Partners - Stock market, economic and political commentary by Patricia Chadwick

Posts Tagged ‘Jobs’

JOBS, JOBS – Will They Ever Come Back?

Monday, February 8th, 2010

Yes and No!! That’s the honest truth and that’s the way it’s been throughout history in an innovative and vibrant economy like ours in the U.S. Some jobs constantly disappear while new ones are being created. Unfortunately, the job destruction part often comes harder and faster than the job creation part.

Just a decade ago, we experienced the Dot.com bust in this country. The “new” economic paradigm came crashing down and the “old” economy survived despite its foretold demise. The bloated workforce dedicated to an industry that seemed to go from infancy to adulthood in the span of less than five years, found itself decimated. Those Dot.com jobs have not been restored. But the technology that spurred the meteoric rise of the Dot.com industry did not die. And steadily over this last decade, continued advances in the area of telecommunications have spawned innumerable jobs in our economy.

A decade before that, we experienced the S&L crisis, where a large number of savings and loan organizations met their untimely demise through their own mismanagement. That was just as their future seemed glorious in the aftermath of the industry’s deregulation by Congress. The housing industry came to its knees. But it did not die; slowly and steadily, after the bloated inventory of second and third homes became absorbed into the economy, housing once again became a vibrant industry.

And only ten years before that, we lived through the rise and fall of the energy industry. With oil prices hitting $40 per barrel in 1980, (that was the equivalent of over $100 today) workers in the northern states were leaving “the rust belt” as the manufacturing heartland of this country was dubbed, to head for the “gold” in the oil fields of Texas. The migration was huge, raising real estate prices in the Southwest and decimating them in Michigan, as auto workers became oilfield workers. And then hardly a year after the peak in prices, it all ended. The price of oil came crashing down and oilfield millionaires turned into oilfield bankrupts. Homeowners abandoned their mortgaged houses and the State of Texas was the least exciting place to live.

This go round is really no different in its nature. An industry, in this case the banking/mortgage industry, brought about its own destruction. By using borrowed money with abandon in order to grow, by encouraging its customers to pile on debt and by lowering its own standards for lending, the banking industry sowed the seeds of its current crisis. Now, as the industry shrinks from its bloated size, it is shedding employees that were needed only when it was overweight. A trimmer industry will emerge and some people will be hired back, but not to the levels of just two years ago.

But fear not, the spirit is willing even if the flesh is weak. That entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well in the U.S. New industries will arise and they will create new jobs – green jobs, telecommunications jobs, jobs in industries without a name as of yet. It will take time and that is the frustrating part. And a decade from now, a new economic crisis will raise its ugly head to prove yet again that trees do not grow to the sky.

Labor Productivity is a Two Edged Sword

Monday, January 11th, 2010

The productivity gains that the U.S. economy has achieved over the last twelve months have been nothing short of impressive. Through a combination of increased output and reduced hours worked, unit labor costs have been declining. In the tough world of economics, this is the way the system works.

In a capitalist system, productivity gains are essential for long term success, for the ability to raise real wages and to increase standards of living. During periods of economic growth, it can be relatively easy to grow profits. Productivity often appears to be a bit of a luxury. Holding on to hard-to-find labor carries a higher priority than the marginal profit produced. Capital investment rises along with labor costs – a bit of a guns and butter approach, as profits are easy to achieve.

But when the economy is in a recession, as it is today, the business of finding ways to reduce costs and squeeze profits out of diminishing revenues becomes a necessity. Management cuts the workforce, knowing that labor is cheap and easy to find. And lo and behold, marginal profit starts to increase.

UPS is a case in point. The headline in this weekend’s Wall Street Journal read: “UPS Raises Profit Expectation”. The subtitle was: “Shipper Plans to Eliminate 1,800 Jobs…” That workforce reduction was in addition to the 13,000 jobs it cut in 2009. Despite a significant increase in its fourth quarter volume, as retailers panicked and decided to fill their shelves for the Christmas selling season, the company rationalized its new workforce reduction by pointing out the productivity it has been able to achieve through technology.

The dilemma occurs when the economy bottoms out and starts to improve, a condition that appears to be emerging today in this country, and in many other countries around the world. Wary of the strength of the emerging economic resurgence, managements are loathe to hire laid off employees. So they push production harder and achieve even greater productivity. It looks like a virtuous cycle for capital. What is lacking is the benefit to sidelined human capital. The labor force is the last element to participate in the economic rebound.

There is no reason to believe that this economic cycle will be any different. In fact, given the depth and breadth of the current recession, I believe that employment gains will be slower to emerge as the economy improves. This will be evident in a continued high level of unemployment even as profits continue to grow and revenues rebound during this year and next.

The 10% official rate of current unemployment in the U.S. understates the true level, which includes all those workers who have been discouraged from seeking employment after months of endlessly searching. As the economy improves and those job seekers re-emerge, they will once again be counted in the statistics of the unemployed, further depressing the official Government rate of unemployment. The decline in a number of Federal Government stimulus programs will only exacerbate the situation.

Expect the unemployment rate in the U.S. to stay high throughout this year. I will venture to say it will not likely go below 9%. I hope I am wrong.