Friday, December 02, 2011

Unemployment vs. Participation: Which Shows a Truer Picture?

Equity futures were up strongly this morning thanks to reports that the International Monetary Fund would get involved to help resolve the European debt crisis. Futures remained strong when the U.S. employment report came out showing a big drop in the unemployment rate. The unemployment rate, however, is misleading and by early afternoon, stocks gave up much of their gains as investors looked deeper into the numbers.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, nonfarm payrolls rose by 120,000 in November. Nonfarm private payrolls rose by 140,000. Both figures were close to the consensus estimates and they show that the economy is creating jobs, albeit at an anemic pace. The big surprise, however, was the dramatic decline in the unemployment rate. It fell to 8.6%, much better than the consensus estimate of 9.0%. While this grabbed the headlines, things beneath the surface don't look as rosy.

The unemployment rate is defined as the number of unemployed (but looking for work) divided by the civilian labor force. As a result, the unemployment rate can improve simply because fewer people are looking for jobs. This can happen when they get discouraged and drop out of the labor force.

A better measure of the state of employment is the participation rate. This rate divides the civilian labor force by the civilian noninstitutional population. The denominator includes everyone aged 16 and over who is not institutionalized, meaning that they are not in the military, jail, mental institution, or home for the aged. Everyone else is considered capable of working. Of course, some people have legitimate reasons not to work. Perhaps they are still in school, or they prefer to stay at home with the kids, or they have retired. As a result, the participation rate will always be below 100%; however, in a healthy economy, it should be somewhere near 70%.

The bad news is that the participation rate fell from 64.2% in October to 64.0% in November. In fact, as shown in the figure below, this rate has been declining steadily for quite some time.

I don't want to throw cold water on today's jobs report. The nonfarm payroll figures are somewhat encouraging and at least they show that the economy is moving in the right direction. However, don't get fooled by the lower unemployment rate. It may make some people in the White House feel a little better, but the economy won't be out of the woods until the participation rate improves significantly.

I had a discussion in late October about this with Karen Gibbs in Chicago. Interestingly, MoneyShow decided to release the video today in conjunction with the employment report. As you'll see in the video, I stress the importance of focusing on the the participation rate.