Last Friday, the Bureau for Labor Statistics released their Employment Report for August 2020. The big surprise was that the unemployment rate fell to 8.4%, a full percent lower than what many analysts had forecasted earlier in the week. Though it is tough to look at this as great news when millions of Americans are still without work, the number of unemployed is currently much lower than most experts had projected it would be just a few months ago.
Not Like the Great Depression or even the Great Recession
Jason Furman, Professor of Practice at Harvard explained:
“An unemployment rate of 8.4% is much lower than most anyone would have thought it a few months ago. It is still a bad recession but not a historically unprecedented event or one we need to go back to the Great Depression for comparison.”
During the Great Depression, the unemployment rate was over 20% for four consecutive years (1932 – 1935). This April, the rate jumped to 14.7%, but has fallen each month since.
During and after the Great Recession (2007-2009), the unemployment rate was at 9% or greater for thirty consecutive months (April 2009 – October 2011). Most economists believe the current rate will continue to fall monthly as the economy regains its strength.
What Happens Going Forward?
The outcome will be determined by how quickly we can contain the virus. In their last Economic Forecasting Survey, the Wall Street Journal reported the economists surveyed believe the annual unemployment rates will be 6.6% in 2021 and 5.5% in 2022. Though that will still be greater than the 3.5% rate that we saw earlier this year, it is lower than the annual rate reported in 2011 (8.5%), 2012 (7.9%), and 2013 (6.7%).
There are still millions of Americans struggling through this economic downturn. There is, however, a light at the end of the tunnel. The unemployment situation did not get as bad as many had predicted, and the recovery is taking place faster than most thought would happen.
The news these days seems to have a mix of highs and lows. We may hear that an economic recovery is starting, but we’ve also seen some of the worst economic data in the history of our country. The challenge today is to understand exactly what’s going on and what it means relative to the road ahead. We’ve talked before about what experts expect in the second half of this year, and today that progress largely hinges upon the continued course of the virus.
A recent Wall Street Journal survey of economists noted, “A strong economic recovery depends on effective and sustained containment of Covid-19.” Given the uncertainty around the virus, we can also see what economists are forecasting for GDP in the third quarter of this year (see graph below): Overwhelmingly, economists are projecting GDP growth in the third quarter of 2020, with 5 of the 9 experts indicating over 20% growth.
Lisa Shalett, Chief Investment Officer for Morgan Stanley puts it this way:
“Indeed, the ‘worst ever’ GDP reading could be followed by the ‘best ever’ growth in the third quarter.”
As we look forward, we can expect consumer spending to improve as well. According to Opportunity Insights, as of August 1, consumer spending was down just 7.8% as compared to January 1 of this year.
An economic recovery is beginning to happen throughout the country. While there are still questions that need to be answered about the road ahead, we can expect to see improvement this quarter.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) released their latest Employment Situation Summary last Thursday, and it again beat analysts’ expectations in a big way. The consensus was for 3,074,000 jobs to be added in June. The report revealed that 4,800,000 jobs were added. The unemployment rate fell to 11.1% from 13.3% last month. Again, excellent news as the unemployment rate fell for the second consecutive month. However, there’s still a long way to go before the economy fully recovers as 17.8 million Americans remain unemployed.
Here are two interesting insights on the report:
What about a supposed misclassification?
The BLS addressed this at length in a blog post last week, and concluded by saying:
“Regardless of the assumptions we might make about misclassification, the trend in the unemployment rate over the period in question is the same; the rate increased in March & April and eased in May.”
They specifically noted the issue in the latest report by explaining that if they adjusted the rate for the potential miscalculation, it would increase from 11.1% to 12.1% (which is lower than the adjusted rate of 16.4% last month). They went on to say:
“However, this represents the upper bound of our estimate of misclassification and probably overstates the size of the misclassification error.”
Does the shutdown of parts of the economy skew the unemployment numbers?
Because the uniqueness of 2020 impacts the employment situation in so many ways, each jobs report is now examined with a microscope to make sure the headlines generated by the report accurately convey what’s happening in the job market.
One such analysis is done by Jed Kolko, Chief Economist at Indeed. He believes the extraordinary number of people in the “temporary” unemployed category confuses the broader issue of how many people have permanently lost their job. He adjusts for this when calculating his “core unemployment rate” (which subtracts temporary layoffs and adds unemployed who didn’t search for a job recently).
The bad news is that his analysis reveals that the number of permanently unemployed is still rising (from 4.6% in April to 5.9% last month). The good news, however, is when you use his methodology to look back at the Great Recession, today’s “core unemployment rate” is significantly lower (5.9% versus 10.5% in April 2010).
Last week’s jobs report was much better than most expected. However, we should remain cautious in our optimism. As the Wall Street Journal explained in their analysis of the jobs report:
“U.S. job growth surged last month, underscoring the economy’s capacity for a quick rebound if businesses continue to reopen and consumers regain confidence. A recent coronavirus spike, however, could undermine trends captured in the latest jobs report.”
