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Weekly Update: Only 80,000 jobs? It must be the end of the world!

Last week, in the midst of writing about whether interest rates could fall any further – pontificating on how bad economic news generally results in lower interest rates and why – I was inclined to say that we’d probably reached the bottom for this cycle…and perhaps for all recorded time.

Then the June employment data was released….

The headline, of course, was the meager gain of 80,000 payroll jobs over the course of the month, and the fact that unemployment remained at 8.2%, unchanged from the prior month. And that’s about as far as most people read.

Such a superficial reading hit the stock markets hard, inspiring further headlines, such as this from The New York Times: “Job Growth Falters Badly, Clouding Hope for Recovery.” In other words, it’s possible to wrench from a very complex set of figures the simple conclusion that we’re on the precipice, once again, of overall economic decline. Take a shallow breath, and the pundits add a few words about the political significance of all this. (Bad for Obama, good for Romney, apparently.)

All of this, however, pays no attention at all to the portions of the report that aren’t quite as eye-catching. For me, the most significant are the group of figures that suggest the manufacturing sector isn’t doing as poorly as analysts were beginning to think they are. Bloomberg.com detailed the mild but still meaningful bits of growth as follows: “Relative strength in the goods-producing sector. Employment in this sector rebounded 13,000 after a 21,000 decline in May. Manufacturing increased 11,000 after a 9,000 rise in May. Construction posted a modest 2,000 gain after dropping 35,000 the month before. Mining edged up 1,000, following a 3,000 advance in May.”

A close reading of these improvements suggests that we may be on the verge of a gradual sea change – one that pushes the core of the economy in the direction of growth, not toward another recessionary decline. Along with better manufacturing data and slightly better construction figures – and we should anticipate that the construction employment figure will continue to grow, especially after last month’s surge for new home sales – we can also find some solace in the fact that employment gains really weren’t very far from the consensus of economists.

There are two reasonable conclusions here:

First, the psychology in the big world of investors is operating under the assumption that we’re in big trouble if the markets aren’t making significant gains. They’re not – though the gains in real-estate-related indicators have very recently been surprisingly good.

In general, the jobs report suggests very little forward movement last month. But the mild recovery in manufacturing, the fact that the unemployment rate didn’t worsen, and the upward revisions in many recent employment numbers (again, think construction) all suggest that we may expect better data soon. When, we don’t know. But the point remains: There is less likelihood that “Hope for Recovery” has been clouded than there is that our economic feet are simply stuck in the mud. Especially in the Roseville/Rocklin and greater Sacramento market, where real estate data is on fire!

The second reasonable conclusion is that we may see the super-low interest rates of today for longer than many of us have anticipated. Indeed, they may even go lower on more bad economic news in the near-term future. Unfortunately, low rates are now the embodiment of an economy that refuses to pick up. But the economy refuses to pick up because of all the reasons for concern and uncertainty, and they are – fittingly – utterly unpredictable.

Nonetheless, it is easy to imagine investors finding solace and inspiration in some future news, and finally allowing interest rates to start rising toward the levels that they should occupy. I mean, who knows? My point this week isn’t that there’s much to rejoice about in the employment data. It’s that there is equal or better reason to be patient and find slow growth and improvement in the report.

Sincerely,

Greg Cowart
(916) 412-3313

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