The first week of the new year delivers a blizzard of economic data, buffeting tea leaf readers with conflicting signals.
In the plus column, for example, we saw headlines reporting robust December auto sales for Ford, Toyota and Honda even after the end of “cash for clunkers” — and a rebound in factory orders worldwide. Back from the holiday, the Dow welcomed the New Year with 155.9 point first-day surge.
But we also saw November construction spending drop more than expected — 0.6 percent — and the National Realtors Association index of pending home sales plunge 16 percent. Day two, the stock market sputtered as headlines explained: “Spending Worries Damp Stocks.”
Closer to home, a few more omens were unveiled in Tuesday’s breakdown (PDF) of November employment statistics by metro area (not adjusted for seasonal variations). While most economists think the recession is over, what matters to most folks is employment and earnings.
And here, the news for Minnesota is mixed. The numbers, released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, showed slight drops in both the number of unemployed and the unemployment rate from October to November in three of Minnesota’s five major metro areas: Minneapolis/St. Paul/Bloomington, Rochester and Mankato/North Mankato. Countering that hopeful move, though, both the number and the rate ticked up in Duluth and St. Cloud.
The metro area breakdown is derived from statewide numbers released in mid-December, which reported Minnesota’s statewide seasonally adjusted unemployment rate at 7.4 percent, below the national average of 10 percent. (State and national unemployment rates for November, not adjusted for seasonal variations, were 7 percent and 9.4 percent respectively.)
Neighboring North Dakota’s three metro areas recorded the lowest unemployment rates nationwide. Bismarck, at 3.4 percent, registered the lowest unemployment rate in the country, followed by Minnesota-bordering Fargo-Moorhead and Grand Forks-East Grand Forks at 3.7 percent each. While North Dakota holds an enviable overall unemployment position, the rate ticked up in each of these metro areas from October levels. On Minnesota’s eastern border, the La Crosse, Wis., metro area unemployment rate of 6 percent, ticked up slightly from October as well.
In the category of “Not a Surprise to Anyone,” all 372 metro areas around the United States showed job losses year over year.
One last tea leaf here: The BLS has six different measures of “Labor Underutilization” (read unemployment) tagged U-1 through U-6. For decades, the “official” unemployment, rate, called U-3, has estimated the number of jobless persons who are available to take a job and have actively sought work in the previous four weeks. A more comprehensive number, U-6 in BLS parlance, estimates total unemployed (the “official” rate), plus all discouraged workers who have stopped looking (“marginally attached workers”) plus people employed part time who cannot find full-time work.
Recently, the BLS also has begun releasing state-by-state numbers across all these measures for the previous four quarters. By the more comprehensive U-6 measure, an eye-popping 13.2 percent of Minnesotans are estimated to be in the “underutilized labor force” through the third quarter of 2009. This compares with the overall U.S. rate of 15.3 percent. Those numbers compare with full-year 2008 U-6 rates of 10.2 percent for the state and 10.5 percent nationwide.