The 2020 coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic unhinged capital markets and domestic economies around the globe. From Asia to the United Kingdom, economic contraction became the rule.
Amid lockdowns, quarantines and travel restrictions, day-to-day life underwent a dramatic transformation. Unfortunately for workers, businesses and investors, the world's labour markets experienced turbulence not seen since the Global Financial Crisis of 2008.
What Is Unemployment?
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, unemployment is the "involuntary idleness of workers." The term is synonymous with stagnant economic growth, poverty and a lower standard of living. As a general rule, unemployment grows during recessions and dissipates during expansions.
In order to monitor unemployment and the domestic labor market, regulatory bodies conduct studies of all types. A few of the most common are surveys of the actual labour force, participation rates and employment-to-population ratios. The United States Bureau of Labour Statistics views each area as follows:
- Labour Force: The total number of people who are currently working or searching for work.
- Labour Force Participation Rate: The percentage of the aggregate population that is working or seeking work.
- Unemployment Rate: The number of unemployed people as a percentage of the labour force.
- Employment Population Ratio: The percentage of the aggregate population that is currently working.
Of the above listed metrics, the unemployment rate is frequently referenced as a barometer of labour market health. While this is a go-to statistic for legions of active forex, futures, bond and equities traders, its derivation can vary from country to country. Exact definitions of what constitutes the "domestic labour force" and "unemployed" individuals often differ.
Unemployment rates are expressed as percentages to streamline comparative analysis. To illustrate their functionality, below are a few samples taken from International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimates from year-end 2019:
- United Kingdom, 3.9%
- France, 9.1%
- Germany, 3.2%
- Japan, 2.4%
- China, 4.4%
- Canada, 6.1%
- United States, 3.9%
- World, 4.9%
Unemployment rates are capable of fluctuating wildly with respect to region, nation, or macroeconomic cycle. When referencing these figures, it's important to remember that all statistics are subject to reporting and computation errors. It can be a challenge to craft a true apples-to-apples comparison when using unemployment rates exclusively as a labour market indicator.
Unemployment Spikes Amid COVID-19 Pandemic
According to the United Nations Labor Body, the COVID-19 contagion wielded harsh consequences upon the global workforce. As of early April 2020, 6.7% of all working hours and 195 million jobs worldwide were projected to be lost in the second quarter of 2020. The swift downturn in the international labour markets was predicted to be one of the largest on record and the product of a deep global recession.
The performance of the coronavirus-induced labour market wasn't much better in the States. U.S. Labor Department statistics showed that more than 26 million jobless claims were filed between 1 March 2020 and 16 April 2020. This figure contributed to analyst estimates of American unemployment to spike from sub-4% to between 15% and 20% in a little over six weeks. The sudden uptick in jobless claims was the largest witnessed since the 1930s (Great Depression era).
Given the extraordinary short-term uptick in unemployment, consensus estimates pointed to a dramatic downturn in global economic performance. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) called for a 3% reduction in worldwide GDP for 2020, with per capita output shrinking in 170 nations. Subsequently, calls for dramatic action from governments and central banks grew louder as the economic situation became dire.
Monetary Policy, Unemployment And The USD
Perhaps the greatest tools used to fight high unemployment rates are expansive monetary policies. Accordingly, central banks begin increasing money supplies through cutting interest rates, boosting interbank lending and acquiring government or private debt issues. Each of these activities promotes economic growth through the injection of liquidity to businesses and commercial enterprises.
In response to the exploding COVID-19 economic threat, the U.S. Federal Reserve (FED) took unprecedented action. During March 2020, the FED cut the Federal Funds Target Rate to 0% and launched "QE unlimited." In a matter of weeks, QE unlimited expanded the FED's balance sheet upwards of US$6 trillion. The result was a massive injection of liquidity into the global debt markets in an attempt to foster economic growth and mitigate the negative impacts of rising unemployment.
However, the immediate effects of the FED's actions on employment were muted. From 21 March to 18 April, the U.S. Labor Department reported record growth in jobless statistics. For the period, approximately 26.2 million Americans filed unemployment claims, accounting for roughly 16% of the aggregate labour force.
Despite bold actions by the FED and an unprecedented US$2.3 trillion government stimulus package, an ominous economic scenario began to take shape. Debate ensued throughout the financial community regarding the impact of FED QE and massive stimulus on the U.S. dollar (USD). A vast majority of prognostications fell into one of three categories:
- Inflation: An inflationary cycle is one where a basket of consumer goods becomes more expensive, thus decreasing the purchasing power of the domestic currency. Inflation has many drivers, including economic expansion and artificial increases in the money supply.
- Deflation: Deflation occurs when the price of a basket of consumer goods falls. It may result from sub-par economic growth, a sectoral downturn or from bank failures and wealth destruction. While deflation typically benefits consumers, it can hurt industry and investment.
