November unemployment rates will be released on Friday. Some of the figures will be distorted by factors such as Hurricane Sandy, holiday retail job additions and layoffs at troubled companies from Web 2.0 firms like LivingSocial to old line firms that include Boeing Co. (NYSE: BA), which believes defense industry cuts will harm its margins. Worries about the fiscal cliff may have halted hiring, or even may have begun to trigger layoffs. Everyone from politicians to economists to corporate leaders hopes the numbers will be good, but they will not be.
One thing that will undermine a better jobs report, ironically, will be the strong jobs reports posted in recent months. The uneven recovery can only support so much improvement, and that improvement already has been reflected in numbers in October and the late summer and early fall. Anxiety breeds caution, and companies have reached the end point of their optimism.
The pessimism about what lays ahead and the lack of job growth can be seen in businesses large and small. The Business Roundtable CEO Economic Outlook Index, which is as good as any other proxy for huge corporations because its membership is made up of so many of these firms, dropped to 66 in the most recent quarter, the third largest slide in its history. America’s largest companies managed to squeeze productivity out of their workforces for the past three years. It is a skill that they perfected during the recession when their profits were challenged or they hoped to minimize losses.
At the other end of the spectrum of companies, the NFIB Small Business Optimism Index signaled trouble when its November report was released. The organization reported that it “found that the percent of owners uncertain about whether business conditions will be better or worse in six months, was at a record high of 23%.”
One can argue that two surveys do not make a trend, but the Business Roundtable and NFIB numbers are as well-regarded as any others, at least as a reflection of their portions of the corporate world. Of course, there are no perfect prediction mechanisms, but some set has to be chosen for any forecast to be possible.
The one other set of data worth consideration are the number of public corporations that have forecast weak results in the quarter or year ahead. Shrinking sales to Europe and unpredictable results due to the fiscal cliff have been noted repeatedly as reasons to hold back investment and spending. Once again, this is not a perfect measure, but it is a large enough sample to merit consideration.
The November jobs report will not be good. Too many things point to worry among those who do the hiring.
Douglas A. McIntyre