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Economy in Brief

Since When has Employment been a Leading Indicator?
by Tom Moeller September 10, 2007

The decline in U.S. payrolls during August has raised the question of whether a recession in the overall economy is to come. In the past, sustained employment declines have been coincident with recession's onset, and sometimes they have lagged it. The question will become more relevant after the figures for September are released next month.

It is then that a bounce back in state employment will probably lift the numbers. State employment has declined a collective 74,000 during the last two months. This months' numbers will reflect the return of teenagers who left early for school.

As for the modest rise in private service sector jobs of 88,000, that's more problematic. Payrolls were unchanged in the financial industries following previously firm gains. Payrolls fell 4,200 in the transportation industries after modest growth earlier in the year. The 7,000 worker decline in information services looks real as it followed two months of decline in this industry where hiring is genuinely under pressure.

The 22,000 drop in construction employment is hardly problematic. Recent declines in that industry are likely to continue. The real question is whether they will spread.

What is true is that past declines in employment of one month, coupled with all these questions about its validity, have nearly always been followed by recovery; and often a sharp one. What is always true, however, is that employment declines are never sustained unless initial claims for unemployment insurance, a true leading indicator, rise. And so far that has not happened.

So we're left waiting.

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