The Wall Street Journal just released its latest monthly Survey of Economists. In an article on the findings, they reported:
“The U.S. economy will be in recovery by the third quarter of this year, economists said in a survey that also concluded the labor market will fare better than previously expected following the effects of the coronavirus pandemic.”
Clearly, the latest jobs report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics confirmed the labor market is outperforming expectations, as it revealed that 2.5 million jobs were added. Directly before the release, experts forecasted that we would lose over 8 million jobs.
A second revelation indicating the economy is already about to turn around was also somewhat unexpected. More than 9 out of 10 economists surveyed believe the recovery has already begun this quarter or will begin in the third quarter. Here are the results of the survey question asking when the recovery will begin: The survey also asked what type of recovery the economists expect.
More than 8 out of 10 believe it will be a form of a ‘V’ recovery:
- A true ‘V’ with a sharp drop and a sharp rebound
- A ‘Nike Swoosh’ with a sharp drop and a more gradual recovery, coined after the company’s logo
Some experts, possibly concerned about a second wave of COVID-19, call for a ‘W’ recovery – a double-dip recession.
Others call for a ‘U’ with a prolonged bottom.
A very small percentage project the dreaded ‘L’ recovery, which is no recovery at all for the foreseeable future (think of the Great Recession).
Though we still have a long and difficult journey ahead, it appears the worst for both the economy and the unemployment situation may be in our rearview mirror.
With the U.S. economy on everyone’s minds right now, questions about the country’s financial outlook continue to come up daily. The one that seems to keep rising to the top is: when will the economy begin to recover? While no one knows exactly how a rebound will play out, expert economists around the country are becoming more aligned on when the recovery will begin.
According to the latest Wall Street Journal Economic Forecasting Survey, which polls more than 60 economists on a monthly basis, 85.3% believe a recovery will begin in the second half of 2020 (see graph below): There seems to be a growing consensus among these experts that the second half of this year will be the start of a turnaround in this country.
Chris Hyzy, Chief Investment Officer for Merrill notes:
“We fully expect the economy could begin to pick up in late June and July with a strong recovery in the fourth quarter.”
In addition, five of the major financial institutions are also forecasting positive GDP in the second half of the year. Today, four of the five expect a recovery to begin in the third quarter of 2020, and all five agree a recovery should start by the fourth quarter (see graph below):
The vast majority of economists, analysts, and financial institutions are in unison, indicating an economic recovery should begin in the second half of 2020. Agreement among these leading experts is stronger than ever.
Last Friday, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) released its latest jobs report. It revealed that the economic shutdown made necessary by COVID-19 caused the unemployment rate to jump to 14.7%. Many anticipate that next month the percentage could be even higher. These numbers represent the extreme hardship so many families are experiencing right now. That pain should not be understated.
However, the long-term toll the pandemic will cause should not be overstated either. There have been numerous headlines claiming the current disruption in the economy is akin to the Great Depression, and many of those articles are calling for total Armageddon. Some experts are stepping up to refute those claims.
In a Wall Street Journal (WSJ) article this past weekend, Josh Zumbrun, a national economics correspondent for the Journal explained:
“News stories often describe the coronavirus-induced global economic downturn as the worst since the Great Depression…the comparison does more to terrify than clarify.”
Zumbrun goes on to explain:
“From 1929 to 1933, the economy shrank for 43 consecutive months, according to contemporaneous estimates. Unemployment climbed to nearly 25% before slowly beginning its descent, but it remained above 10% for an entire decade…This time, many economists believe a rebound could begin this year or early next year.”
What makes this time so different?
This was not a structural collapse of the economy, but instead a planned shutdown to help mitigate the virus. Once the virus is contained, the economy will immediately begin to recover. This is nothing like what happened in the 1930s. In the same WSJ article mentioned above, former Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, who has done extensive research on the depression in the 1930s, explained:
“The breakdown of the financial system was a major reason for both the Great Depression and the 2007-09 recession.” He went on to say that today – “the banks are stronger and much better capitalized.”
What about the families and small businesses that are suffering right now?
The nation’s collective heart goes out to all. The BLS report, however, showed that ninety percent of the job losses are temporary. In addition, many are getting help surviving this pause in their employment status. During the Great Depression, there were no government-sponsored unemployment insurance or large government subsidies as there are this time.
Today, many families are receiving unemployment benefits and an additional $600 a week. The stimulus package is helping many companies weather the storm. Is there still pain? Of course. The assistance, however, is providing much relief until most can go back to work.
We should look at the current situation for what it is – a predetermined pause placed on the economy. The country will recover once the pandemic ends. Comparisons to any other downturn make little sense. Bernanke put it best:
“I don’t find comparing the current downturn with the Great Depression to be very helpful. The expected duration is much less, and the causes are very different.”