skip navigation

Stay up to date on timely topics and market events. Subscribe to our Blog now.

August 07, 2020

Americans Getting Back to Work in July, Contrary to Popular Perceptions

By Michael J. Bazdarich, PhD

Stay up to date on timely topics and market events. Subscribe to our Blog now.

Payroll jobs rose by 1.763 million in July, with private-sector jobs up 1.462 million. The “core” jobs measure we usually track, private sector less construction and retailing, gained 1.184 million jobs. June job counts were revised up for total jobs and down for private sector, but these changes were slight relative to the monthly changes.

Before making editorial comment, we’ll stipulate that the July gains are far lower than 4-to-5 million gains of June (how could they not be?) and July employment levels remain well below the pre-shutdown levels of February. Still, the announced July gains are far stronger than one would have expected given media accounts of a faltering/reversing economic recovery, and the data clearly show workers gradually getting back on the job.

It is hard work putting data together from all sectors of the economy. When private-sector and media analysts attempt to front-run the official news, they can easily be swayed by anecdotes and, occasionally, by political and epidemiological biases. Hence, we were skeptical of various claims that the economic recovery was relapsing in July in the face of a rebound in COVID cases. Those caseloads have since started to head down again, and, meanwhile, today’s data failed to show any meaningful setbacks in the pace of economic recovery.

There were a few pockets of especially strong gains, namely restaurants up 502,000, retail trade up 258,000, public schools up 215,000, temporary help services up 144,000, health care up 126,000, apparel stores up 121,000, personal services (barbers, etc.) up 119,000, recreation up 87,000, and childcare up 45,000. The public school gains are a false flag, as teachers who normally would have been “furloughed” in July this year went off the payrolls in May. The other large gains here are more substantial. Elsewhere, gains were more modest, with a few sectors showing slight declines, as there almost always are.

To put things in perspective, the accompanying table shows how various sectors have performed: those we normally focus on (construction, manufacturing, etc.), those showing especially sharp July gains and those sectors we have been describing in recent months as having been especially hard hit by the shutdown.

Exhibit 1: Some Details of Payroll Job Changes
Explore Some Details of Payroll Job Changes.
Bureau of Labor Statistics. As of 31 Jul 2020. Select the image to expand the view.

As you can see from the table, no sector is fully recovered from the shutdown. Construction and manufacturing have seen substantial rebounds, and, interestingly enough, so has retail trade. (The Paycheck Protection Program—PPP—is likely helping there.) Other sectors showing large job gains in July generally saw extremely sharp declines through April and, even with the July gains, remain substantially depressed. Still, they are recovering.

Among the hard-hit service sectors, health care and restaurants have shown nice rebounds, with health care nearly back to full strength and restaurants back more than one might have expected (PPP again?). However, not surprisingly, hotels, travel and recreation have barely bounced over the last three months. For these sectors, continued shutdown and fears of infection among potential customers are powerful forces holding them back.

These last few industries are unlikely to see a more substantial recovery until an effective vaccine emerges or else popular fears somehow dissipate. In the meantime, though, it is important to distinguish the rest of the economy from these “special case” sectors.

The economy on balance will still be depressed, thanks to continuing woes in the shutdown “epicenter” sectors. However, total employment and GDP can still achieve something resembling a V-shaped recovery just on the strength of those sectors where recovery is occurring. In other words, after GDP growth rates of -5.0% and -32.9% in 1Q and 2Q, a second-half performance of +25% and +5% in 3Q and 4Q would look strong, but would leave the economy in 4Q at 4% below year-ago levels. Those suggested second-half growth numbers look about right to us, and the 4% net decline in 4Q20 over 4Q19 looks to be consistent with the ongoing softness in the aforementioned service sectors.

© Western Asset Management Company, LLC 2023. This publication is the property of Western Asset and is intended for the sole use of its clients, consultants, and other intended recipients. It should not be forwarded to any other person. Contents herein should be treated as confidential and proprietary information. This material may not be reproduced or used in any form or medium without express written permission.
Past performance does not predict future returns. This publication is for informational purposes only and reflects the current opinions of Western Asset. Information contained herein is believed to be accurate, but cannot be guaranteed. Opinions represented are not intended as an offer or solicitation with respect to the purchase or sale of any security and are subject to change without notice. Statements in this material should not be considered investment advice. Employees and/or clients of Western Asset may have a position in the securities mentioned. This publication has been prepared without taking into account your objectives, financial situation or needs. Before acting on this information, you should consider its appropriateness having regard to your objectives, financial situation or needs. It is your responsibility to be aware of and observe the applicable laws and regulations of your country of residence.
Western Asset Management Company Distribuidora de Títulos e Valores Mobiliários Limitada is authorized and regulated by Comissão de Valores Mobiliários and Brazilian Central Bank. Western Asset Management Company Pty Ltd ABN 41 117 767 923 is the holder of the Australian Financial Services Licence 303160. Western Asset Management Company Pte. Ltd. Co. Reg. No. 200007692R is a holder of a Capital Markets Services Licence for fund management and regulated by the Monetary Authority of Singapore. Western Asset Management Company Ltd is a registered Financial Instruments Business Operator and regulated by the Financial Services Agency of Japan. Western Asset Management Company Limited is authorised and regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority (“FCA”) (FRN 145930). This communication is intended for distribution to Professional Clients only if deemed to be a financial promotion in the UK as defined by the FCA. This communication may also be intended for certain EEA countries where Western Asset has been granted permission to do so. For the current list of the approved EEA countries please contact Western Asset at +44 (0)20 7422 3000.