Sunday, October 2, 2011

It's Not Supposed to Be Like This!

Pardon the fact that I have not posted anything for a while, I switched from Cox Cable to FiOS (ready my post about issues I was having) and had to make all the required changes associated with this. Please note that my web site has now been moved to .

As sooooo many people here continue to summarize Rhode Island's overall economic performance by the recent behavior of its unemployment rate, the collective grasp of how well our state's economy is actually performing continues to slip farther and farther away from reality. 

Recent gains in payroll employment here, which have at times appeared to defy gravity, seem to contradict any hint of weakness, reinforcing the declining unemployment reflects economic strength view. You might think that these large monthly employment gains have been a potential source of confusion to me, as my Current Conditions Index has continued to show a slowing pace of economic activity in Rhode Island. But as of 2011, I have been following Rhode Island's economy for twenty years. Suffice it to say that along the way I have observed and come to know all too many patterns and data combinations that reflect the idiosyncrasies of Rhode Island's economy.

But one doesn't need all this experience to know that it is always preferable to focus on a set of indicators, not any one single variable, to gain an accurate picture of Rhode Island's economic performance. That, of course, was the basis for my creating the Current Conditions Index. And even for a single indicator like payroll employment, there are often several related measures worthy of observation. 

As I have discussed in prior posts, there are two measures of overall employment for Rhode Island. The first, which I have been alluding to above, is payroll employment, the number of jobs in Rhode Island. The second is resident employment, the number of Rhode Islander residents who are working, irrespective of whether this occurs in or outside of Rhode Island. One major difference between these is the inclusion of self-employed persons in resident employment. And that difference matters a great deal in the early stages of recoveries or at turning points for the economy. 

The chart below shows the recent behavior for both employment measures here (click to enlarge):

Note that the year-over-year rate of growth for resident employment peaked before the end of 2010 and has continued to decline, becoming ever-more negative, as 2011 progressed. For payroll employment there is a very different story: after moving to a positive rate of growth in the beginning of 2011, growth continued to accelerate through June. For July there was a modest slowing in growth, before plummeting to an almost 0% growth rate in August. So, was employment here really rising or falling recently?

RESULT #1: Regarding the recent behavior of payroll employment: POSITIVE MEASUREMENT ERROR COMETH BEFORE THE FALL

The dramatic-appearing run up in payroll employment should therefore be viewed as spurious, overstating payroll strength. In August, think of payroll employment figure as a "burp," expelling the measurement error that had accumulated in prior months.

Next, let's link the recent declines in Rhode Island's unemployment rate to changes in employment -- but the employment measure that is in the same survey it is -- the household survey (click to enlarge):

Shouldn't the unemployment rate only fall when employment is rising? While that certainly sounds reasonable and intuitive, it is not necessarily true. First, which measure of employment is this referring to? Second, since the beginning of 2011, Rhode Island's unemployment rate has been declining along with its resident employment


Obviously, there must be another force at work for this to occur, one that is obviously not intuitive. That force is the behavior of our state's labor force, as the next graph shows (click to enlarge):

Rhode Island's labor force has been declining since early 2011, along with both resident employment and the number of unemployed. The fact that the number of unemployed has been declining, even though resident employment has also been falling, is what lies at the heart of the explanation of this strange seeming combination of changes.

The math of August's numbers can be obtained from the following table (data in thousands) (click to enlarge):

Compared to last August, the number of unemployed Rhode Islanders fell by 7,000. That's the good news. But while this was occurring, Rhode Island's labor force declined by 15,200, and its resident employment dropped by 8,200. The trick to understanding this is knowing how the ultimate change in the unemployment rate is determined: the percentage change in the unemployment rate (-7.8%) is approximately equal to the difference between the percentage changes in the number of unemployed (-10.5%) and the labor force (-2.6%).  To simplify this a bit: even though the number of employed Rhode Island residents declined compared to a year ago, in percentage terms, the fall in the number of unemployed was greater than the decline in the labor force. Also, note that while the fall in resident employment was a fairly large number  (8,200), in percentage terms, this was "only" a fall of 1.6 percent, far smaller than the drop in the number of unemployed.

Let me conclude by moving from the math of these calculations and show that in spite of these percentage changes and the way the unemployment rate is calculated, the August data show that a substantial number of Rhode Island's unemployed dropped out of the labor force, presumably as they were unable to obtain suitable employment. Make no mistake, however, the simultaneous and relatively large drop in resident employment is every bit as troubling as this, as it is reasonable to conclude from this rather rare trend that thousands of self-employed Rhode Islanders also "threw in the towel" on their business enterprises. Either way, this indicates that Rhode Island has entered a period of slower economic growth, which is entirely consistent with the recent behavior of my Current Conditions Index


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