Rising stocks behave out of character with positive jobs report
Stocks rose on the jobs report released by the Labor Department Friday. Job creation in the last two months is the strongest it has been since before the recession. But the market’s current response to a positive jobs report is unusual, and stocks could fall again if the labor market continues to improve.
First quarter gain for stocks and jobs
The U.S. unemployment rate dropped from 8.9 percent in February to 8.8 percent in March, the lowest rate in two years, according to the Labor Department. In response, stocks rose across the market. The Dow Jones Industrial Average rose 87 points to 12,406, a 0.7 percent gain and a new high for 2011. The Standard & Poor’s 500 rose 10 points to 1,335, a 0.8 percent gain. The Nasdaq composite rose 15 points to 2,796, a 0.6 percent gain. Payrolls at U.S. companies increased by 216,000 workers in March after a 194,000 gain the month before. The unemployment rate has been dropping since it was 9.8 percent November, the biggest four-month decrease since 1983. U.S. stocks surged 5.4 percent in the three months ending with March for the biggest first-quarter gain since 1998.
The counterintuitive relationship between markets and labor
Normally companies announcing layoffs benefit on Wall Street because investors believe smaller payrolls equal higher profits. When the labor market was hemorrhaging jobs in January 2009, the stock market gained. In fact, in the past 60 years the stock market has performed better on average when the U.S. unemployment rate was higher rather than lower. According to Ned Davis Research, the S&P 500 mustered an average annualized gain of 13.5 percent when the unemployment rate was above 6 percent. When unemployment dipped to 4.3 percent or below, the S&P 500 managed just a 2.1 percent gain on average. In January 2009 Ed Clissold of Ned Davis Research told MarketWatch that in addition to lower costs and higher profits, traders salivate at high unemployment because it means they will benefit from economic stimulus provided by the federal government. Traders may also believe that by the time unemployment news hits the streets, stock prices have already been affected by job cuts and shares can be flipped for profit if they rise.
Traders hope job news doesn’t get too good
Stocks may have surged on Friday’s good labor market news not because unemployment has dropped but because it hasn’t dropped too much. Traders myopically chase short term gains and don’t consider long-term strategies. In the current environment, many of these traders believe the stock market has been propped up by the Federal Reserve bond buying program known as QE2. Some of them, especially those in the fixed-income market, worry that if the labor market gets too strong, the Fed will quit buying bonds after QE2 is slated to end in June, and the gravy train will stop. As the return of record profits and bonuses on Wall Street while average Americans have struggled has shown, what’s good for stocks isn’t necessarily good for the country. If more Americans keep finding work, the markets could change their tune.