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    Repiglican Roast

    A spirited discussion of public policy and current issues

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    Location: The mouth of being

    I'm furious about my squandered nation.

    Sunday, May 11, 2008

    Analysis: Good economic news something of a mirage

    [...]

    Some seemingly good economic numbers can be something of a mirage masking weaknesses in the national economy.

    Let's take the unemployment rate, which dipped to 5 percent in April, from 5.1 percent in March. A closer look reveals that the decline in unemployment is not as good as it looks at first blush. The drop came as the number of people holding part-time jobs for economic reasons swelled to 5.2 million in April, up sharply from 4.4 million a year earlier.

    The dip in the unemployment rate also occurred as employers cut jobs for the fourth month in a row, pushing up total losses beyond the quarter-million mark — to 260,000. Wages barely grew and workers' hours were trimmed. Taken altogether, these things point to a tepid picture of employment conditions nationwide.

    Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and his colleagues recently used the word "softened" to describe the labor situation.

    U.S. productivity — an important ingredient to the country's long-term vitality — grew solidly in the first three months of this year. That efficiency gain, however, came at the expense of workers.

    "Productivity gains were due primarily to declines in hours worked," the Labor Department's Bureau of Labor Statistics explained. Those hours fell at a 1.8 percent pace, the biggest drop in five years. Employers also shed workers in the first quarter. Thus, companies were able to produce more with fewer workers, and that boosted productivity, the amount an employee produces for every hour of work.

    "American workers, you just got to love them," said Joel Naroff, president of Naroff Economic Advisers. "They just seem to produce more and more and more. That was the case in the first quarter of the year as fewer workers working fewer hours managed to produce more," he said.

    Still, healthy efficiency gains are important for the economy because they can blunt inflation; that's good for companies' profits and good for those earning paychecks.

    Let's take a closer look at the nation's trade deficit. It shrank to $58.2 billion in March as the United States' appetite for imports fell faster than foreign demand for U.S. exports.

    A drop in the United States' foreign oil bill — reflecting less oil being imported — played an important factor in the decline in imports. However, demand for foreign-made autos, furniture, toys, clothing and other goods also waned, underscoring the strains faced by U.S. consumers.

    Consumers have turned cautious, battered by housing and credit problems and high food and energy prices. Many — watching their single-biggest assets, their home, sink in value are less inclined to spend. High energy and food prices are leaving people with less cash to buy other things. And, harder-to-get credit has made financing big-ticket goods, like cars, appliances and of course, homes, more difficult.

    In the first quarter of this year, consumer spending increased at the slowest pace — a mere 1 percent growth rate — since the last recession in 2001. Consumer spending accounts for the single-biggest chunk of U.S. economic activity. Thus, how consumers behave shapes whether the country will survive the blows of the housing, credit and financial debacles or fall victim to them as many fear.

    U.S. exports, meanwhile, have been helped by the falling value of the U.S. dollar. That makes U.S.-made goods and services less expensive to foreign buyers. But that weaker dollar also makes imported goods more expensive in the United States. That contributes to the surging prices for oil, food and other commodities.

    And, while falling interest rates in the United States help ordinary people and businesses, it also contributes to the dollar's decline. Add to that the perception of economic weakness in the United States and the U.S. dollar has fallen to record lows compared with the euro.

    [...]

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