Slowly but surely, the confident assurances of a fantabulous second quarter for the U.S. economy — one which is supposed to make the serious first-quarter contraction reported on Wednesday a distant memory — are crumbling.
Yesterday at the Associated Press, Martin Crutsinger, who just a couple of weeks ago had been relaying confident second-quarter predictions of annualized 3.5 percent and even 4 percent growth, quoted a still-optimistic economist who, in Crutsinger's words, "said strength in other areas (besides yesterday's weak consumer spending report — Ed.) should still lift economic growth to around a 3 percent annual rate in the current quarter." Today, in covering the University of Michigan's consumer confidence report, Christopher Rugaber, Crutsinger's dynamic duo buddy at the AP, brought the growth figure down to a level which won't even offset the dreadful first quarter:
Sounding a familiar theme at the Associated Press ahead of awful economic news, Christopher Rugaber and Martin Crutsinger prepared a column in advance of tomorrow's final report on the economy's first-quarter economic contraction reminding us, with far more certainy than is justified, that "A GRIM US ECONOMIC PICTURE IS BRIGHTENING."
Guys, before you "brighten," you first have to step out of the darkness. According to the wire service's dynamic duo of reporting on the economy (I guess I could add Josh Boak and call them "the three amigos"), tomorrow's report on the nation's first-quarter Gross Domestic Product is expected to show that it contracted by "nearly 2 percent" on an annual basis. AP reports a week ago didn't include "nearly." Bloomberg News is currently predicting a contraction of 1.8 percent. I'd like to be wrong, but I'm concerned that it might be significantly worse. But Rugaber and Crutsinger say, "Don't worry, be happy; the rest of the year will probably be fine" (bolds and numbered tags are mine):
Some readers here may have a tough time discerning why the economy's mediocre to stagnant performance isn't fully registering with the general public, which feels that things aren't going too well but still doesn't how weak the situation really is. The obvious answer is that the press overemphasizes any good news which appears and downplays marginal or bad news — while occasionally, as seen last night in Bloomberg's coverage of yesterday's largely miserable homebuilding statistics, pretending that bad news really was good.
Perfect examples of this problem came in two CNNMoney.com emails I received this afternoon. The emails has news which could be considered news, while leaving out some clearly bad news which delegitimizes their email's optimism:
At the Associated Press yesterday, Christopher Rugaber's writeup on the latest economic growth projections of the National Association of Business Economists (NABE) contained several glaring weaknesses.
Take the headline (quite possibly not his doing) and his opening sentence. The headline, "SURVEY: GROWTH TO PICK UP, HIRING STEADY," seems designed to ensure that those who only look at headlines in print or on their online devices will remain blissfully ignorant about the economy's first-quarter contraction. The fact is that following a quarter of shrinkage, economic growth first has to "return" or "resume" before it can "pick up."
After investing so much emotional energy in the idea that the weather-impaired contracting U.S. economy of the first quarter is going to give way to a super-duper awesome second quarter and strong rest of the year, it was foolish to think that Martin Crutsinger at the Associated Press, aka the Administration's Press, would backtrack after just one contradictory report on consumer spending, which "unexpectedly" fell 0.1 percent in April, confounding expectations of a 0.2 percent pickup.
And of course he didn't. What's remarkable is that Crutsinger's Friday report seemed to get even more aggressive with his second-quarter prediction, citing "some analysts" who believe that it will come in at an annualized 4 percent — quite the reversal from the first quarter's 1.0 percent annualized contraction. Meanwhile, the AP reporter missed a less buoyant report from his colleague Christopher Rugaber which punctured a bit of Crutsinger's premise. Excerpts from both items follow the jump.
In July 2013, the Associated Press's Christopher Rugaber finally noticed the meteoric rise in the number of temporary help service and other non-payroll personnel working at U.S. employers — a trend which at the time was about 2-1/2 years old. Rugaber noted that "temps and to a much larger universe of freelancers, contract workers and consultants ... number nearly 17 million people who have only tenuous ties to the companies that pay them – about 12 percent of everyone with a job." He also cited two likely contributors to that growth. First, "Some employers have also sought to sidestep the new health care law’s rule that they provide medical coverage for permanent workers. Second, "companies want to avoid having too many employees during a downturn."
