Economic Update – Looking for Green Shoots Among the Economic Indicators

Friday’s unemployment numbers from the U.S. Department of Labor, while hard to characterize as good, aren’t quite as bad as they have been in previous months. Unemployment is still going up, but not quite as quickly as before. That kind of thing is beginning to be called “green shoots,” to use an up-and-coming economic buzzword. Shoots or not, the U.S. economy lost 539,00 jobs in April, driving the unemployment rate up to 8.9 percent, the highest since 1983. In March, the loss was 663,000, but much of the difference between the two month is attributable to the fact that the federal government is hiring workers to gear up for the 2010 Census. Labor also reported that retail unemployment stood at 9.6 percent in April, with 744,000 retail positions having evaporated since the beginning of the recession in December 2007. Retail job losses account for about 13 percent of the 5.6 million job losses since then. The only kind of retailer that has been hiring at all are discounters, especially Wal-Mart and various dollar-store chains. David Rosenberg, chief North American economist at Merrill Lynch & Co., who left the firm late last week, declined to be optimistic on his way out. In his final published comments at the post, he noted that “the rally of the past nine weeks appears to be rooted in green shoots… [but] … the reality is that employment, output, organic personal income and retail sales are still in a fundamental downtrend.” Green shoots, yes. But still: watch out, investors. This from a man who predicted a looming recession back in January 2008, before most economists’ computer models were raising any red flags. (Bubble? What bubble?) He also had this to say about real estate, in an economist’s understatement: “… it is premature to totally rule out the end of the vicious cycle of real estate deflation–residential and now commercial–that we have been experiencing since 2007.” Over the weekend, some of the fruits of the banking-industry stress test began to be apparent as Wells Fargo, whose chairman not so long ago called the stress tests “asinine,” and Morgan Stanley (now a regular bank) have been able to sell stock at public offerings in short order. Wells Fargo sold $7.5 billion of shares–at an 11 percent discount to the market price late last week–while Morgan Stanley raised $3.5 billion by also selling stock at a discount, in its case 11.6 percent. Turns out there are billions out there willing to bet on a banking turnaround, or at least the prospect of an instant 11 percent-plus profit. Wall Street seemed happy enough about the results of the stress tests on Friday, or at least glad that they were over, and the Dow Jones Industrial Average jumped up 164.8 points, or 1.96 percent. The S&P 500 rose 2.41 percent, while the Nasdaq gained 1.33 percent.