Is there anything good to say about today’s report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics that the U.S. unemployment rate jumped up to 6.1% while seasonally adjusted nonfarm payrolls declined by another 84,000 jobs? Well, here’s one thing. It gives us some real clarity as to just where the economy stands.
Sure looks like a recession when you inspect a graph the unemployment rate, doesn’t it? And it also looks like a recession from the perspective of a model of unemployment dynamics that I published in 2005. If you use that model to analyze the latest unemployment numbers, you’d calculate the current probability of being in a recession at 95%.
As I noted when I discussed that model last month, one reason that the above graph seems to be able to identify recessions so clearly is that it uses the full sample of data available today to infer what was the situation at each historical date. If instead you try to base a call only on the data available at the time, the inference is much choppier. Even so, a 95% probability is not likely to be a miss.
That model distinguishes between a mild recession and a severe recession, with the graphs above combining the two. In fact, the August unemployment report leads to a 14% probability that we just entered the “severe contraction” phase. The last time we had a one-month filter probability of that regime higher than that was October of 1982.
Last month I also discussed some thresholds for recognizing a recession recently proposed by
UCLA Professor Ed Leamer. Leamer says it usually means recession if the unemployment rate has jumped up by 0.8% within the last six months. When Leamer proposed that criterion two months ago, the 6-month increase of 0.5% seemed to leave us well short of the threshold. Today’s numbers imply a 6-month increase of 1.3%, shooting past it pretty definitively.
Leamer also said it would be a recession if the 6-month change in the measure of civilian employment based on the BLS household survey fell by more than 0.4%. Today’s number of -0.354% would technically fall short of that, if you’re determined to split hairs more finely than the allowable pixels in the graph below.
Finally, Leamer said he’d call it a recession if the 6-month change in nonfarm payrolls fell by over 0.5%. Today’s NFP report, while disappointing, still leaves us at only -0.3%. Whew! That was a close call, no?
No. I think we’re better off looking at the 12-month rather than 6-month change in nonfarm payrolls. And the 12-month change, now at -0.2%, is clearly a recession-type number:
And, by the way, calling it a recession when the 12-month change in nonfarm payrolls becomes negative appears to be pretty robust even given the revisions we know are likely to come in these data later.
So I don’t see any way to slice today’s report other than to say, at least as far as the employment numbers are concerned, the U.S. is now definitely in a recession.