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Toying with Unemployment Numbers

There are conflicting reports (and sentiments) on unemployment.

We know it’s dire. But then we see the May employment report and supposedly things aren’t so bad – 2.5 million new jobs and “only” 13.3 percent unemployment.

Still, as of that May report, 38.9 million Americans lost their jobs in just nine weeks. That’s equivalent to the entire population of California, which is the fifth largest economy in the world.

The May data suggest 26 percent of those employed in February lost their jobs by May. And once you include others who didn’t qualify for unemployment, were jobless but sought no benefits, worked part-time, or were only marginally attached to the workforce, the unemployment rate rises to 29.4 percent.

Earlier this year, the February unemployment rate stood at a 50-year low of 3.5 percent. The economy looked strong. Then the coronavirus hit, and unemployment jumped to 4.4 percent in March. In April, we had a full pandemic, forcing unemployment up to 14.7 percent.

From March to May, 42 million Americans filed for unemployment. Then, suddenly 2.5 million jobs were created, and nobody saw it coming.

But if you read the report, there is a giant caveat at the end – April and May unemployment data didn’t include furloughed workers or those who had hours cut. These folks were “employed, but not at work for other reasons.” This “misclassification error” may not be corrected.

Including those workers makes the unemployment rates for April and May jump to 19.5 percent and 16.3 percent, respectively – far cries from April’s reported rate of 14.7 percent and May’s 13.3 percent.

We know what got the media attention and how markets reacted.

In truth, these “new jobs” are mostly the result of people going back to work at reopening businesses. Restaurants and bars alone accounted for 1.3 million jobs.

Clearly, numbers can reflect whatever any desired outcome.

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