The Unemployment Rate Fell On Friday . . . But Don’t Brace For A Surge In Holiday Spending

The US unemployment rate fell on Friday to its lowest level since March 2009 (http://www.bls.gov/news.release/empsit.nr0.htm). And on paper...that’s a very good thing. 

But before we get too excited about what that could mean for 2011 holiday spending, consider this: The reason the unemployment rate dropped from 9.0% to 8.6% in the household survey was as much due to the fact that 315,000 people gave up looking for work as that 120,000 people actually found work. It’s a big flaw in the way the US unemployment rate is calculated that the rate can actually go down (so appear to improve) when people just stop looking for work. 

(http://blogs.wsj.com/economics/2011/12/02/why-did-the-unemployment-rate-drop-5/).

The reality is we won’t know the true unemployment rate until those who’ve given up looking for work re-engage in the job hunt and fill out that total workforce denominator (at which time the unemployment rate will actually go up temporarily before then finally coming down as we start seeing that recovery).  But we’re not there yet.

The co-reported payroll employment number is a better indicator of job growth because it comes from a much broader and deeper survey called the payroll survey. But for November that number (120K new jobs created) only matched expectations and is actually below the minimum number (approximately 150K) needed to keep pace with population growth in America. So, unfortunately, not much real gain there. And sadly, there’s probably not much to say about a jolt to the 2011 holiday shopping season either.  

But what we can say is that unless consumers find gainful employment and/or see their disposable income grow, we are likely to see continued heavy use of coupons and other discount mechanisms at checkout -- thus putting additional pressure on merchant margins and short-term profitability.  Here’s hoping that Friday’s news has a positive effect on consumer confidence….and perhaps, then, a follow-on effect on non-discounted holiday spending.  But for right now, it doesn't appear that the unemployment numbers are likely to tell that story.