I recently published a piece analyzing Jim Clifton's, CEO of Gallup, comments regarding the potential overestimation of employment by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) due to the birth/death adjustment utilized. To wit:
"We are behind in starting new firms per capita, and this is our single most serious economic problem. Yet it seems like a secret. You never see it mentioned in the media, nor hear from a politician that, for the first time in 35 years, American business deaths now outnumber business births.
The U.S. Census Bureau reports that the total number of new business startups and business closures per year -- the birth and death rates of American companies -- have crossed for the first time since the measurement began. I am referring to employer businesses, those with one or more employees, the real engines of economic growth. Four hundred thousand new businesses are being born annually nationwide, while 470,000 per year are dying.
This is an extremely important point as it suggests that employment, as presented by the BLS, has been significantly overstated over the past six years. If we take the differential as stated by Gallup and compare that to the annual birth/death adjustment used by the BLS we find that jobs have been overstated by 3,678,000 or more than 613,000 annually.
How does this compare to the cumulative number of jobs as reported by the BLS since 2009? It is quite substantial."
Now, Jim Clifton is back stating that not only is BLS wrong in its assumptions about employment activity, but also that the 5.6% unemployment number is "extremely misleading."
"The official unemployment rate, as reported by the U.S. Department of Labor, is extremely misleading.
Right now, we’re hearing much celebrating from the media, the White House and Wall Street about how unemployment is 'down' to 5.6%. The cheerleading for this number is deafening. The media loves a comeback story, the White House wants to score political points and Wall Street would like you to stay in the market.
None of them will tell you this: If you, a family member or anyone is unemployed and has subsequently given up on finding a job -- if you are so hopelessly out of work that you’ve stopped looking over the past four weeks -- the Department of Labor doesn’t count you as unemployed. That’s right. While you are as unemployed as one can possibly be, and tragically may never find work again, you are not counted in the figure we see relentlessly in the news -- currently 5.6%. Right now, as many as 30 million Americans are either out of work or severely underemployed. Trust me, the vast majority of them aren’t throwing parties to toast 'falling' unemployment."
Of course, Jim is once again correct. Many arguments of low labor force participation rates have focused on the retirement of the baby-boomer generation. Therefore, to exclude that argument, even though those over the age of 65 that are currently employed is at the highest level on record, we can look solely at the group of individuals that should be actively employed (16-54 years of age.) The following chart, which is the labor force participation rate of solely 16-54-year-olds, shows the real problem with the BLS's employment figures.
Considering that only 46% of that age group are currently employed suggests that an unemployment rate of just 5.6% is highly misleading.
Of course, you already knew that didn't you?
Dividend Cuts To Impact Personal Incomes
Political Calculations brought out a very interesting point recently discussing the rise in dividend cuts due to the deteriorating economic backdrop. To wit:
"Going by the number of publicly-traded companies that acted to cut their dividends in January 2015, the U.S. economy didn't just experience recessionary conditions during the month. Instead, it outright contracted."
"Or perhaps a better description of what happened is that the U.S. oil industry's efforts to push its luck as far as it could has run out of good luck to push.
By that, we're referring to the consequences of falling oil prices, which are forcing an increasing number of companies tied to oil extraction activities in the United States to take the dramatic step of slashing their dividends. With 57 U.S. companies taking that action in January 2015, the number of companies taking that action in a single month is consistent only with previous months in which the U.S. economy either experienced contraction or in response to major dividend tax rate hikes.
January 2015 saw no major tax rate hikes on dividends, so contraction it is."
Importantly, another impact of the decline in dividend payout will be a reduction of the amount of dividend income that makes up part of the personal income and spending reports. The chart below shows the monthly net change of a few components of the personal income figure. Notice that in the most recent month personal interest income is negative due to the plunge in interest rates and dividend income was marginally positive.
Considering that the decline in oil prices is supposed to good for the consumer, even though personal spending declined in the most recently reported period, the decline in dividends will certainly have a negative effect on those depending on those dividends. As I showed recently, the current detachment between spending and the stock market will likely be corrected rather harshly at some point.
2nd Most Overvalued Market In History
I recently gave a presentation at the 2015 World Economic Conference (see full slide deck here) in which I discussed varying aspects of the market that should have investors fairly concerned. High yield spreads on the decline, extreme deviations from the long-term mean, and margin debt levels should all be at the top of the list.
One point I did not include, but should have, was noted recently by my dear friend Doug Short.
"The peak in 2000 marked an unprecedented 147% overshooting of the trend — nearly double the overshoot in 1929. The index had been above trend for two decades, with one exception: it dipped about 13% below trend briefly in March of 2009. But at the beginning of February 2015, it is 91% above trend, down from 95% above trend the month before. In sharp contrast, the major troughs of the past saw declines in excess of 50% below the trend. If the current S&P 500 were sitting squarely on the regression, it would be around the 1060 level. If the index should decline over the next few years to a level comparable to previous major bottoms, it would fall to the low 500 range."
"Incidentally, the standard deviation for prices above and below trend is 40.6%. Here is a close-up of the regression values with the regression itself shown as the zero line. I've highlighted the standard deviations. We can see that the early 20th century real price peaks occurred at around the second deviation. Troughs prior to 2009 have been more than a standard deviation below trend. The peak in 2000 was well north of 3 deviations, and the 2007 peak was above the two deviations -- as is our current level."
As I stated during my presentation, we can certainly "hope" that the markets will continue to march endlessly higher. However, "hope" has never been an effective portfolio management strategy.