Friday’s unemployment rate was a real downer for the markets. Although the unemployment rate itself dropped from 8.2% to 8.1%, that number was deceiving. The markets immediately saw through the headline number. The resultant decline was hefty.
In April, the labor force participation rate, the employment-to-population ratio, and the number of people who said they are employed all fell in the month. The sad fact was that 350,000 people quit looking for jobs altogether. As a result, the labor force technically shrunk, which makes the overall unemployment rate look better than it actually was.
Investors ignored the fact that the number of jobs that were reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics over the last three months was all revised upward. In total, during the last quarter 53,000 more jobs were gained but went unreported until now. But the market focused solely on this month’s data and sold accordingly.
I think that responding to an individual data point is a mistake. Data like unemployment numbers, GDP and the like should be viewed over time. It is the trend that counts, not individual data reports, because government statistics by their nature are highly inaccurate and most of the time undergoes several revisions before a final figure is reported. Yet, the markets insist on trading off today’s numbers as if they held the answer to the market’s directions for days or weeks into the future.
The big drop in labor participation, however, is not a good sign for the economy or for the administration. In an election year, the GOP front runner, Mitt Romney, is asking voters if they are better off today than they were at the beginning of the Obama Administration. Clearly those 350,000 workers who have abandoned the work force will answer with a resounding no.
And yet the total number of jobs has grown since President Obama came into office, so both sides will use the unemployment data to suit their own agendas. As the politicians blame each other for the failures and take credit for the successes, no one is really enunciating a clear and precise plan for how to increase the number of jobs in this country. It is simply a game of sound
Overseas, this weekend there are also elections in both France and Greece. It appears from the polls that Nicolai Sarkozy will lose the presidential election and French Socialist candidate Francois Hollande will take over the reins of power. This will present a problem to both Germany and the European Union since Hollande intends to renegotiate the recent austerity pact signed after much deliberation and market turmoil by EU members.
In Greece, parliamentary elections will be held in the midst of a deep recession caused by these same austerity measures. There is enormous unhappiness among Greek voters toward the European Union and its own leaders in both major political parties. Extreme and radical fringe party candidates have been gaining support. There is a chance that voters will not only reject both parties but elect new radical leaders that will want to either renegotiate all their past agreements with the EU or outright reject remaining agreements within the Eurozone altogether.
Given this background, it is not surprising that investors are selling first and waiting for the elections results later. Next week could offer investors a wild ride if things go the wrong way in Europe. Despite the sell-off this week in the markets, we are still a mere 33 points below the level of the S& P 500 Index at the beginning of April. We could easily fall further given the right circumstances. My advice is to stay defensive and remain on the sidelines until the landscape is a bit less muddy.