THE STEALTH DEPRESSION IN SMALL BUSINESS

A guest contribution from Gaius at The Decline and Fall of Western Civilization:

Ed Harrison highlights david rosenberg’s morning note on future revisions to GDP data.

Translation: small businesses are suffering disproportionately because of a credit crunch. Their pain is not adequately reflected in the numbers because of big company bias in real-time data. GDP growth is probably much lower than we realize.

This view is consistent with the dichotomy in the BLS (Bureau of Labor Statistics) household survey used to calculate the unemployment rate and the establishment survey used to calculate non-farm payrolls. …

That shows employment levels dropping off a cliff over the last three months in the household survey. While I question the magnitude of the fall given the weekly jobless claims data, these numbers are much worse than the job losses seen in Non-farm payrolls. Directionally, this has to be right, meaning the 530,000 weekly claims was probably translating into something more like 300,000 job losses than the 200,000 reported. Again, underreporting of small business distress explains the difference.

This was also a topic addressed by david goldman.

With commercial and industrial lending by American banks down 13% since September 2008, and most banks continuing to “tighten lending standards” in the Fed’s official poll, this is not surprising. Wal-Mart will make it through a recession; not the tea-cozy shop down the mall corridor, much less the real-estate agency in the half-abandoned exurb. The global speculative grade default rate, as Moody’s reported this week, has risen to a post-Great Depression high of 12%. Credit lines for small businesses (including home equity, credit cards, and all the other devices entrepreneurs use to fund themselves) will continue to shrink.

Numerous analysts have made the point that in all previous post-war recoveries, it was small business that led job creation. During the 1980s and 1990s large businesses lost employment and small businesses grew. The fact that job losses at small business are evidently far higher than those at large businesses does not make this look like any recovery at all.

Indeed, in spite of third quarter statistics indicating a very light recovery which could as easily be called a stagnation around 2007 levels of economic activity, i suspect that the depression is gathering force in the substrata of the economy which are poorly represented in first-guess economic statistics.

091113 jolts

Previous recessions have been characterized mostly by large enterprises cutting jobs while small business created them. This time, small business has been cutting jobs even faster than the big boys, making hiring very scarce and short circuiting a lot of the logic behind well-intentioned arguments such as those forwarded by new deal democrat at the bonddad blog, positing a straight correlation between initial claims and non-farm payrolls. Initial claims are moderating, but hiring continues to decline. the latest JOLTS report out of the BLS illustrates the trend, though again likely understates the perniciousness of the effects in small business.

What likely doesn’t is (via the orange county register) the october survey data out of the national federation of independent businesses.

091113 nfibIn the past three months, 8% of respondents increased employment but 19% cut jobs, owners told NFIB.

The future looks a little brighter: 9% plan to create jobs and 16% plan cuts.

More bad news for employees: Owners continued to cut compensation at a record pace, the survey found.

Overall, small-business owners continue to be pessimistic about the economy. In the 1980-82 double recession, NFIB’s Index of Small Business Optimism dipped below 90 for one quarter (100 = owners’ optimism level in 1986). In this recession, the index has been below 90 for six quarters.

Hires in small business will have to exceed cuts for any material recovery to take hold. But with these businesses cut off from credit and in many cases actively seeking to downscale and reduce debt, that may not be for some time.

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Cullen Roche

Mr. Roche is the Founder of Orcam Financial Group, LLC. Orcam is a financial services firm offering research, private advisory, institutional consulting and educational services.

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  • billw

    This has been obvious for at least the last six months. Both you and Calculated Risk have tracked the railroad yoy decline being 16-17% a little over a month ago. Add to that the trucking decline yoy being of the same magnitude. Since everything that is constituted in the GDP moves through these forms of transportation at some time, actual GDP has to be in the 10-15% negative range. No one carries an extra 5% in inventory anymore, so we can’t say that we were working down inventories.