Friday, February 4, 2011

36,000 New Jobs and 9% Unemployment, Really?

There's an old adage that traders often cite which goes something like: The market can remain irrational longer than you can remain solvent.

This would be applicable today for anyone (present author included)who believes, a) the market is currently overvalued, and b) economic data should matter.

The latest Orwellian absurdity comes from the Department of Truth, otherwise known as the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) which today produced the ultimate statistical aberration in saying that the number of net new non-farm jobs produced in America in the month of January was a mere 36,000, when expectations were for growth of 148,000.

Notwithstanding that number of new jobs doesn't even keep pace with new entrants into the work force (more on that later), the BLS also advised that the official unemployment rate fell from 9.4% to 9.0%.

By just about any measure, this is statistical nonsense. The only way the unemployment percentage could fall on such a low number of new jobs created would be if the labor force had suddenly declined drastically.

Let's check: no major disasters (well, besides a few big snow storms), an entire city was not wiped out by a nuclear blast and there was no mass suicide by employed people ensconced in office cubicles. However, the BLS has concluded that the US labor force declined from 153,690 to 153,186. In other words, more than 500,000 people just dropped out of the labor force in January.

On that topic, we wonder where they went and what they are doing to survive. Maybe they all were abducted by aliens, or since the weather has been so cold and snowy, decided to just leave their jobs. But, but, but, wouldn't that make the unemployment rate go up, rather than down?

Not according to the BLS. The true explanation is that these half million people were collecting unemployment insurance benefits since probably around February of 2009 and their 99 weeks have run their course, so, let's just not count them any more. Simple logic, but terribly, terribly wrong, because if we just dis-employ people, wait 99 weeks and then dismiss them from the survey numbers, we could see the unemployment rate at just 6 or 7 per cent before long, depending on how quickly the government decides that work is optional, and people can just survive on whatever scraps they pick up alongside the roads while they're on their way to... nowhere, presumably.

The BLS figures are so cockeyed as to make the authors blush, but we don't know who it is who puts these figures together each month, so we'll never know who should hold the shameful award for most obtuse statistics, which these most surely are.

Because the numbers are so incongruously incoherent, investors, or the computers running the algos in the market, must have completely overlooked them, because if the first number - 36,000 net new jobs - is true, the US economy is sinking faster than a mob informant in the East River.

But, if the second number - 9.0% unemployment - is the real deal, then corporations and small businesses are hiring at a break-neck pace and the recovery is on track and we should all be eating lobster tails for dinner every night.

(Whew! I need a drink, and maybe some pills and an IV.)

The truth of the matter is that neither number is correct, though the 36,000 figure is probably a lot closer to the truth than . They are both highly-massaged digits from an unreliable sample in a series that is hopelessly flawed in many ways. And so, the markets did what any overinflated, hyped-by-monetary-easing, derivative-driven market would: they ignored them and went higher, mostly (the NYSE finished fractionally lower).

Dow 12,092.15, +29.89 (0.25%)
NASDAQ 2,769.30, +15.42 (0.56%)
S&P 500 1,310.87, +3.77 (0.29%)
NYSE Composite 8,288.50, -0.55 (0.01%)

Losers finished ahead of gainers, narrowly, 3327-3150. On the NASDAQ, there were 167 new highs, 25 new lows. On the NYSE, new highs beat new lows, 221-12.

NASDAQ Volume 1,966,407,750
NYSE Volume 4,477,823,500

In the commodity space, crude took a dive of $1.51, to $89.03, on rumors that Egyptian president Hosni Mubarek would step down, which makes little sense, except if the price was already $1.50 too high to begin. Gold lost $4.00, to $1,349.00, while silver gained 33 cents, to $29.06. We may be witnessing another dislocation of correlation in the precious metals as the gold-silver ratio regresses to the traditional norm of 16:1, though that figure is still a long way off in the distance.

Taking the BLS numbers into perspective, we are reminded of the quotation, "There are lies, damned lies, and statistics," popularised in the United States by Mark Twain (among others), who attributed it to the British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli (1804–1881). The two are probably enjoying a good laugh and twirl in their respective graves over the follies of fiat currency tied to nothing but the "good faith and credit of the government, of which there is little of the former and too much of the latter.

The world is not coming to an end, though the world as we know it, is. Metrics and measurements change according to political whim, and we can be relatively assured that most of the statistics and rounding-offs coming from the public sector (and many from the private sector, like bank profits) are fatally flawed and not to be believed.

With this in mind, one should not fret much over the immediate future, for it will look much like the immediate past. Forget economics for the weekend, enjoy the Super Bowl and begin making plans for a radically-different future come Monday.

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