Could the Labor Statistics be Rigged?

I just posted at comment at Marketplace.org in response to an article written earlier this year regarding data rigging. The conclusion of the article was that data are noisy, but rigging is not the issue. This, of course is all relevant given the Tweeter, Jack Welch‘s comment accusing the “Chicago boys” of manipulating the data. As Joe Nocera points out in his column today, the last accusation of employment data manipulation was by Richard Nixon of the BLS under his own administration when the numbers were more negative than he would have liked. I am not surprised that a former corporate CEO, particularly Jack Welch, would have so quickly jumped to a data manipulation accusation. Most public company CEOs are quite used to data massaging at least once a quarter to satisfy the stock market. I guess they must assume that everyone else does the same to meet objectives other than accuracy. Below is the posted comment to the Marketplace article.

If one looks at the history of revisions of economic data ranging from GDP to Labor Stats there is a pretty consistent picture. When the economy is declining the revisions tend to be negative. At turning points the revisions are noisy. And, in improving economies the revisions are usually positive. This is not always the case, but usually. We are in a slowly improving economy. The ADP employment reports which even Jack Welch, the tweeter, wouldn’t accuse of being rigged, have been better than the numbers from the labor department prior to revisions. The labor situation is quite dynamic—4 million people leave jobs and take jobs every month. The difference between those two represents the increase or decrease in jobs “created.” Take a look at http://bit.ly/NXCmxF, to get some more info on this. Whoever is president for the next four years will get credit for the continued improvement unless the crazies in Washington don’t deal with the Fiscal Cliff. I am optimistic.

The Facebook IPO: In my view it was quite successful

I don’t totally get the Sturm und Drang around the Facebook IPO.  There may prove to be some issues around disclosure, NASDAQ, stabilizing of price, and anything else someone wants to raise to support their own agenda.  However, I said yesterday on Bloomberg Hays Advantage that from the company’s point of view, this was a very successful IPO.  The company issued public stock against a set of governance issues that in many instances would not have allowed a “normal” company to face its shareholders with a straight face. The underwriting fees were at a discount to “normal” fees.  It basically got the near term high tick on the stock price. It was the third largest raise in the history of IPOs and put additional capital in the company’s coffers and provided more immediate liquidity for its private equity investors than one would ordinarily see on an initial offering. Even with the decline in the stock price, this company is being valued at around $60 Billion, significant multiples of revenues and earnings. Certainly, the senior executives are expecting to continue to build a company over a long time period and have the ability to control that build, given the degrees of freedom to do so without interference from their shareholders. Today’s price of the stock is of less concern to them.  The public shareholders can only vote by buying more stock or selling it. They have very limited say in the governance of the company. The 26 pages of risk factors in the S-1, the filing statement, clearly spelled that out.

From the underwriters’ perspective it doesn’t look as good.  Underwriting does involve taking risk. There is always an attempt by the underwriters to leave something on the table. It takes out a fair amount of their risk and makes room to exercise the “shoe” to sell more stock (and generate more fees) above the original offering amount. The demand appeared to be there, but with some pushing from the company, I am sure, the price and amount were raised, as was the risk.  The world of IPOs has changed though, given the increase in high-frequency trading and the increasing presence of hedge funds in the IPO process. While most companies would prefer to see their stock go into the hands of long-term investors, the underwriters have a client constituency that, implied or otherwise, expects to get significant participation in a hot IPO because of all the other business they do with the investment bank. In this instance there was also a decision made to put more of this stock into the hands of a less-informed individual investor. I would like to know how many of those individual investors actually read the S-1 before they made their decision to buy the stock.

In addition, the concept of being able to “stabilize” the price movements and trading action around an offering is almost non-existent. The dollars available in the market place to influence price movement overwhelm any amount of capital that the underwriters can put to work. In this instance, even the trading systems, as robust as they are, were not adequate to handle the 80 million shares that ultimately traded in the first thirty seconds after the stock was finally opened, much less the 570 million shares traded in the full day. This was a huge offering of shares of a company operating in a mode of creative destruction of legacy businesses with the volatility associated with that. Exciting, newsworthy, with more news to come over many years. I am most excited about the wealth creation that did occur for those who put their capital and their energy at risk in the creation and early funding of the company. Much of that capital will likely make its way back into the creation of other companies that will take advantage of the phenomena of increased processing speeds and the power of information control put into the hands of individuals. Very, very exciting!