This morning, the AP's Tom Raum did another report on the situation, and proceeded to blow the numbers, ignore Obamacare, and downplay the influence of the mediocre economy.
In stark contrast to the celebratory "AMERICAN ECONOMY BOUNCES BACK FROM BRUTAL WINTER" headline Friday afternoon at the Associated Press, aka the Administration's Press, Ben White's "Morning Money" report at the Politico is notably concerned about whether Friday's "vexing jobs report" justifies the kind of optimism the AP conveyed with seeming finality in its headline.
To be fair, the underlying AP report by Chris Rugaber and Josh Boak pointed to several weaknesses in the jobs report. But to be appropriately critical, as I noted yesterday, they took it as a virtual given that the economy will turn in full-year growth of "nearly 3 percent." Achieving that result will require second-half annualized growth of nearly 4 percent — a level would likely cause the Federal Reserve to put on the brakes by raising interest rates to stave off inflation. In a separate post, I also criticized the AP pair for presenting economists's estimates of 3.5 percent annualized growth in the second quarter without telling readers that their prediction is premised on the first quarter's current 0.1 percent result getting revised downward into contraction.
This morning (at NewsBusters; at BizzyBlog), I noted that Friday afternoon's coverage of the government's jobs report at the Associated Press by economics writers Christopher Rugaber and Josh Boak carried predictions of "nearly 3 percent" economic growth this year. Those predictions ignore how difficult achieving that will be after the first quarter's miserable 0.1 percent annualized result and "most economists'" estimates that the second quarter will come in at 3.5 percent. Those two results require average annualized growth of 3.9 percent during the third and fourth quarters — something the economy hasn't seen in ten years. Additionally, it appears that if the Federal Reserve under Janet Yellen sees that kind of growth, it will put on the brakes by raising interest rates in the name of heading off inflation.
Since they were entertaining predictions about future developments, it's more than a little odd that the AP pair chose to ignore many analysts' predictions that the first quarter's GDP result will move into contraction when it gets revised in future months — especially since those downward revisions, supposedly reflecting deferred growth, partially justify their 3.5 percent second-quarter prediction. It sure looks like Rugaber and Boak were selective in deciding what they would report.
In a Friday afternoon dispatch issued in the wake of the government's jobs report earlier that day, Christopher Rugaber and Josh Boak at the Associated Press wrote that "most economists ... forecast a strong rebound in economic growth - to a 3.5 percent annual rate in the current April-June quarter. And growth should reach nearly 3 percent for the full year, up from 1.9 percent in 2013, they expect."
There are two problems with that prediction. The first lies in how strong the third and fourth quarters will have to be for the economy to get "nearly 3 percent" for the full year, given the tiny first-quarter annualized growth of 0.1 percent reported on Wednesday. The second and perhaps more crucial issue is that the full-year estimate significantly exceeds the "altered assessment" at the Fed concerning how fast it thinks the economy can grow without running the risk of igniting inflation.
At the Associated Press today, economics writer Christopher Rugaber was a bit subdued, even when presented with nominally favorable news. He wrote that the March rise in the National Association of Realtors' pending home sales index of 3.4 percent, the first gain in nine months, was "a sign that the housing market might pick up after a sluggish start to the year."
Rugaber's relative ruefulness, which after being fed through the media translator actually means "Things really stink," is understandable once one looks at how pathetic that gain is in the circumstances, and at a key paragraph in the NAR's press release which he chose to ignore.
On Thursday, Christopher Rugaber's assignment at the Associated Press was to cover that day's release of Uncle Sam's Monthly Treasury Statement for March.
