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What Are The Labor Markets Really Saying?
(July 1, 2005) From NetAssets

The labor markets have always been the mother lode of information about trends in economic growth, inflation, and Federal Reserve policy. Unfortunately, the mixed signals from the latest data on jobs and labor costs seem to raise more questions than they answer. In May, payrolls grew by a meager 78,000, the smallest gain since the summer of 2003, adding fuel to the argument that the economy is slowing. But the unemployment rate fell to 5.1%, reaching a new low for this business cycle, implying that the labor markets continue to tighten.


SO WHAT ARE THE LABOR MARKETS really saying about the economy? On balance, the data show more signs that labor markets are tightening than loosening, and those signals go beyond the declining jobless rate.


First, the percentage of the population employed rose in May to 62.7%, the highest in 2 1/2 years. Second, the small May payroll gain followed a super-size increase of 274,000 in April. In general, monthly payroll gains have been unusually volatile over the past year. When smoothed out over time, the data show that the average gain this year has been about 180,000 per month, close to the monthly trend for all of 2004.


Finally, the payroll data overlook the growing numbers of self-employed. That's one reason why the Labor Dept.'s other measure of jobs, which is based on a survey of households as opposed to the survey of business payrolls, shows employment so far this year has risen by 1.3 million, vs. a gain of 900,000 in the payroll data.


The importance of the entrepreneur is also evident in recent comments from the National Federation of Independent Businesses, which represents small companies. NFIB's surveys of its 600,000 members indicate job creation among small businesses is "much more consistent with the household survey than the payroll survey." Corroborating that, the personal income created from proprietorships is growing at an annual rate of 10.5% so far this year, up from a 9.2% pace for all of last year and twice the pace of income from wages and salaries.....(More)

John Sumser

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