Labor Market, Stock Market, The Economy, and Why the JOLTS Report is Both Good and Problematic

The labor market is fine, but there are some concerns (and opportunities). Listen to the podcast of a conversation with Bloomberg’s Kathleen Hays and Vonnie Quinn of “The Hays Advantage” on Bloomberg Radio from April 10, 2012. These two posts and a link will also provide some background: http://bit.ly/wfpykq , bit.ly/zAEswR , bit.ly/H9EBHo .

Download the podcast

The Employment Situation is Quite Dynamic–2 Million quit their jobs in February

The February employment numbers are showing an encouraging trend that began last year. I expect this to continue with some ups and downs. It is supporting one of the surprises in “What Could Happen in 2012 (and beyond).”  Net, net, 227,000 jobs were added in February, and with a half million increase in new job seekers, the unemployment rate stayed at 8.3%. I am not sure everyone understands the components that go into that net number which reflect a very dynamic labor situation in the United States. The net number of new jobs is a result of about 4 million people being hired every month while roughly the same number leave their jobs. What is interesting is the make-up of those numbers. Using the latest available data (December 2011) here are some interesting facts that, if nothing else, will provide some cocktail conversation at your next party (don’t invite me, please):

In December 2011, 4.0+ million people were hired. 3.9 million were separated. Only 1.9- million were actually laid off. 1.9+ million quit, typically to take other jobs, and 330 thousand left for retirement or other personal reasons. At the end of the month there were 3.4 million job openings remaining to be filled.  This is up from 2.9 million in December 2010.

This kind of dynamic goes on every month in the US. If we look at some of the peak numbers prior to the recession, in 2006, average monthly hires were 5.4 million; layoffs were only 1.8 million; other separations were 0.4 million; Quits were a very large 3.0 million. The average number of unfilled jobs at the end of each month was 4.5+ million. Construction employment also peaked in that year averaging 7.7 million. In December 2011, it was 5.5 million.

December 2011 2006 monthly average
Hires 4.0 million 5.4 million
Total Separations 3.9 5.2
Layoffs 1.9 1.8
Other Separations 0.3 0.4
Quits 1.9 3.0
Net Jobs Added 0.227 0.155
Job Openings 3.4 4.5
Construction Employment 5.5 million 7.7 million
Unemployment Rate 8.5% 4.5%

There are many interesting statistics that tell a story of a fairly dynamic labor picture in the US. One of the most worrisome numbers, in my view, is Job Openings. In such a dynamic labor force there will always be substantial unfilled jobs. While geography, timing and Quits play a role, it is an indication that the skill sets don’t match up with the requirements.  Companies find much of their labor requirements from those who already have jobs and skills. It is great for those with the acquired skills who are improving themselves, but, on balance, it raises labor costs and does nothing about those who want jobs who don’t have the appropriate skills. I think corporations will have to fill the training role–and some are. Clearly, our educational system isn’t doing it, although the unemployment rate for those with a college degree is only 4.2%. The military can also fill this role as an important plus for those who do choose to serve. By the way, the unemployment rate for all veterans is 7% while non-veterans are at 8.6%.  Among male veterans/non-veterans it is 7.2% and 9.3% respectively.  I could go on with these little tidbits. For those who are interested just visit www.bls.gov. I find it much more interesting than browsing Facebook. It is tougher working it in to a cocktail conversation, though. Seems to have less impact than talking horoscopes or The Voice.

What Could Happen in 2012 (and Beyond)

Byron Wien, the Election, the Economy, Immigration, China, India, South America, Education–surprises!

