If you want to know why the housing market is still in a depression or why consumer spending is so fickle, you can blame the bleak employment picture.The so-called 'jobless recovery' that our generation of economists predicted is unfortunately not coming true. In fact, various measures of nationwide unemployment show that a lack of employment and underemployment is hindering economic growth. What is a 'jobless recovery' and is it really possible?Jobless Recovery 101The term 'jobless recovery' was first coined in the 1930s to describe a scenario of increases in gross domestic product (GDP) with high or rising unemployment. Today, certain economists argue that a 'jobless recovery' could very well happen again because it existed in the past.During the Great Depression unemployment remained high even though GDP statistics reflected economic growth. But is it historically accurate to describe that horrific decade from 1930-40 as a 'jobless recovery?' Would individuals who lived through that period agree? Any such declarations of a 'jobless recovery' during the Great Depression are highly controversial and ignore that much of the nation remained mired in poverty. What's the 'Real' Unemployment Rate?Evaluating the true level of nationwide unemployment is messy. Even though the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports these numbers on a monthly basis, the figures are often under-reported or skewed by the media, BLS or both. For example, the media regularly quotes the 'headline' unemployment figure (also known as the U-3 number) even though other data sets from the BLS paint a more accurate picture of the job market. The U-6 number is far more complete because it includes discouraged workers, marginally attached workers, plus workers that are forced to work part-time because they are not able to find a full-time job.Over the past year, U-3 unemployment has hovered between 9.2 to 9.5 percent while the U-6 figure has shown a substantially higher range between 15.7 to 16.2 percent. And if we add another important category of workers to the U-6 numbers - unemployed self-employed individuals - the real nationwide unemployment rate is probably closer to 20 percent. (An example of a 'self-employed unemployed worker' would be a real estate agent that hasn't been able to manufacture enough income from selling properties.)The Job Market and InvestingThe monthly U.S. jobs report is not just psychologically important but it tells us about household income and the potential for economic expansion. A robust report can lift stocks (NYSEArca: VTI - News) as the market anticipates future sales and profit growth. On the other hand, a stubbornly high unemployment rate like we have right now, can sour corporate earnings and translate into lower stock prices.Weak employment numbers suggest a sluggish economy and can be a bullish sign for more defensive assets like corporate bonds (NYSEArca: LQD - News), government bonds (NYSEArca: IEF - News), and cash. Also, the trend of job outsourcing overseas could mean it's time consider a broad play on emerging market stocks (NYSEArca: EEM - News) or focused plays like Asia (NYSEArca: ECNS - News), Europe (NYSEArca: ESR - News), or Latin America (NYSEArca: ILF - News).Another strategy would be to build a defensive ETF portfolio or one with strategic exposure to a balanced mixed of asset classes. Although this strategy has slightly lagged the S&P 500 (NYSEArca: SPY - News), it's still produced around a 6 percent year-to-date gain but with less risk, like ETFguide's Ready-to-Go ETF Portfolios. ConclusionIn summary, the term 'jobless recovery' is a mythical concept, similar to other misleading statements like nutritious junk food, harmless explosives and painless amputation. Theoretically, all of these things should be possible but we know they aren't.A healthy job market is a vital element to a true economic recovery and the creation of temporary census jobs or minimum wage jobs isn't going to get the trick done. People need sustainable work with adequate wages and room for upward growth. And if they can't get that, the economy will remain in the same funk it is today.
- jobless recovery