Unemployment Continues to Improve…With a Caveat

The unemployment rate continued its decline in August across the major metropolitan economies in Texas and across the State and U.S. as the recovery from the economic effects of the pandemic continue (see Chart 1). In San Antonio, the unemployment rate declined to 4.8%, This is 1.8 percentage points above the pre-pandemic level, so while the economy is certainly recovering, there is still a ways to go. San Antonio has the third lowest unemployment rate compared to the other major metropolitan economies in Texas with Austin having the lowest at 3.8%. The unemployment rate in Texas stood at 5.9%, a bit higher than the unemployment rate for the U.S. at 5.2%.

However, the total level of employment in San Antonio declined in July and August, as shown in Chart 2. This indicates to me that at least part of the decline in the unemployment rate in San Antonio may be due to people dropping out of the labor force and therefore, no longer being counted in the unemployment rate. This is also occurring in some of the other major metropolitan economies across the state.

While there have been monthly declines in total employment the past couple of months, the year-over-year growth rates in employment continued to be strong in August with growth in San Antonio coming in at 3.94% (see Chart 3), a good bit above the average historical growth rate in the region of about 2.3%. However, these growth rates continue to decline across most regions in the state, as well as across the entire state of Texas and the U.S. This is likely due to a regression to the mean as the recovery continues and some pull back in consumer spending due to the Delta variant. Another possible factor is the lag in business travel due to the pandemic. This especially affects those local economies with large leisure and hospitality industries like San Antonio because the convention activity is not filling in for the decline in leisure travel as the new school year began.

If we can keep making strides against the pandemic, growth should continue into the near future. This does not mean the year-over-year growth rates will increase, as they will likely tend to move more toward their long-term average rates in the respective areas as the economy gets closer to full employment. The sustained growth will also continue to push the unemployment rates down, especially as the structural unemployment is reduced.

A Couple of Key Data Points to Better Understand the Current Depth of Unemployment

The unemployment rate in the U.S. was recently reported to be at 14.7% in April. Here is a link to the full report released by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. It is somewhat lengthy, but as always, it is worth a quick look, especially since this report contains some insightful information beyond the headline unemployment rate.

One insight is the difficulty in being able to correctly capture the data due to the unique situation caused by the pandemic. This is highlighted in the following statement from the report.

However, there was also a large increase in the number of workers who were classified as employed but absent from work. As was the case in March, special instructions sent to household survey interviewers called for all employed persons absent from work due to coronavirus-related business closures to be classified as unemployed on temporary layoff. However, it is apparent that not all such workers were so classified.

If the workers who were recorded as employed but absent from work due to “other reasons” (over and above the number absent for other reasons in a typical April) had been classified as unemployed on temporary layoff, the overall unemployment rate would have been almost 5 percentage points higher than reported (on a not seasonally adjusted basis). However, according to usual practice, the data from the household survey are accepted as recorded. To maintain data integrity, no ad hoc actions are taken to reclassify survey responses (pp. 5-6).

As noted in the statement, they calculate that the unemployment rate would have been close to 20% if this data was accurately reported.

A second data point of note is that when those who are marginally attached to the labor force and the total employed part time for economic reasons are considered, the unemployment rate (technically referred to as U-6), was 22.8% in April (see Table A-15 in the report).

I hate to highlight more bad news, as if 14.7% of the labor force being unemployed was not bad enough, but in order to really understand the depth of the economic recession we are in, I think it is important to consider these figures.

Some definitions: Those marginally attached to the labor force include people who are not currently looking for a job but have indicated they would like to work and have looked for a job in the past 12 months. This also includes discouraged workers who have become discouraged about their prospects of finding a job and have dropped out of the labor force. Those employed part time for economic reasons are the workers who would like to work full time but can only find part time work.

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Unemployment Rate in San Antonio at Its Floor

The unemployment rate in San Antonio in July was at a seasonally adjusted rate of 3.2%. Since May 2017, it has been in the range of 3.1-3.5% each month. This is about as low as the unemployment rate has ever been in San Antonio since January 1990, as far back as the data goes. The lowest it ever got was in March and May 1999 when it reached 2.9% in each of those months.

As shown in the graph, for about the past year, the unemployment rate has been near the level it was during the dot come bubble leading into the recession in 2000 and about one-half to almost a full percentage point lower than the unemployment rate during the housing bubble preceding the Great Recession.

It seems to me that the San Antonio economy has been at its full-employment level of unemployment, so it is most likely the unemployment rate will only be going up over the next year or so. It may continue to hover in the aforementioned range for several months, but it appears to have hit its floor.

 

Unemployment SA July 2018

 

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