Byron Wien does the most thorough job of putting together thoughtful, provocative and useful ideas on possible surprises for each year. I have been fortunate enough to know Byron and to participate in the Third Thursday group on which he draws, in part, to test both conventional wisdom and real surprises. I could not attend the December lunch this year as I was in India. Below is the email I sent Byron in late November. I will use that as the start of my thoughts on surprising things that could happen in 2012 and will then toss out a few additional ideas. Here we go:

“Byron, Am heading to India on Friday. Sorry I will miss your pre-surprise lunch. Am attaching copies of the text and slides I will be using in India. I don’t think they say anything you don’t know, but you might find something in there…My big surprise is that Joe Biden will not be the VP candidate in the coming election. Second surprise would be that the US does better than expected in 2012 given the debacle in Europe. Neither China nor India do as well as currently expected and China steps up to do something in Europe–maybe buy a Greek Island? They need Europe. Brazil starts to look a bit like Argentina–I think they are way understating their inflation rate. Capital flows our way and the RU dips into the 7’s before the election. If so, Obama wins in a walk. The really big surprise would be Huntsman as the Republican candidate–or maybe Obama’s VP candidate? What a ticket that would make. Jack”

The idea of surprises is to get people thinking away from trendlines. I use Byron’s definition, which is a personal belief that there is greater than a 50% chance of something happening where conventional wisdom is less than that. Let’s continue:

1) It is hard to see us getting through the year without an energy crisis of some type where demand significantly exceeds supply and oil prices spike once again. This could stem from trouble in the Middle East, Africa or Asia. It could be brought about by some covert action by the US that has been in the works for some time and comes to fruition within the next 10 months. There are too many possibilities for this not to have greater than a 50% chance of occurring within this calendar year. The combination of a hydrocarbon energy crisis combined with a major climate disaster somewhere in the world will lead to policy actions on the part of the US to accelerate both natural gas development and alternative energy development as well.  Energy efficiency finally begins having its day. Talk of a carbon tax grows particularly as other countries implement implicit and explicit carbon pricing.

2) Contrary to a normally quiet year during a transition of leadership, to some extent forced by an “Asian Spring” throughout the region, China takes several bold steps in response to a more activist populace upset with corruption, the environment, and some areas of economic stress, combined with a desire by Hu and Wen to put more of their stamp on the future.  This includes major acquisitions in the developed countries as well as the opening of manufacturing and service facilities. At home, R&D is accelerated particularly in alternative energy, space and IT processing. Subsidies for hydrocarbons are reduced or eliminated and an explicit carbon tax is put in place. Following Australia’s lead and China’s moves, several Asian countries put in place mechanisms to reduce their use of conventional hydrocarbons for energy–although everyone finds that they have 200 million year-old hydrocarbons in shale formations and begins using the immature  production technologies developed in the US, creating even more environmental disasters.

3) As the US economy grows, corporations find qualified hires difficult to come by. Enlightened corporations, led by GE,  become educational institutions to provide skills and basic knowledge to a work force that has been idle and undereducated by the public systems which were supposed to do the job. Corporations become much more vocal about bringing illegal immigrants into the US system, expanding visa programs and finding other mechanisms to add talented labor to the pool domestically. It becomes clear that a controlled amnesty program for current illegals in the US will add significantly to GDP and to government revenues. The tide begins to shift on immigration issues.

4) The US labor situation is aggravated in the short term by decisions on the part of several US corporations to bring manufacturing operations back into the States.  Labor costs are rising elsewhere and the elements of control, rule of law, productivity and relative safety lead to better economics manufacturing locally. Caterpillar’s actions with its Canadian operations start the ball rolling. As stated above, US corporations take on a significant role in training and general education to meet their labor needs.

5) In spite of the demand for its natural resources, South America finds itself in much more turmoil politically and economically than one might expect. Natural disasters from climate change and it’s young mountain ranges compound economic issues from changes in export markets and a continuing misallocation of financial resources. Led, once again, by problems in Argentina, some degree of turmoil ripples north through the continent into Central America and requires more of the attention of the US than we have been willing to give thus far. Immigration to the US, both legal and illegal, accelerates as the US economy picks up steam.

6) India becomes a focal point. With an economy not growing adequately to provide jobs, upward mobility and political stability, India looks for diversions. Troops move north to “prepare” for confrontation with China, and west to confront Pakistan. Some elements internally are confronted as well. While the numbers show growth, the quality is somewhat problematic. Energy shortages push India toward even more aggressive alternative energy policies.

These aren’t all of the surprises we will find in 2012. I must say I continue to be optimistic about the US in spite of the crazies in Washington and the anger, bigotry and fear manifesting itself during the Republican primary battles. All of those who were planning on moving out of the country if Obama was re-elected–the ABO crowd– or any of the Republican choices–the ABAR crowd, might want to reconsider.