How the 24-Hour Retail Cycle Skewed Labor Data
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How the 24-Hour Retail Cycle Skewed Labor Data
The Labor Department reported the unemployment rate fell two-tenths of a point to 8.5%, from 8.7%. December’s report also showed an addition of 200K nonfarm payrolls. Both data points represented improvement and both reached above the expectations of economists, who were reportedly looking for an 8.7% unemployment rate and the addition of 150K jobs, based on Bloomberg’s survey. So why did economists fall short?
I think evidence of this is readily available in the report itself. What caught my eye initially was the increase in the average workweek, which was lauded by many talking heads in the popular press. Average hours worked rose to 34.4 hours, up from 34.3, marking an unexpected increase against economists’ views.
We know the retail sector added another 28,000 jobs in December, but the reason behind it was simply attributed to the holiday shopping season. However, there were dynamic factors at play that reached beyond normal seasonal trend. Many stores stayed open 24 hours or otherwise extended their hours of operation through the holiday shopping period of 2011. It was a trend that was initiated by Target (NYSE: TGT) and Wal-Mart (NYSE: WMT) at the formal start of the shopping period, which this year even preceded Black Friday. Operating managers kept the lights on at select Macy’s (NYSE: M), Toys “R” Us and Old Navy, which is owned by The Gap (NYSE: GPS), among other stores. Clearly, doing so requires additions to the workforce count, which would boost December employment beyond the usual seasonal additions at retailers. However, those extraordinary additions would be quickly let loose post the holidays, and so do not present as strong an economic signal as perhaps some see in the December data.
A portion of the holiday’s temporary additions to the employed pool is also notable in the Transportation and Warehousing segment, where the courier and messenger industry contributed 42,000 of the segment’s 50K in workforce growth in December. UPS (NYSE: UPS) and FedEx (NYSE: FDX) each make public notice of the increase on seasonal demand. With this regular trend well understood by the market, it seems to be overlooking the dynamic change in the creative marketing and operation of the retail industry, which I believe also drove increased workforce counts.
What’s not accounted for in this argument is the 23,000 job increase in manufacturing. I suspect this growth is being driven by the increasing effort in domestic energy production, which is a secular trend and a real driver for ongoing employment. Likewise, the long-term growth in health care has been driven by secular demand on the aging demographics of America, and this would also support manufacturing. I see the mining increase driven by the rising prices of commodities, including gold, silver and rare earth metals. Again, manufacturing is indirectly aided.
Jobs have been created over the course of the year, which is reflective of the slowly improving economic environment. There’s no denying that. However, my concern is that new burden lies ahead, driven by deep recession in Europe and related slowing growth in the domestic economies of the emerging markets. Given that the late 2011/ early 2012 market has fed off what has been viewed as a healthy holiday shopping period, I worry about a different reality that could be reported by retailers for the quarter. That reality should reflect leaner profit margins and many earnings shortfalls on the stores’ deep discounting and long hours of operation, as desperate retailers sought any pull possible to lure market share. Thus, I suggest investors take the holiday-relative economic data for what it is, full of noise and distortion.
Article interests investors in: S&P Retail ETF (NYSE: XRT), Wal-Mart (NYSE: WMT), Pier 1 Imports (NYSE: PIR), Ethan Allen (NYSE: ETH), Hooker Furniture (Nasdaq: HOFT), Home Depot (NYSE: HD), Lowes (NYSE: LOW), Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL), Best Buy (NYSE: BBY), The Limited (NYSE: LTD), Chicos (NYSE: CHS), Ann Taylor (NYSE: ANN), The Gap (NYSE: GPS), Macy’s (NYSE: M), JC Penney (NYSE: JCP), Nordstrom (NYSE: JWN), TJX Company (NYSE: TJX), Kohls (NYSE: KSS), Costco (Nasdaq: COST), Target (NYSE: TGT), Wet Seal (Nasdaq: WTSLA), Hot Topic (Nasdaq: HOTT), American Eagle Outfitters (NYSE: AEO), Aeropostale (NYSE: ARO), Abercrombie & Fitch (NYSE: ANF), Saks (NYSE: SAK), Tiffany (NYSE: TIF), Talbots (NYSE: TLB), Lumber Liquidators (NYSE: LL), Builders Firstsource (Nasdaq: BLDR), Fortune Brands (NYSE: FO), Leggett & Platt (NYSE: LEG), Tempur-Pedic International (NYSE: TPX), Acuity Brands (NYSE: AYI), La-Z-Boy (NYSE: LZB), Select Comfort (Nasdaq: SCSS), Sleepy’s (NYSE: ZZ), Furniture Brands (NYSE: FBN), Natuzzi (NYSE: NTZ), Sears (Nasdaq: SHLD), Dillard’s (NYSE: DDS), Bon-Ton (Nasdaq: BONT), Cost Plus (Nasdaq: CPWM), Baker’s Footwear (Nasdaq: BKRS.OB), Bebe Stores (Nasdaq: BEBE), The Buckle (NYSE: BKE), Cache (Nasdaq: CACH), Casual Male (Nasdaq: CMRG), Cato (Nasdaq: CATO), Christopher & Banks (NYSE: CBK), Citi Trends (Nasdaq: CTRN), Collective Brands (NYSE: PSS), Destination Maternity (Nasdaq: DEST), Dress Barn (Nasdaq: DBRN), DSW (NYSE: DSW), Finish Line (Nasdaq: FINL), Footlocker (NYSE: FL), Gymboree (Nasdaq: GYMB), Guess (NYSE: GES), J. Crew (NYSE: JCG), Jones New York (NYSE: JNY), Jos. A Banks (Nasdaq: JOSB), New York & Co. (NYSE: NWY), Men’s Wearhouse (NYSE: MW), Syms (Nasdaq: SYMS), The Children’s Place (Nasdaq: PLCE).
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