The good US economic numbers just don't add up



The US unemployment rate drops. Productivity grows. The trade deficit shrinks. Sounds great, right? Not so fast. Some seemingly good economic numbers can be something of a mirage masking weaknesses in the US economy.

Let's take the unemployment rate, which dipped to five per cent in April, from 5.1 per cent 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 labour situation.

US 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 Labour Department's Bureau of Labour Statistics explained.

Those hours fell at a 1.8 per cent 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 is good for companies' profits and good for those earning paychecks. Let's take a closer look at the US trade deficit.

It shrank to $58.2 billion (Dh214 billion) in March as the United States' appetite for imports fell faster than foreign demand for US 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 US 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 one per cent growth rate – since the last recession in 2001. Consumer spending accounts for the single-biggest chunk of US 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.

US exports, meanwhile, have been helped by the falling value of the US dollar. That makes US-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 US help ordinary people and businesses, it also contributes to the dollar's decline. Add to that the perception of economic weakness in the US and the dollar has fallen to record lows compared with the euro.

Still, export growth played an important role in keeping the economy growing – albeit slowly – during the first quarter. "Exports are booming and helped keep GDP in the black," said Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez.

Gross domestic product, or GDP, measures the value of all goods and services produced in the United States. It grew by a feeble 0.6 per cent growth rate from January through March.

When exports and business' inventories are removed and imports are added in, economic activity actually contracted at a 0.4 per cent pace in the first quarter. That figure shows that consumers have a dwindling appetite to spend.

Many economists – and members of the public – believe the economy is in a recession. Bernanke has said a recession is possible, while President George W Bush acknowledges the country is going through tough times.

Both men hope the Fed's seven-month rate-cutting campaign and the government's stimulus package of rebates and tax breaks will lift the country out of its slump later this year.

Meanwhile, the mirage continues. In another anomaly, consumer borrowing rose in March at the fastest clip in four months.

It sounded like people were back in a buying groove, with credit card charges especially heavy. But building up the credit charge balances is another form of debt. Economists said people do not have a choice because their paychecks are not going as far and they can't tap into their homes, as they did during the housing boom, for ready sources of cash.

So some silver linings are not so silver.

When you look closely, "you do see some dark economic clouds in the silver linings". said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's "The darkness is much greater than any sunshine."