The great job fake-out

By Paul R. La Monica, editor at large


NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- So much for, to paraphrase President Gerald Ford, our long national economic nightmare being over.

There were growing hopes that December would be a turning point for the labor market. An increase in payrolls was supposed to be the start of sustained job growth.

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That didn't happen.

Sure, November's number was revised to a gain of 4,000 jobs. So the monthly streak of job losses that spanned back to January 2008 is finally over. But that's little consolation to job seekers, consumers and investors after December's decline of 85,000 jobs. (Job growth returns, then fades)

So what does this mean for the broader economy? Does there need to be a greater push in Washington for another round of government spending to spur job growth? Or does the December jobs disappointment signal that stimulus is a failure?

Many economists believe the recession that began in December 2007 ended sometime last summer. Friday's jobs report doesn't necessarily throw cold water on that argument.

After all, the labor market is often referred to as a so-called lagging indicator, econojargon that means job growth won't truly pick up until a recovery is in full swing.

But the number of jobs lost during the past two years -- 7.2 million (and counting?) -- is significantly greater than the amount of jobs cut during the previous four economic downturns. That is going to make it difficult for the job market and overall economy to recover in a rapid fashion.

Keith Springer, president of Capital Financial Advisory Services, a Sacramento, Calif.-based investment advisory firm, argued that expectations of strong job growth and a robust economic recovery don't ring true with him.

Springer thinks consumers are going to spend less over the next few years as they attempt to save more and pay down debt. That means that there simply won't be a rush to hire back many of the workers that were necessary during the last boom.

"There is going to be a lot less demand for goods and services, and Corporate America is still adjusting to that. A lot of these jobs are not coming back for a long time," he said. "People don't have as much credit available and they are not going to spend as much."

Along those lines, UPS (UPS, Fortune 500) announced Friday that it was cutting 1,800 jobs.

"Looking into the future through my cloudy crystal ball, you have to wonder where the job growth is going to come from. No sector is really poised for dramatic job gains," said John Norris, managing director of wealth management with Oakworth Capital Bank in Birmingham, Ala.

Norris pointed out that the length of the average workweek was unchanged in December and that the increase in hourly wages was a modest 0.2%. The good news is that wages were up and employers weren't cutting hours. But that's not exactly a cause for celebration.

"The worst is probably over for the economy, but the recovery is going to be weak by historical standards," Norris said. "Until average hours and earnings go up more, I don't see how we get massive job creation. If you're worried about the future, you're not going to expand and hire full-time employees."

Time for Washington to leave the job market alone

With all that in mind, should the government be spending even more to jumpstart the labor market? Probably not.

For one, it's not as if the $787 billion approved by Congress last year has already run out. And the Senate is due to vote on another $154 billion jobs program that narrowly passed the House in December sometime after Congress returns to work later this month.

This doesn't mean that stimulus is a failure. The pace of job losses has slowed and many economists believe that consistent job growth could be around the corner.

It's reasonable to think that the job market might have been worse if not for stimulus. But that's precisely why more money shouldn't be spent in Washington. The government has already come to the rescue.

"A lot of stimulus still has to be spent. Let the private sector handle it from here," said Tom Higgins, chief economist with Payden & Rygel, a Los Angeles-based money management firm "Job growth is coming. Unfortunately, people just have to be patient."

And Springer said no amount of money from Washington can change the fact that consumers appear to be adjusting from a pattern of wanton spending to a more thrifty existence.

"The reality is that no matter how much the government intervenes, it can't stop the process of consumers deleveraging. More stimulus would only put a Band-Aid on the wound," Springer said.

So adding to the already colossal deficit may only make matters worse for the long-term economy and, by extension, the job market.

"It's dubious to think you can create more jobs in the short term through more stimulus Hopefully, Washington won't take the December jobs number as a reason to be foolhardy with expenditures," Norris said. To top of page

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