If the AP economics writer had limited the scope of his coverage to the statement itself, his coverage would have been passed muster. But, as he and his AP colleagues so often do, Rugaber felt it was duty to offer what he must have thought was helpful analysis. He wrote that March's reported $37 billion deficit, an admitted significant improvement over the March 2013 result, even after adjusting for timing differences in end-of-month receipts and outlays, was "the latest sign of improvement in the nation's finances." The last time I checked, running significantly in the red is not an improvement. It really signifies less rapid deterioration, especially since fiscal 2014 in full is still expected to end with deficit of over $500 billion.
Associated Press stories today on the quarterly earnings releases of Wells Fargo (unbylined) and JPMorgan Chase (by Steve Rothwell) essentially mocked the nearly continuous monthly stream of reports the wire service's economics writers, particularly Martin Crutsinger and Chris Rugaber, have generated about the "housing recovery" during at least the past year.
The Wells Fargo story disclosed that the nation's largest mortgage lender "funded $36 billion worth of mortgages in the first quarter, down sharply from $109 billion a year earlier." The following graphic from the bank's detailed financial report tells the full story:
This afternoon, in an unbylined item headlined "US BUSINESS HIRING FINALLY TOPS RECESSION LOSSES," the Associated Press showed that it deserves the nickname "Administration's Press." The story embarrassingly described the job market's return to its previous January 2008 employment peak as a "pivotal moment." Get real. Given over six additional years of growth in the adult population, that's hardly the case.
To his credit, the AP's Christopher Rugaber, in a separate later submission, tamped down the enthusiasm, noting that "the economy is still millions of jobs short of where it should be by now." That's for sure. But whoever wrote the headline to Rugaber's story told an obvious untruth:
On Friday, the government's Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the economy created 175,000 seasonally adjusted jobs in February, with 162,000 of the additions occurring in the private sector.
That result exceeded expectations of roughly 150,000, and caused the business press to sing odes of high praise to an economy that was amazingly overcoming this year's difficult winter weather. Unfortunately, as readers will see after the jump, February's raw results demonstrate that it was all an illusion.
You don't even need to know the specifics to realize that today's economic reports were weak. All you need to know is that there was no mention of them in the Associated Press's list of Top 10 business stories as of 3:35 p.m. Among stories considered more important: a product review of Apple's tiny market-share program called iWork and three dozen passengers suing Carnival Cruise Lines.
This morning's release from ADP on February private-sector employment growth reported 139,000 jobs added; the previous four months were revised down by a total of 138,000. The Institute for Supply Management's Non-Manufacturing Index came in at 51.6%, showing relatively slow expansion (anything above 50% indicates expansion) compared to January's 54.0%. The reports missed expectations of 155,000 jobs added and 53.5%, respectively. AP coverage of these two reports somewhat understated their weakness, one quantitatively and the other qualitatively.
It appears that Aron Heller at the Associated Press, aka the Administration's press, might have been applying lessons learned from the wire service's U.S. business and economics writers in his coverage of Israel's settlement activity. Heller also seems strangely fond of this mythical thing known as the "international community."
AP business and economics writers like Martin Crutsinger and Christopher Rugaber have regaled us with the wonders of the alleged housing recovery during the past two years, but haven't been quite as good at telling us that over 4-1/2 years after the recession officially ended, new home sales and construction activity is still only about 60-65 percent of what is seen as healthy by most economists and analysts. Heller pulled an analogous trick in his report; fortunately Evelyn Gordon at Commentary (HT Powerline) was astute enough to catch his misdirection, one in which President Obama has also engaged.
The news in two government reports on the economy today was not good. One showed that initial unemployment claims last week rose to a seasonally adjusted 348,000; raw (not seasonally adjusted) claims were virtually identical to last year's comparable week. To avoid the dreaded U-word ("unexpectedly"), a pair of Bloomberg News reporters described the result as "exceeding all forecasts." In the other report, durable goods orders in January fell by a seasonally adjusted 1.0 percent, while December's steep decline of 4.3 percent was revised down even further to -5.3 percent.
