The job market received a jolt last week when the Labor Department reported that just 38,000 jobs were added in May, the fewest for any month in more than five years. The experts expected a gain of 150,000 jobs and had included an estimated decrease of about 35,000 striking Verizon workers.
Equally disturbing, the job numbers for the two previous months were revised downward. In total, there were 59,000 fewer jobs in March and April than had previously been reported. This suggests the May numbers will be revised downward next month.
But it gets worse. Of the 38,000 new jobs, only 25,000 were in the private sector. Yet even as job growth stalled, the headline unemployment rate fell to 4.7 percent from 5 percent, in large part due to a drop in the labor force participation rate as many frustrated Americans stopped looking for jobs, meaning they are not counted in the unemployment rate. It’s an ominous sign that suggests the economy may be slowing.
Since the end of the recession, economic growth has been lackluster despite the Federal Reserve putting the pedal to the metal by pursuing zero interest rates and engaging in bond purchases known as quantitative easing. The rationale for this policy is that artificially suppressed interest rates and easy money are required for the Fed to fulfill its full-employment mandate. They assume that low rates stimulate business investment and make it easier for consumers to finance big-ticket purchases such as housing and automobiles.
The May employment numbers are just the latest evidence that it isn’t working. This should come as no surprise, since the Fed high priests’ failure to prophesize the 2008 crisis has been well documented.
President Truman once famously asked for a one-armed economist because his economic advisers kept telling him “on the one hand this, and on the other hand that.” For sure, there are pros and cons to the Fed’s monetary policy. Low interest rates have contributed to a partial recovery and growth may be stronger than it would otherwise have been. The rationale was to lower interest rates to encourage movement into riskier assets with higher yields, including stocks, junk bonds, real estate and commodities. The Fed has privileged Wall Street over Main Street in the belief that the wealth effect will trickle down to the ordinary American worker.
Lower rates would encourage greater leverage, i.e., borrowing to invest and boost asset prices. This pseudo “wealth effect” would then stimulate consumption, economic growth, and job creation. Such monetary policy raises the question of whether the Fed should be promoting risk and inflated asset prices that outpace real economic growth.
On the other hand, zero interest rates have created problems for savers, retirees and those on the other side of the velvet rope. Savers get virtually no return on their money market funds and saving accounts. Indeed, after inflation and taxes, real rates on these instruments are negative, promoting inequality and resulting in declining purchasing power. With so many Americans living paycheck to paycheck, is it any wonder that payday lenders are doing record business?
Lost interest is a permanent loss of wealth. Very low interest rates force retirees, who rely on interest income, to reduce their spending. Workers contemplating retirement will stay in the labor force longer to save more, blocking access for younger workers.
More importantly, low interest rates play havoc with retirement planning for both individuals and pension plans. Pension funds face increasing unfunded liabilities. Without adequate future income streams, retirement as Americans have known it is off the table.
Fed policy can’t overcome structural weakness in the job market that results from the twin challenges of globalization and rapid technological change. Continuing the policy of cheap credit is reminiscent of the old lesson about looking for a lost item under a lamppost at night because that’s where the light is. It’s time to look elsewhere for answers.
Originally Published: Jun 11, 2016