Friday, November 02, 2007

Employment: Bear trap

Stephen Colbert would be pleased by the pain the employment figures have been inflicting on bears. The October figures were impressive, posting a 166,000 gain in payrolls, nearly twice the level that economists were expecting.

I should stop here, but my inner grizzly won't let me. So once again I resume my hopeless crusade and take issue with some numbers, particularly those related to construction employment.

Construction is a study in contrasts. Residential building has collapsed, with real investment falling 23% between its peak in the 4th quarter of 2005 and the past quarter, with no improvement is sight (it fell 16.4% in 3Q07 versus the year-ago period). In the same time frame, non-residential construction investment has risen steadily, a total gain of 24.5% (and 13% versus 3Q06). But given the fact that residential construction is larger than its counterpart, total construction spending has fallen over 10% over the last 8 quarters (and 6.8% in 3Q07 vs 3Q06).

And yet, total construction employment rose 1.4% between the 4th quarter of 2006 and the past quarter. During this period, residential construction employment (including contractors) fell only 3.1%, while non-residential construction employment jumped 5%. In other words, one fell very little and the other didn't rise as much as it should have. The same holds over the past year.

This graph plainly shows that the response of employment to the fall in construction investment has been remarkably muted by past standards. This is and remains very odd, in a good way, but odd nonetheless.