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Recession warning from US vacancies

April 14, 2023 by Simon Ward

US February job openings were 17% below their March 2022 peak. Historically, a decline of this magnitude in vacancies – job openings or, for earlier years, help-wanted advertising – was always associated with a payrolls recession. 

Job openings numbers are available back to 2000. Regis Barnichon, now at the San Francisco Fed, constructed a proxy series – composite help-wanted advertising – for earlier decades. The Barnichon series adjusts historical data on newspaper advertising for a rising share of online job postings, modelled by an S-curve. 

The official and Barnichon series (which is no longer updated) can be spliced together to create a continuous vacancies series extending back to the early 1950s, a period encompassing 11 recessions involving sustained payrolls declines – see chart 1. 

Chart 1

Chart 1 showing US Non-Farm Payrolls & Job Openings / Help-Wanted

Every payrolls decline was preceded by a fall in vacancies but several vacancies declines were followed by slowdowns in payrolls rather than outright weakness (e.g. 1966). 

A sufficient condition for a payrolls recession was a fall of more than 15% in vacancies from their peak level in the latest 12 months – chart 2. This condition was met in February job openings numbers released last week. 

Chart 2

Chart 2 showing US Non-Farm Payrolls & Deviation of Job Openings / Help-Wanted from 12m High

Historically, the 15% threshold was reached around the time that payrolls started to decline. In six of the 11 cases, payrolls had already peaked, although this was not always known at the time. 

As an example, current data show a 1974 payrolls decline beginning in August, one month before the vacancies fall reached the 15% trigger. In real-time data, however, a payrolls peak was delayed until October.

NS Partners Ltd.
April 14th, 2023