Slow Job Growth Casts Shadow Over Sunny Economic Forecasts

Midway through January, and the economic forecasts for 2005 are in.

The Conference Board predicts annual real gross domestic product (GDP) of 4.7 percent. That number represents the high end of the range, as a group of economists surveyed by The Wall Street Journal pegs it at 3.6 percent, while the White House declares it will be closer to 3.5 percent.

And here's some good news for those who are worried about inflation: the Federal Reserve says that "inflation and longer-term inflation expectations remain well contained."

So, decent GDP growth with few worries about inflation — the kind of reassuring outlook that says all will be well in 2005. Except for one thing: slow job growth.

A pessimistic report for job growth in 2005 got buried under the more optimistic economic forecasts. It's been lurking around since Dec. 17, when the White House announced it was scaling back its expectations for U.S. job growth. Instead of the 3.6 million new jobs it had projected for 2005 in early 2004, it now projects 2.1 million new jobs.

Let's take a look back to the beginning of 2004 to find out what the outlook for job growth was then. On Jan. 2, 2004, The Wall Street Journal reported that 54 economists it surveyed believed that "rising corporate profits and steady economic growth are expected to prompt companies to hire workers more aggressively in the months ahead."

But in July, the Christian Science Monitor (search) published a story on the economy that stated: "So far this summer, the job market is the economy's weakest link." Following a good report in October of 312,000 new jobs (revised), the latest report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (search) was little more than half that number, coming in at 157,000 new jobs created in December. Wall Street had been expecting 175,000 new jobs for the month.

Here’s the point: This economic recovery is creating new jobs (and 2004 was the best year since 1999), but it's not creating enough new jobs to support a full recovery from a recession. And no one — not private-sector economists, not academic economists, not Council of Economic Advisors economists — had forecast such a scenario.

A recent BLS publication, based on November 2004 jobs data, starkly highlights this fact. In November's "Current Employment Statistics Highlights," one chart compares data that reflect job growth following the 2001 recession with average job growth following all earlier U.S. recessions combined. Guess which line shows a strong upward curve? Unfortunately, it's not the one representing job growth after the 2001 recession.

The BLS points out that "the recovery that followed the 2001 recession is not only less robust when compared [with] all other recessions, but employment still has not fully recovered." In fact, 44 months after other recessions, on average, the U.S. economy created more than 4 percent more new jobs compared with the business cycle peaks before the recessions started. Yet, the current economy has yet to add the same percentage of new jobs it was creating at the peak in March 2001.

That's bad news. And what's really been an eye-opener is that this job growth picture continues to be dismal despite the Bush Administration's tax cuts. So dismal that the president's economists on the Council of Economic Advisors (search) (CEA) had to recast their job growth numbers downwards for 2005.

Here's why: The White House had projected job growth of about 300,000 per month for 2004. Instead, the numbers came in at about 185,000 per month. So, the administration now forecasts that job growth will come in at an even lower average amount in 2005: about 175,000 per month, according to the Dec. 17 press release from the CEA.

These are not the kind of numbers the administration thought it would be looking at when its tax-cut package took effect a year and a half ago in July 2003. Back then, the CEA economists had mapped out a much faster clip of job growth, coming in at 228,000 jobs a month without a tax cut and 306,000 jobs a month with the tax cut, as noted by the Economic Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank that has been tracking the effect of the tax cuts on job growth.

So, here's the real bottom line: Not only has job growth not met the CEA's projections for the economy following the tax cuts, it hasn't even met the projections that do not include the tax cuts.

In fact, on its Job Watch site, the institute points out that with the final job growth numbers in for 2004, "(t)he final verdict is grim. Job growth over the last 18 months has fallen short by 1,703,000 — more than one-third less than the number of jobs the administration said would be created without the tax cuts."

That's how frustrating and difficult this economic recovery has been. Frustrating especially for those out of work much longer than they had ever imagined they would be, and difficult for all those economists who are waiting for the big turnaround in job growth. The tax cuts simply haven't primed the job-growth pump.

But let's face facts. Slow job growth is not really the administration's fault. There's a dirty little secret no one wants to acknowledge: Slow job growth is an unavoidable and unalterable fact of a weak economic recovery — which is exactly what we're experiencing. Even though both the White House and the Federal Reserve have been pulling out all the policy stops to support the economy's recovery from the 2001 recession, four years later, jobs have not roared back. And no matter what this administration — or any administration — may have tried, the job growth numbers would still be low.

Which leaves us wondering whether anything can create robust job growth in this environment. The administration has wondered, too, and decided to cut back its forecast, so as not to miss the mark again. But that strategy does not create more jobs, it merely acknowledges reality.

For this new year, the U.S. economy may be helped by some GDP and low-inflation tailwinds. But so long as job growth remains tepid, the economy will be dragging a heavy weight. Unfortunately, that's the kind of weight that's been known to drag down an otherwise healthy economy.

Susan C. Walker writes for Elliott Wave International, a financial analysis company. She has been an associate editor with Inc. magazine, a newspaper writer and editor, an investor relations executive and a speechwriter for the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta. She received her B.A. in Classics from Stanford University.