In separate reports at the Associated Press, aka the Administration's Press, Christopher Rugaber and Josh Boak did their best to excuse away the results and to find something positive to say. As readers will see, they had to dig pretty deep, and their efforts were unconvincing.
One of the more annoying aspects of business press reporting is its participants' singular focus on seasonally adjusted data to the exclusion of the underlying figures.
Many reports on the economy at least tag the figures reported as seasonally adjusted; but there seems to be a trend away from doing even that. For example, the Associated Press has routinely labeled weekly initial jobless claims as seasonally adjusted (examples from about a year ago are here, here, and here), but Thursday's adjusted claims figure of 331,000 and the 348,000 from a week earlier went unlabeled (as seen here and here, respectively). Additionally, none of the three main wire services (AP, Bloomberg, Reuters) described yesterday's reported increase in employment as "seasonally adjusted" (though the AP's Christopher Rugaber did report that the unemployment rate of 6.6 percent was seasonally adjusted). In failing to do so, they all were in essence telling readers that the economy really added 113,000 jobs in January. The truth is that it lost over 2.8 million of them:
Following up on Friday's awful jobs report from the government (only 74,000 seasonally adjusted jobs added, with the unemployment rate dropping to 6.7 percent only because adults continued to leave the workforce), the Asssociated Press's Christopher Rugaber tried to search for excuses.
To its credit, the headline at Rugaber's report didn't blatantly dissemble like the one at Bloomberg, which, in revising the title of an underrated Stevie Wonder song from the 1970s ("Blame It on the Sun"), blamed it on the cold and snow: "Old Man Winter Put a Chill on U.S. Labor Market at End of 2013." But the AP reporter predictably failed to entertain the possibility that Obamacare's virtual chaos, plan cancellations, and impending 2014 premium hikes might have thrown a great deal of sand into the job market's gears, even though a virtual halt in healthcare hiring stuck out like a sore thumb. Excerpts follow the jump (bolds and numbered tags are mine):
Bringing on yet another appearance of the dreaded "U-word" — "unexpectedly" (via Bloomberg) — the Labor Department reported today that initial claims for unemployment benefits rose to a seasonally adjusted 379,000. That's a nine-month high, and an increase from last week's also unexpected 369,000. This week's and last week's results were far above the 332,000 and 320,000, respectively, analysts had predicted.
The Department of Labor's excuse for the past two dismal weeks has been "holiday volatility." Though they mostly had a point last week, this week they don't. Last week was the week after Thanksgiving, while that holiday took place six days earlier in 2012. But the week ended December 14, 2013 and the comparable week from last year (12/15/12) are both sufficiently removed from Thanksgiving's influence on the numbers that the holiday has no meaningful impact. The business press is pretending that DOL is right.
At the Associated Press Friday morning, economics writer Christopher Rugaber's story had a predictably sunny and incomplete headline ("LONG-LASTING US FACTORY GOODS ORDERS RISE 3.7 PCT.") followed by an opening paragraph which told readers that "orders for most other goods fell" and which speculated without basis that the substantively bad news was "a possible sign of concern about the partial government shutdown that began Oct. 1."
That's a great reporting strategy if your goal is to keep busy news consumers inadequately informed. Those who only read the headline will believe that this economic element was unequivocally positive. Those who only get through the first paragraph will see the bad news and blame congressional Republicans, on whom the establishment media has successfully pinned the blame for the 17 percent shutdown — even though it objectively doesn't belong there. Excerpts follow the jump (bolds are mine):
Apparently desperate to claim that 17 percent government shutdown is causing pain, Christopher Rugaber at the Associated Press, aka the Adminstration's Press, decided that the Empire State Manufacturing Index's decline from brisk expansion to modest expansion was "a sign that the partial government shutdown may be weighing on the economy." Rugaber wrote what he did despite the actual report's emphasis that both business and labor market conditions "held steady," and its accompanying observation that manufacturers' borrowing costs have increased.
