Mortimer Zuckerman: The Great Recession Has Been Followed by the Grand Illusion; Don’t be fooled by the latest jobs numbers. The unemployment situation in the U.S. is still dire

March 25, 2013, 7:07 p.m. ET

Mortimer Zuckerman: The Great Recession Has Been Followed by the Grand Illusion

Don’t be fooled by the latest jobs numbers. The unemployment situation in the U.S. is still dire.

By MORTIMER ZUCKERMAN

The Great Recession is an apt name for America’s current stagnation, but the present phase might also be called the Grand Illusion—because the happy talk and statistics that go with it, especially regarding jobs, give a rosier picture than the facts justify.

The country isn’t really advancing. By comparison with earlier recessions, it is going backward. Despite the most stimulative fiscal policy in American history and a trillion-dollar expansion to the money supply, the economy over the last three years has been declining. After 2.4% annual growth rates in gross domestic product in 2010 and 2011, the economy slowed to 1.5% growth in 2012. Cumulative growth for the past 12 quarters was just 6.3%, the slowest of all 11 recessions since World War II.

And last year’s anemic growth looks likely to continue. Sequestration will take $600 billion of government expenditures out of the economy over the next 10 years, including $85 billion this year alone. The 2% increase in payroll taxes will hit about 160 million workers and drain $110 billion from their disposable incomes. The Obama health-care tax will be a drag of more than $30 billion. The recent 50-cent surge in gasoline prices represents another $65 billion drag on consumer cash flow.

February’s headline unemployment rate was portrayed as 7.7%, down from 7.9% in January. The dip was accompanied by huzzahs in the news media claiming the improvement to be “outstanding” and “amazing.” But if you account for the people who are excluded from that number—such as “discouraged workers” no longer looking for a job, involuntary part-time workers and others who are “marginally attached” to the labor force—then the real unemployment rate is somewhere between 14% and 15%.

Other numbers reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics have deteriorated. The 236,000 net new jobs added to the economy in February is misleading—the gross number of new jobs included 340,000 in the part-time, low wage category. Many of the so-called net new jobs are second or third jobs going to people who are already working, rather than going to those who are unemployed.

The number of Americans unemployed for six months or longer went up by 89,000 in February to a total of 4.8 million. The average duration of unemployment rose to 36.9 weeks, up from 35.3 weeks in January. The labor-force participation rate, which measures the percentage of working-age people in the workforce, also dropped to 63.5%, the lowest in 30 years. The average workweek is a low 34.5 hours thanks to employers shortening workers’ hours or asking employees to take unpaid leave.

Since World War II, it has typically taken 24 months to reach a new peak in employment after the onset of a recession. Yet the country is more than 60 months away from its previous high in 2007, and the economy is still down 3.2 million jobs from that year.

Just to absorb the workforce’s new entrants, the U.S. economy needs to add 1.8 million to three million new jobs every year. At the current rate, it will be seven years before the jobs lost in the Great Recession are restored. Employers will need to make at least 300,000 hires every month to recover the ground that has been lost.

The job-training programs announced by the Obama administration in his State of the Union address are sensible, but they won’t soon bridge the gap for workers with skills in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Nor is there yet any reform of the patent system, which imposes long delays on innovators, inventors and entrepreneurs seeking approvals. It often takes two years to obtain the environmental health and safety permits to build a modern electronic plant, a lifetime in the tech world.

When employers can’t expand or develop new lines because of the shortage of certain skills, the employment opportunities for the less skilled are also restricted. To help with this shortage, the administration’s proposals for job-training programs do deserve support. The stress should be on vocational training, postsecondary education and every program that will broaden access to computer science and strengthen science, technology, engineering and math in high schools and at the university level.

But the payoffs from these programs are in the future, and it is vital today to increase the number of annual visas and grants of permanent residency status for foreigners skilled in science and technology. The current situation is preposterous: The brightest and best brains from all over the globe are attracted to American universities, but once they get their degrees America sends them packing. Keeping these foreigners out means they will compete against us in the industries that are growing here and around the world.

What the administration gives us is politics. What the country needs are constructive strategies free of ideology. But the risks of future economic shocks will multiply so long as we remain locked in a rancorous political culture with a leadership more inclined to public relations than hardheaded pragmatic recognition of what must be done to restore America’s vitality.

Mr. Zuckerman is chairman and editor in chief of U.S. News & World Report.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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