtgott-Roth, who served in the George W. Bush Labor Department, and is no fan of the president, nevertheless characterizes the new report as “a very, very good employment report,” with hundreds of thousands moving into the labor force, and finding jobs. But she worries about the high U-6 unemployment rate.

Even if this “very, very good employment report” is helpful to Obama, it is not good enough to end the weakness in the labor market. That lasting improvement will only come when economic growth picks up, and a lot. Ed Lazear, the Stanford University professor who served as chairman of George W. Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers, sees the report as “nothing to write home about,” while Austan Goolsbee, the University of Chicago economist who held the same post early in the Obama administration tells us we can “take some heart” from the new jobs report. But they agree on one thing: The rate of economic growth has to pick up if the jobs market is to recover fully.

The prospects for such an acceleration in growth are not unambiguously bright. Indeed, the economy may well be slowing rather than picking up speed. The growth rate has been declining steadily, from 3.0 percent in the first quarter, to 2.0 percent in the second quarter to 1.3 percent in the third quarter, and some economists expect zero growth or recession in 2013. The year-over-year gain in retail sales in September for the 19 retailers tracked by Thomson Reuters was a tiny 0.8 percent, far below the growth in July (4.8 percent), August (6.1 percent), and last September (5.5 percent). Real spending is growing only modestly and incomes are growing more slowly than expected, according to Goldman Sachs. The hot apartment rental market seems to be cooling, with the decline in the vacancy rate in the second quarter the smallest improvement since early 2010. Reis Inc., which follows the property market for its clients, also reports that demand for office space is slowing somewhat.

Even more ominous for long-term growth prospects is the decline in world trade, as recession bites in the eurozone and growth slows in China. The World Trade Organization estimates that the global volume of trade in goods will expand only 2.5 percent this year, half the rate in 2011 and far below the 14 percent chalked up in 2010. Not good news for exporters. Oliver Blanchard, chief economist at the International Monetary Fund, now says, “It will surely take at least a decade from the beginning of the crisis for the world economy to get back to decent shape.” Since the crisis began with the collapse of Lehman Brothers in September 2008, we have about six years of a non-decent world economy ahead of us. And Americans who are comforted by the fact that we are at least eking out some growth while Europe is in recession might heed the warning of Bill Gross of Pimco, which manages $1.8 trillion in its several funds. He says that America’s reliance on debt is like “an addict whose habit extends beyond weed or cocaine and who frequently pleasures himself with budgetary crystal meth.” He reckons the U.S. must raise taxes or cut spending to the tune of $1.6 trillion per year, compared with the mere $200 billion in spending cuts and tax increases that would occur if America goes over the “fiscal cliff” at year end. One way or the other, whether we borrow until the bond vigilantes cry halt, or don the hair shirt of austerity, the outlook is not brilliant.

And yet, and yet. Auto sales continue to boom, rising in September by 12.8 percent over last year, hitting a 4½ year high as consumers continue to trade in their ageing vehicles. The manufacturing sector picked up in September for the first time in four months, and passed the 50-point mark that the Institute for Supply Management sets as the point at which a sector is growing. Both new orders and employment in that sector rose. The housing market continues to recover: prices are rising, new-home sales are about 28 percent higher than last year, and shortages of houses for sale are being reported in some regions. Private equity funds are sitting on $1 trillion, looking for deals, and corporations have a $2 trillion cash hoard, waiting for some clarity as to future tax and regulatory policy (the Republican view) or a government-stimulated increase in consumer demand (the Democrats’ Keynesian view). Presumably, the clarity businessmen say they seek will come on November 6, when we will learn whether businesses’ failure to invest is due to uncertainty or will be exacerbated by a new certainty: The tax increases and new regulations that President Obama is promising should he return to the White House to finish the job he has described as transforming America.

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