While the business press points to May's slowdown in the pace of layoffs as an early sign of recovery, Harvard economist Jeffrey Frankel says not so fast. Frankel, who's also a member of the Business Cycle Dating Committee of the National Bureau of Economic Research, prefers an alternative indicator of employment - total hours worked - which he says provides a better gauge of economic cycles (pointer from Economix).
Speaking entirely for myself, I like to look at the rate of change of total hours worked in the economy. Total hours worked is equal to the total number of workers employed multiplied by the average length of the workweek for the average worker. The length of the workweek tends to respond at turning points faster than does the number of jobs.
Frankel provides the graph below which tracks the trend in hours worked over the past decade.
Based on this, he argues that the economy is not yet in recovery and continues on its downward trajectory.
The length of the average work week fell to its lowest since 1964 ! ... [N]ot only did total hours worked decline in May, but the rate of decline (0.7%) was very much in line with the rate of contraction that workers have experienced since September. Hours worked suggests that the hope-inspiring May moderation in the job loss series may have been a monthly aberration. If firms were really gearing up to start hiring workers once again, why would they now be cutting back as strongly as ever on the hours that they ask their existing employees to work? If one factors in falling wages, to compute total weekly earnings, the picture looks still worse.
Frankel's "bottom line:"
[T]he labor market does not quite yet suggest that the economy has hit bottom.