Friday, March 05, 2010

Diffusion Index and Temporary Help

by Calculated Risk on 3/05/2010 11:24:00 AM

First - David Leonhardt at the NY Times Economix asks: Is the Recovery Losing Steam?

How you view today’s jobs report depends on snow.
If the storms indeed had a big effect — if they cut even 100,000 jobs from payrolls — then today’s report counts as very good news.
If the snow effect was close to zero ... the recovery is losing steam — as the peak impact of the stimulus is now past and consumers and businesses still aren’t spending aggressively.

Which of these two situations — the optimistic or pessimistic one — is more plausible? You’ll hear a lot of strong arguments today, but no one really knows. The uncertainty about the snow effect is too big, as the Labor Department did a nice job of acknowledging.

My guess is that recovery has indeed lost some steam in the last couple of months.
We won't know which "snow" view is correct for another month - or maybe even months.

But here are a couple more graphs based on data in the employment report - and both of these are little more positive ...

Temporary Workers

From the BLS report:
In February, temporary help services added 48,000 jobs. Since reaching a low point in September 2009, temporary help services employment has risen by 284,000.
Temporary Help This graph is a little complicated.

The red line is the three month average change in temporary help services (left axis). This is shifted four months into the future.

The blue line (right axis) is the three month average change in total employment (excluding temporary help services).

Unfortunately the data on temporary help services only goes back to 1990, but it does appear that temporary help leads employment by about four months. When we discussed this graph last year, temporary help suggested positive job growth in December 2009. But with revisions - the graph has been shifted a few months.

The thinking is that before companies hire permanent employees following a recession, employers will first increase the hours worked of current employees and also hire temporary employees. Since the number of temporary workers increased sharply, some people think this might be signaling the beginning of an employment recovery.

However, there has been some evidence of a shift by employers to more temporary workers, and the saying may become "We are all temporary now!", so use this increase with caution. For more, including some cautionary comments from a BLS economist on using temporary help, see Tom Abate's article in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Also - the temporary hiring for the Census should probably be excluded from this graph in the future (remember the Census will boost payroll jobs by maybe 100 thousand in March, and up to 500 thousand in May - but all those jobs will be lost over the following 6 months).

Diffusion Index

Employment Diffusion IndexThe BLS diffusion index for total private employment increased to 48.0 from 44.2 in January. This is the highest level since March 2008.

For manufacturing, the diffusion index is at 54.9, the first time above 50 since November 2007.

Think of this as a measure of how widespread job losses are across industries. The further from 50 (above or below), the more widespread the job losses or gains reported by the BLS. From the BLS:
Figures are the percent of industries with employment increasing plus one-half of the industries with unchanged employment, where 50 percent indicates an equal balance between industries with increasing and decreasing employment.
The diffusion index had been trending up, meaning job losses are becoming less widespread.

However a reading of 48.0 is still below the balance level, and I'd expect the diffusion index to be at or above 50 when the economy starts adding net jobs.

Earlier employment posts today:
  • Employment Report: 36K Jobs Lost, 9.7% Unemployment Rate for graphs of unemployment rate and a comparison to previous recessions.
  • Employment-Population Ratio, Part Time Workers, Unemployed over 26 Weeks