Pimco's El-Erian: Headline Employment Numbers No Longer Carry Great Relevance

Friday, 07 Feb 2014 06:45 PM

By Dan Weil

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The headline numbers in the monthly jobs report — the changes in payrolls and the unemployment rate — are no longer adequate to get a true picture of the labor market, says Mohamed El-Erian, outgoing CEO of Pimco.

"Today's labor market is an increasingly complex aggregation of consequential segments with different conditions, dynamics, and policy implications," he writes on Fortune.com.

"The Fed will no longer be able to focus on the unemployment rate as a key indicator for its policy stance. It will give more prominence to other variables, including an inflation rate that remains too low and a labor market that is quite fragmented."

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The unemployment rate fell to 6.6 percent in January from 6.7 percent in December.

El-Erian says the January jobs report, released Friday, contained some good news. "Long-term joblessness, a measure of the depth and likely duration of America's unemployment problem, came down by 232,000 to 3.6 million," he writes.

"That pushed the one-year improvement to 1.1 million, also helping bring down the median duration of joblessness. Also, encouragingly, both the labor participation rate and the employment-population rate went up."

To be sure, El-Erian and others found weakness in the jobs report too.

"It’s another disappointment, but it’s not anything disastrous," Julia Coronado, chief economist for North America at BNP Paribas, told Bloomberg. "We’re still in muddle-along territory rather than take-off mode. There isn’t the kind of momentum in hiring."

But many economists warned against reading too much into the jobs report because of the nasty weather in much of the nation this winter.

"It supports the view that momentum is slowing in the first quarter, but it's too early to draw conclusions and we should not be too pessimistic either," Thomas Costerg, a U.S. economist at Standard Chartered Bank in New York, told Reuters.

Many economists expect hiring to return to healthier levels later this year.

"The underlying trend in employment growth is still decidedly positive, despite the slowdown we experienced in December and January," Diane Swonk, chief economist at Mesirow Financial, wrote in a research note. 

"We are not likely to see a 'clean' report on employment, however, until (if?) the weather normalizes this spring."

Solid job gains in January in manufacturing and construction point to underlying strength, they claim. The government said Friday that manufacturers, construction firms and mining and drilling companies added a strong 76,000 jobs combined.

"You rarely see expansions in these industries without the economy being in fairly healthy shape," Gary Burtless, an economist at Brookings Institution, told the Associated Press.

Job growth "clearly has downshifted over the past two months," said Doug Handler, chief U.S. economist at IHS Global Insight. "But we still believe the economic fundamentals remain strong and ... forecast an acceleration of growth later in the year."

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