The employment report does not look pretty

Here's how to read it.

On the face of it, parts of August’s U.S. employment report, released on September 6th, don’t look too pretty.

Non-farm payrolls increased by a tad less than expected, (but only missed by a paltry 11,000), and there were revisions down totalling 74,000 to the previous two months’ figures, and at first sight the reasons for the drop in the headline level of employment from 7.4 per cent to 7.3 per cent look disappointing, in that the fall was driven by a drop of 312,000 in the labour force seeking work, whilst the numbers of those in work actually declined by only 115,000, but look closer and you discover that the number of people who aren't working, but would like to be, actually collapsed by 334,000 in August! Think about that. What that is telling us is that work patterns are changing-there are more who want to work only part-time and this fall is also evidence of something much more important to the Fed-a structural change in the U.S. economy that implies it is not going to be able to employ as many people, even when it is growing full tilt-maybe the famous, but enormously difficult to measure, output gap, has shrunk.

The so-called Household Survey of employment, which kicks out the headline unemployment rate, is notoriously volatile, when compared to the Establishment Survey from which non-farm payroll changes are calculated.

The above goes part of the way to explain why I feel these figures weren’t weak enough to stop the Fed tapering down its purchases of US Treasuries, (not Mortgage Bonds), at its 18 Sept. meeting. They may lead to a smaller reduction in purchases, but even that may not be the case. Why?

Well, even parts of the Household Survey were positive-average hourly earnings ticked up from flat in July, (initially reported as -0.1 per cent), to +0.2 per cent, and the average workweek increased from 34.4 hours to 34.5. The broader U6 measure of unemployment fell even further, to 13.7 per cent, from 14.0 per cent. Remember, the Fed told us it wouldn’t just look at the headline figure, but that it would drill down into its composition and look at other labour market indicators.

Just as importantly however, (especially given the volatility and margin for error of the employment survey), we have to remember that recently we have been treated to a veritable slew of positive data surprises, including a drop in the 4-week moving average of those making initial jobless claims to 329,000; a new post-recession low. Other good news has come in the shape of better than expected releases for Existing Home sales, Consumer Confidence, Vehicle Sales and, most encouragingly, as they are forward-looking indicators, the Institute of Supply Managers’ surveys of sentiment in both the manufacturing and services sectors.

None of the above should stand in the way of further advances for developed market equities. Yields are normalising for "good" reasons, and the Fed has done a good job in ensuring they don’t surprise us with their first steps towards tightening-this is not a repeat of 1994’s bond market rout.

Photograph: Getty Images

Chairman of  Saxo Capital Markets Board

An Honours Graduate from Oxford University, Nick Beecroft has over 30 years of international trading experience within the financial industry, including senior Global Markets roles at Standard Chartered Bank, Deutsche Bank and Citibank. Nick was a member of the Bank of England's Foreign Exchange Joint Standing Committee.

More of his work can be found here.

Show Hide image

It's time for Jeremy Corbyn's supporters to take on the unions

The union support for expanding Heathrow reflects a certain conservatism. 

The government’s announcement that it will go ahead with a third runway at Heathrow seems to have unlocked an array of demons. It has also created some unlikely alliances. Zac Goldsmith, the pro-Brexit mayoral candidate whose campaign was widely condemned as racist, is seeking to re-invent himself as an environmental champion, campaigning alongside fellow Heathrow MP John McDonnell. And the Richmond byelection which he is triggering could yet become a test case for Labour’s progressive alliance enthusiasts.

But perhaps the most significant position is that of the major unions. To the shock of many less seasoned activists on the left, Unite, the largest trade union in the UK and a consistent supporter of Corbyn’s leadership, has loudly called on the government to “be bold and build” the new runway, even now urging it to accelerate the process. Far from being a revelation, Unite’s position on Heathrow is longstanding – and it points to the lasting power and influence of an establishment trade unionism.

In August, the TUC co-ordinated a joint statement from five unions, urging the government to go ahead with the third runway. Like the rest of the unions’ lobbying efforts, it was coordinated with other pro-expansion stakeholders like the CBI, and it could just as easily have been authored by the business lobby. Heathrow expansion will, it says, “deliver at least £147bn to UK GDP and 70,000 new jobs”. “Trade unions and their members”, said Frances O’Grady, “stand ready to work to help the government successfully deliver this next major national infrastructure project”.

The logic that drives unions to support projects like Heathrow expansion – and which drives the GMB union to support fracking and Trident renewal – is grounded in a model of trade unionism which focuses not on transforming the workplace, but on the narrowly-defined interests of workers – job creation, economic growth and a larger share of the pie. It views the trade union movement not as merely antagonistic to employers, but as a responsible lobbying partner for business and industry, and as a means of mediating workers’ demands in a way that is steady and acceptable to the state and the economic system. This model, and the politics that accompanied it, is why, historically, trade unions were a conservative influence on Labour’s internal politics.

Nothing could be more at odds with the political, environmental and economic realities of the 21st century. It is not in the interests of workers or ordinary people to live on a planet which is slowly becoming uninhabitable. To avoid catastrophic global warming, we need to leave the vast majority of fossil fuels in the ground – that probably means shrinking the aviation industry, not expanding Heathrow’s passenger capacity by 70 per cent. All of this is implicitly recognised by Jeremy Corbyn’s environmental and industrial strategy, which aims to create a million new jobs and build a million new homes while switching to renewables and democratising the energy industry.

The gap between Corbyn’s policies and the policies of many major trade unions tells us something deeper about the challenges facing the left. If Corbynism is an unfinished revolution in the Labour Party machine, it is one which has barely started in the wider labour movement.

The gradual leftward shift in many unions’ political allegiances has broadened the alliance around Corbyn and given him strength in numbers and resources, but it is often as much about internal union politics as it is a deep conviction for what Corbyn represents. Unison general secretary Dave Prentis did back Corbyn’s re-election following a ballot of members, but is hardly a left-winger, and the union’s votes on Labour’s NEC are not safely aligned to the left.

The political radicalisation of the unions has been matched, if anything, by a decline in coordinated industrial action. The national strategy that fuelled the anti-austerity movement in 2011 and 2012 is only a memory. The democratic and organising culture in many unions, too, remains bureaucratic and opaque. Trade unions have played a key role in Corbyn’s coalition, but without a significant shift in their internal culture and a shift away from their role as respectable partners of industry, they could easily scupper the project as well. 

The expansion of Heathrow airport is a step backwards for the future of the planet and the interests of ordinary people – and yet, if it happens at all, it will have been made possible by the concerted efforts of key trade unions. This is not an aberration but a reminder that, despite their rhetorical flourishes in support of Corbyn, Britain’s trade unions are also in need of change. Any project that aims to transform the Labour party and wider society must also aim to transform the whole of the labour movement – from the shop floor to the corridors of power.