- Stagflation: Stagflation is the combination of slow economic growth and rising inflation. It is especially devastating to consumers as a reduction in purchasing power accompanies high unemployment levels.
Ultimately, the long-term effects of COVID-19 fiscal policies on unemployment and the USD remain a topic of speculation. Research from the FED suggests that the odds of a deflationary cycle hitting the USD in the short-term are substantial. Conversely, many economists agree that inflation of the USD is unavoidable due to a robust increase in the money supply. Still, others maintain that the worst-case scenario of persistent stagflation is a probable outcome of the COVID-19 pandemic.
U.S. Unemployment Spikes To All-Time Highs
The COVID-19 contagion affected the global economy in an unprecedented manner. Mass lockdowns and travel restrictions brought commerce and industrial growth to halt. Shutdowns of manufacturing facilities and non-essential businesses led to widespread furloughs and layoffs. While short-term unemployment was expected to spike, the full extent was not known until the U.S. jobs report from April 2020 became official.
Record-Breaking Unemployment In April 2020
On Friday, 8 May 2020, several American labour market statistics were released to the public. Among the data sets was the official U.S. Unemployment Rate and Non-Farm Payrolls report for April. Consensus estimates predicted that both figures were to come in historically low. As reported by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the damage to the American job market stood at record levels:
- Non-Farm Payrolls: This is a monthly summary of job gains or losses, exclusive of the agricultural sector. For April 2020, U.S. Non-Farm Payrolls came in at -20.5 million, a record month-over-month decline.
- Unemployment Rate: According to the BLS, U.S. unemployment rose to 14.7%, up 10.3% from March. This increase represented the largest on record.
The dire labour market reports for April led to even more ominous projections for May. Several government officials went on record stating that the May U.S. unemployment rate was likely to grow near or above 20%.
Contrarian Market Action After Record-Low Unemployment Report
Conventional wisdom suggests that markets aren't fond of uncertainty. This wasn't the case for equities following the U.S. unemployment report for April. Risk assets caught significant bids, sending values higher for the 8 May 2020 session:
- Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA): The DJIA settled the day 440 points (+1.84%) higher at 24,372.
- Standard & Poor's 500 (S&P 500): Traders bid the S&P 500 north by 48.61 points (+1.69%) to a close of 2929.81.
- NASDAQ Composite (NASDAQ): Tech stocks saw bullish participation, driving the NASDAQ north 141.66 points (+1.58%).
One reason behind the positive action in U.S. stocks was that the markets had already "priced-in" a dreadful jobs report. Conversely, the USD experienced negative sentiment for the 8 May 2020 session. As forex traders contemplated the long-term fallout from a tanking U.S. labour market, the USD lost marketshare versus a majority of the majors:
- EUR/USD: The EUR/USD traded largely flat, gaining 3 pips (+0.03%) for the session.
- GBP/USD: Values of the GBP/USD ticked higher by 45 pips (+0.37%) on the day.
- AUD/USD: Despite a weak showing from gold, traders bid the AUD/USD north by 36 pips (+0.56%).
- USD/CHF: The Swiss franc gained marketshare as the USD/CHF fell 27 pips (0.28%).
- USD/JPY: As the lone bright spot for the USD, the USD/JPY rallied by 37 pips (+0.35%).
- USD/CAD: The USD/CAD posted an intraday bearish trend of 56 pips (-0.40%).
Note: Past performance is not an indicator of future results.
Among the primary reasons that equities rallied while the USD fell on 8 May 2020 was the potential for more FED QE and government stimulus. In subsequent days, debates regarding the FED adopting negative interest rates and a second US$3 trillion COVID-19 stimulus bill came to the forefront. Although most market participants expected unemployment to spike during April 2020, the dramatic reports acted as catalysts for fresh monetary and fiscal policy dialogue.
Even though colossal FED QE and government stimulus suggested USD weakness, the impact was quite the contrary. As the COVID-19 contagion exploded, the Greenback gained marketshare versus other global majors. From 1 March 2020 to 23 April 2020, the U.S. dollar Index (DXY) rallied above 100.00 on several occasions―a level not seen since September 2016. At least in the short-run, the USD proved to be a safe-haven asset and did not experience chronic devaluation as global unemployment levels exploded.
History shows that massive QE and stimulus packages eventually lead to inflationary cycles for the USD. These challenges are typically combated by the periodic raising of interest rates and "unwinding" of FED holdings as economic conditions improve.
However, the impact of an unprecedented spike in unemployment will largely depend on the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic. If short, the USD and forex majors will stabilise relatively quickly; if long, the implications will vary according to each nation's handling of the economic fallout. As of this writing (late April 2020), the situation remains fluid.