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Unemployment Rate May Surprise Investors on the Upside

Sébastien Page, CFA, Head of Global Multi-Asset

Executive Summary

Unemployment numbers are bad, but we believe expectations are low. Most forecasts are based on economic models relying on historical data from past recoveries that were plagued by structural challenges. However, since 80% of the current unemployment is flagged as temporary, as industries reopen—albeit slowly—data may surprise markets on the upside.


There’s no doubt that the current unemployment data is bad, but I would argue that expectations are too low.

We saw with May unemployment, a huge positive surprise. And markets reacted positively.

Economists were forecasting 20% unemployment, and we got 13.3%. That is a huge difference. I think part of the issue is that a lot of economic models are based off historical data. So they rely on the path of past recoveries. But clearly here we’re in a more temporary situation than we were in previous unemployment spikes.

Look, 80% of the unemployment at the moment is flagged as temporary. Clearly there will be permanent job losses. But 80% is a very large number because historically the percentage of unemployment that’s flagged as temporary is around 15%, and the highest it gets is around 20%.

So this is a different situation. It’s not like an industrial recession where factories shut down, and it takes years to get back to the same level of activity. Or take the crisis of ‘08/’09, it’s not the same because these are not jobs like financial sector jobs that were just permanently different and permanently lost in a lot of cases.

Here we’re talking about restaurants, airlines, service industry temporarily closing and then reopening. And we know that there’s a bookend here especially once we get a vaccine.

It’s clear that the reopening is going to be slow. But if you think about this way, suppose that the expectation is that we’ll reopen at 20% capacity for the next six months.

And that sooner than later, we actually reopen up at 50% capacity, it’s still not flipping a light switch. But it’s better than expectations. I think we will see some of that in the unemployment data for months to come that it might surprise on the upside if economists don’t readjust their models and continue to rely on somewhat historical calibrations.

There’s also an incentive at the moment for people to be on unemployment, $600 a week, which is meaningful and is not going to be around forever. And there’s even talk of a return-to-work bonus.

This is a situation that could actually surprise on the upside. Now, stocks have rallied quite a bit. So I’m not arguing that stocks are cheap at the moment. But if there ever was a moment to argue for broad diversification in a portfolio, this would be one.

Morningstar Awards 2020©. Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Awarded to T. Rowe Price for 2020 U.S. Morningstar Exemplary Stewardship and to Jerome Clark for 2020 U.S. Morningstar Outstanding Portfolio Manager, U.S.A.