Though the headline at the AP's national site is a neutral "NY FACTORY ACTIVITY GROWS MORE SLOWLY IN OCTOBER," the one accompanying the story at some outlets (e.g., here and here — "Survey shows NY factory activity grows more slowly in October, signaling shutdown impact") is not. The four-paragraph story, presented in full for future reference, fair use and discussion purposes, follows the jump:
I guess the Associated Press's business and economics reporters feel they've done their jobs if they mention the relative donominance of new workforce entries by temps and part-timers once, while still denigrating the obvious validity of the latter — and pretend it never has to be mentioned again.
That's how the AP's Christopher Rugaber can produce a writeup, as he did today, telling readers that "The job market is sending signs that it may be strengthening," which contains no reference to part-timers or temps, obviously because that would disrupt the "improvement" meme. Excerpts follow the jump (bolds are mine):
It's almost amusing to watch writers like Christopher Rugaber at the Associated Press, aka the Administration's Press, pretend not to understand why the economy isn't growing as much as one would "expect" based on the number of jobs being added each month and falling weekly unemployment claims.
In a Thursday story which was mostly worthless because the incompletely collected government data on weekly unemployment claims made it so, Rugaber and the "expert" he quoted pretended not to understand — well, I hope they were pretending because otherwise I'd have to conclude that they're dumber than a box of rocks — how all of this can be (bolds are mine):
At the Associated Press, economics writer Christopher Rugaber used not seasonally adjusted data published by the government's Bureau of Labor Statistics on metro area employment and unemployment to crow about "widespread improvement in the job market." The predominance of part-time jobs among the new ones created and fact that houshold incomes have yet to recover from the recession apparently had no impact on his assessment.
The opening sentence of the government's report reads: "Unemployment rates were lower in July than a year earlier in 320 of the 372 metropolitan areas, higher in 38 areas, and unchanged in 14 area, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported today." But the second paragraph of Rugaber's AP report, headlined "Unemployment Rates Fall in Two-thirds of U.S. Cities," tells readers that "[U]nemployment rates fell in 239 of the nation's 372 largest cities in July from June."
Anyone remember all the huffing and puffing from the establishment press about how third-quarter economic growth was going to be great — so please stop worrying about how weak the past three quarters (annualized rates of 0.1%, 1.1%, and 1.7%, respectively) have been?
Oops. On Friday, the Census Bureau reported that new-home sales dropped over 20% in July to an annual rate of 394,000 from June's original reading of 497,000, which was itself revised down to 455,000. Today, the bureau revealed that durable goods orders fell sharply in July, bringing about yet another appearance at Bloomberg News of its favorite word during the past five years about the economy, and yet another instance of the stock market's apparent pleasure with bad news for the rest of us:
It seems that beat reporters need to be constantly reminded that they have their hands full just discerning the facts, relaying them coherently, and leaving the "analysis" to others (while presenting alternative analytical takes when necessary).
The nagging is really for their own good. If they would stick to their jobs instead of "analyzing," which often is a cover for getting out their own opinions, they wouldn't be suffering the feelings of embarrassment Christopher Rugaber at the Associated Press, aka the Administration's Press, should be feeling right now (I'm not saying he is; I'm saying he should be). You see, yesterday he said that a best-in-years report on existing-home sales meant one thing. Today, thanks to the Census Bureau's disastrous July new-home sales release, he said it meant quite another.
After a two-year hiatus, the Associated Press has apparently decided that Americans need a weekly reminder of how bad weekly layoffs were during the recession.
In June 2011, possibly as a result of some hectoring by yours truly, the wire service totally or almost totally stopped reminding readers that "(unemployment) claims applications peaked at 659,000 during the recession." That tired figure was already over two years old, and isn't even an all-time record (several weeks during the 1980s were higher, even with a much smaller workforce). So who cares? But in each of the past three weeks, AP has resurrected that tired number (since revised slightly upward because of changes to seasonal adjustment factors), as if a one-week stat from almost 4-1/2 years ago means anything to anybody right now: