The Real Unemployment Rate

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by: Markos Kaminis

Nonfarm Payrolls increased by 155,000 on net in December 2012, a number that perfectly matched against the consensus of economists surveyed by Bloomberg. The Unemployment Rate was likewise perfectly placed against economists' expectations at 7.8%, and it was unchanged from November. But America wants to know what the real rate of unemployment is.

Years ago, we were one of the first to shed light on the concept of an underemployment rate, which incorporates people who are not satisfied with their less than full employment and also includes those desperate Americans detached from the labor force. Ahead of the presidential election, Mitt Romney was talking about another version of unemployment that we also suggested Americans consider. That figure used a labor participation rate from when President Obama took office, though we would look back further to when unemployment was under 5.0% instead. It makes sense to use such a participation rate, if you believe population growth and the maturing of Americans at least matches the number of seniors retiring by choice and Americans passing away prematurely. Obviously there are demographic trends at play as well, like the aging of the baby boomers, but so much so soon? Because of the relevant issue of long-term unemployment in America today and workers falling off the labor force radar screen while still interested in working, these figures are likely closer to reflecting the true state of American labor.


The calculation of the under-employment rate, or the U-6 by government notation, takes into account the number of Americans working part-time for economic reasons and the detached workforce. Working part-time for economic reasons is equivalent to folks who would prefer full-time employment but have had their hours cut or have had to otherwise settle for part-time work. Detached workers are those Americans who have not recently looked for work, sometimes because they do not believe work exists for them today. In getting to the U-6 "underemployment" figure, we'll need to include these groups of workers with unemployed Americans. If we add back the excluded 2.614 million displaced workers to the labor market, and include the 7.918 million underemployed part-timers in the unemployed count, December adjusted unemployment is found to be ((12.206M + 2.614M + 7.918M) / (155.511M + 2.614M)) * 100 = 14.4%. In November, the rate was ((12.042M + 2.505M + 8.138M) / (155.319M + 2.505M)) * 100 = 14.4%, or the same misery.

This data can be skewed by any of its components. Starting with the denominator, the labor force count increased in December, which would dilute the numerator and moderate the unemployment rate. Note, however, that in December the number of detached workers increased by 109K and the number of forced part-timers decreased by 220K. It's hard to say whether detached workers disappeared off the radar screen and part-timers got fired, or if these folks found work of some sort. Most importantly, the number of people reporting unemployed status was up by 164,000. The end result of the changes in the categories netted into something less than significant enough to change the underemployment rate, matching the message of the unchanged unemployment rate in December.

Historically speaking, U-6 unemployment is improved, as you can see by the table here. However, this improvement may be for another reason which is unaccounted for by this data, which we discuss in the paragraphs below.

Monthly Period

U-6 Unemployment Rate (Seasonally Adjusted)

December 2009


December 2010


December 2011


December 2012


Click to enlarge

What About the Forgotten?

I often talk about the great degree of long-term unemployment plaguing our nation today and how this has uniquely impacted reported employment data. The number of Americans unemployed for 27 weeks or longer was relatively unchanged in December at roughly 4.8 million. This represented 39% of the total unemployed count.

The proportion is down from recent history, though it continues to reflect poorly on the state of labor. That's because the longer people remain unemployed, the harder it gets for them to find jobs in their specialty fields due to eroding and outdated skill sets. Many of us fear that improvement in the proportion of long-term unemployment is partly due to Americans simply falling out of the labor force count rather than finding new employment.

For this reason, some, including yours truly and more notably Mitt Romney, have been considering what the unemployment rate might be at labor force participation rates of the past. The labor force participation rate was 63.6% in December 2012. That compares against 66.4% in December 2006, which was the high for December since 2002. Now, maybe that participation rate reflected the excesses of the mortgage, construction and finance industries that resulted from greed and the fault of the rating agencies and those industries. Those faults are still bearing out in layoffs, like the significant cuts announced last year by Bank of America (NYSE:BAC) and again late this year by Citigroup (NYSE:C). Still, let's calculate what the unemployment rate would be at such a participation rate, because if the economy had not been so disrupted by the financial crisis, perhaps those employed in the synthetically fattened fields might have found other work.

Applying the 66.4% rate to the civilian noninstitutional population count in December 2012, we get a civilian labor force count of 162,248,400, versus the 155,511,000 reported (Note calculation error exists because of the seasonal adjustment to the labor force count. I've attempted to back into that adjustment and apply it to the theorized labor force count, resulting in this figure for the adjusted labor force: 162,357,396). After that adjustment, the difference from this December's workforce count is 6,846,396 million Americans who would be added to the unemployed count as well. So, the real unemployment rate could be 11.7% (not 7.8%) if those nearly 7 million Americans have simply fallen off the radar. Likewise, the real underemployment rate could be as high as 17.9% today.

Those are much more significant figures reflecting a poorer state of health for American labor and the economy. Now, the trend would still seem to be improving, but the data would argue for continued stimulation of the economy by the Federal Reserve and through fiscal policy. The theme of this article is to simply show what real unemployment might be, and not to get deeper into resulting fiscal and monetary policy consequences and strategy, but perhaps we'll expand upon this in upcoming work for you. It's clear that we need to continue to stimulate job creation in America so that we can support and grow consumer spending and personal income, and in so doing raise revenues to support our nation's needs and growth.

If we can accomplish this while at the same time reining in excess spending and gaining control of our debt, then we might maintain an environment supportive of business. An environment supportive of business is an environment supportive of the stock market. Thus, dignified decision-making must overtake dysfunctional politics in Washington D.C. if we are to see the historical average gains of the market continue over the next several decades. Therefore, we must demand more from our politicians. Otherwise, the performance of the broader indexes, reflected in the SPDR S&P 500 (NYSEARCA:SPY), SPDR Dow Jones Industrial Average (NYSEARCA:DIA) and the PowerShares QQQ (NASDAQ:QQQ) will diverge from their historical gains. For this reason, today's market is a stock-pickers' market, but one burdened by the heavy weight of macroeconomic issues. To help to lighten that burden, we must continue to seek to spur job creation, because the situation is worse than it seems as indicated by the real unemployment rate.

Disclosure: I have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours. I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it. I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.