Payroll losses down--that's good. But consumer credit falls--that's bad--and so does the Baltic Dry index--that's bad too. The economic picture is clearly mixed

08/07/2009 4:58 pm EST

Focus: STOCKS

Jim Jubak

Founder and Editor, JubakPicks.com

On Friday before the U.S. financial markets opened the Labor Department reported that only a  net 247,000 workers lost their jobs in June. That was a big decrease from the drop of 443,000 in June. And way better than the 325,000 decline that economists had been expecting.

The smaller number of net jobs lost sent the unemployment rate down to 9.4% from 9.5% in June. After revisions added 43,000 jobs to the numbers for May and June, average net job loss for the past three months fell to just 331,000. That's less than half the average monthly decline in the first six months of the year.

As you'd expect, the stock market jumped out of the gate after that news. The Standard & Poor's 500 traded as high as 1018 at about 1:30.

But then stock prices retreated--the S&P 500 finished the day at 1010--on news that the economy still had a lot of work to do before it reached recovery. The Federal Reserve reported that consumer credit--that's the amount that consumers borrow to buy things--fell by $10.3 billion in June. That's the fifth straight monthly decline. And, most worryingly, its roughly twice as big a drop as the $5 billion that economists were expecting. The $10 billion drop was divided almost evenly between revolving debt such as credit cards and non-revolving debt such as auto loans.

As long as banks don't lend--because they've tightened their credit standards--and consumers don't borrow--because they can't get loans or because they've lost their jobs or fear they're about to--consumer spending isn't about to pick up. Consumer spending dropped at a 1.2% annual rate in the second quarter of 2009.

Another closely watched number also indicated weakness in the global economy. The Baltic Dry Index, which follows the cost of shipping for bulk commodities such as coal and iron, had its worst week since October. The index fell 17% as the cost of shipping fell as China reduced its demand for coal and iron ore. That's a big reversal from the rally that took the index to a yearly high on June 3. In fact, the index is now down about 35% from its June peak. The index had collapsed in 2008, falling 92% as global demand for bulk commodities plunged.

If you want to call this picture confusing, I certainly wouldn't disagree. It is about what we'd expect if the global and U.S. economies were bottoming. Unfortunately, it's also about what we'd expect if the current "recovery" was just a short-lived bounce.

With this degree of confusion, it's not time to be placing big bets one way or another.

Of course, that won't stop some investors and traders from risking big money on their reading of the tea leaves. On Friday, after the surprisingly positive jobless numbers came out, traders flocked into the Eurodollar futures market to bet that the good news would lead the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates sooner than expected. Traders gave a 42% probability to an increase in the Fed's target interest rate, now 0.25%, to 0.5% by December. That's up from 38% the day before the jobless number surprise.

The odds for a rate increase in January climbed to 69% from 62%.

The Federal Reserve has repeatedly said that it won't raise rates, which would slow the economy, until it thinks the economy is firmly in recovery mode (or until inflation kicks up.)

I don't see a one-month drop in the unemployment rate to 9.4% from 9.5% as enough to change the Fed's mind.

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