Making sense of conflicting news on the labor market 🤔
Some eye-catching news and helpful charts from the past few days 📊
There’s been a confusing mix of good news and bad news about the U.S. labor market in recent weeks.
On the other hand, the hard aggregate data continues to say net job creation is high, unemployment is low, job openings remain abundant, and layoff activity at the national level — believe it or not — remains historically low.
While anecdotes may tell us something about what’s going on beneath the surface of the economy, they don’t always reflect the truth about what’s going on at the national level. [For more on this, read: “Mind the anecdata 🤏.“]
Over the past few days, we’ve gotten some interesting news and some fascinating charts that help us understand the complicated state of the labor market.
The first chart comes from the brilliant Michael McDonough, chief economist for Bloomberg Financial Products (via Bloomberg’s Joe Weisenthal and Tracy Alloway). It shows the number of mentions across S&P 500 company transcripts related to “job cuts.”
While there has recently been an uptick in companies discussing job cuts, it was actually higher during many other periods in the 2010s when the economy was booming and claims for unemployment insurance (red line) remained low. In other words, there’s a lot of talk, but little evidence of significant action.
McDonough shared a second illuminating chart showing when during these calls “job cut” discussions occurred. As you can see, most are currently occurring during the Q&A with analysts (blue), not during prepared remarks at the start of calls (orange).
This suggests most discussions about “job cuts” occur because they are prompted by analysts, not management. Here’s a hypothetical exchange:
Analyst: We’re seeing more job cut announcements in industries you serve and vendors that serve you. Are you planning any job cuts?
Management: We are not expecting to make any job cuts at this time.
This is tantamount to an objectionable leading question. But it’s just the analysts doing their jobs.
This behavior is similar to media outlets just doing their jobs when they cover layoffs. This is what readers are interested in. But it’s not necessarily a reflection of what’s going on in the broader economy. [For more, read: “Beware alarming business stories that get a lot of news coverage 🗞️“]