Unemployment Rate Stagnates in May
With unemployment percentages stagnant and the Fed rate anticipated to rise as early as next year, many economists are hoping for a new, more robust economy sometime in the near future. But the shadow of continuing economic uncertainty has dampened any meaningful celebration.
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics jobs figures released Friday indicate the unemployment rate for May remained stagnant at 6.3%, which followed a minor 0.4% decline in April. Over the past year the unemployment rate declined by 1.2%, with 9.8 million Americans currently unemployed.
Despite current conditions, some economists believe unemployment may decline to 6% a year from now, a figure not seen since before the start of the 2008 financial crisis.
As a key indicator of the country’s economic well-being, a declining unemployment rate would be a milestone in the U.S. economy’s road to recovery. But there are still other potential potholes that could derail the journey, according to Mark Hamrick, Washington D.C. bureau chief for Bankrate.com. Hamrick is pictured at left.
“Employers haven’t seen sufficient broad-based economic strength to justify a big pick-up in hiring,” said Hamrick. “Month to month we may see some improvement, but there is still a great deal of caution out there.”
The current economic outlook may be characterized by cautious optimism, but Hamrick admitted there is probably more “caution” than “optimism” in the overall view.
“It’s complicated,” said Hamrick. “I think something goes on with the way economists look at the future. They’re willing to stick their necks out a bit, but always tempered with a little optimism.”
Hamrick should know. Bakrate.com in May surveyed more than 40 economists from various sectors about economic growth. The bulk of respondents predicted an uptick in the near future, with a near even split over concerns about rising or falling inflation s part of future growth patterns.
“The inflation rate is too low right now, and it’s hard to see anything that could make it pick up substantially in the future,” said survey respondent Dean Baker, co-director for the Center for Economic Policy and Research in Washington D.C.
“By far, rising inflation is the greatest risk,” countered William Poole, former president of The Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis and senior fellow of the Washington, D.C.-based Cato Institute. “The chance of a sustained large decline in inflation is almost nil. If the Fed blows it, inflation could rise substantially.”
The dichotomy in inflation predictions indicates an undercurrent of uncertainty and an environment in which “even the best-educated individuals don’t know how (the recovery) is going to work,” Hamrick said. The recent relative neutrality on economic growth from both Congress and the Obama administration compared to earlier negative stances could be an indication that at least stable, if not more expansive times, lay ahead.
But there also is continued anxiety in the air.
“This has been a time of truly extraordinary measures,” Hamrick said. “There is a fear that things will work out poorly or not at all, and there’s a tremendous amount of discomfort out there.”
Still, there were positive indicators in survey respondents’ answers, offering some hope to a recession-weary public.
On average, survey respondents said the economy will be growing by an annual rate of 3.05% 12 months from now, up from 2.8% indicated in a similar Bankrate.com survey three months ago. An unemployment rate of 6% could mean the addition of 209,000 jobs added per month nationwide. Full employment, defined by the Federal Reserve as a jobless rate of between 5.2% and 5.6%, may be achieved by 2016, respondents said.
According to all but two respondents, the Fed is expected to raise rates by 2015, an easy prediction according to Hamrick, since the Federal Open Market Committee also has been discussing that date for some time.
“If you’re an economist and you know the Fed is making that forecast you can’t afford to get on the wrong side of that prediction,” Hamrick said. “But many think it will be some time before we get back to the 4% to 4.5% range.”
Several factors still exist that could hobble economic growth, Hamrick said. Chief among them is economic and political uncertainty overseas. He said measures unveiled this week by the European Central Bank to implement its own version of economic easing by taxing certain bank accounts with the goal of pushing more money into the European market may not have the desired effect.
“You can push all kinds of money into the financial system, but money doesn’t come with a leash, which makes it difficult to get it where you want it to go,” Hamrick said. “That’s one of the problems the Fed is facing, too.”
He also cites tensions in the housing market and the ability to create potential stalemates between sellers and buyers as another factor causing uncertainty. Recovering home prices, while good for homeowners, can put a real estate purchases out of reach of first-time buyers. Add to that eventual rising interest rates and that accessibility gap only widens further, he said.
Finally, while eventual declines in unemployment may be a positive sign, the lack of net income gain will continue to plague individuals and families struggling to get ahead. If those gains merely match year-to-year economic growth rates of 2% per year, then much of America is merely treading water.
“There is a lack of robustness on the part of the Middle Class,” Hamrick said. “For those families facing tremendous expenses, such funding college costs or dealing with a catastrophic health crisis, the negative gains play out in multiple ways.”
In terms of defensive stance to potential changes, consumers should keep their savings liquid and pay down variable-rate debt, according to Greg McBride, Bankrate.com’s chief financial analyst. Selling off bonds that could be hammered by inflation and rebalancing portfolios to capitalize on the changing environment also is advised.
“Credit unions are facing the same conditions as everyone else,” Hamrick said. “We all should be braced for rising interest rates, increased volatility in equity markets and changes in the approaches people take to personal financial decisions.”
Credit unions also are in a unique position to help stabilize the market and help members cope with unanticipated changes, he said.
“Credit unions will have an opportunity to lend money while engaging in prudent practices without endangering their enterprises or causing systemic risk,” Hamrick said. “If we do see a normalization in the economy, it will mean people will have options they didn’t have in the past, and wouldn’t that be a wonderful thing.”