Fed said 'recession dead'?

Yesterday, the Federal Reserve signaled that it thought the worst of the recession has passed. The thing is, for job seekers, that is not even the right question to ask. On the other hand, for people who try to make money buying stocks, it's now obvious that they should have taken President Obama's advice and bought heavily in March.

After all, since then, the S&P 500 has risen about 50 percent. Investors also should have shunned the equity investment advice of Bill Gross, PIMCO's German-insurance-company-backed bond guru who feasts at the U.S. government trough -- advising it on its purchases of mortgage-backed securities (MBSs) and commercial paper.

Before digging in to what the Fed said, let's remember the words of Gross, the big CNBC advertiser whose sage commentary on the Fed is so essential to his profits. As I posted in February, Gross told me in an interview that he thought equities were dead. Since then, the Dow is up 30 percent. Clearly, following Gross would have been expensive for your portfolio!

Gross, who bought Fannie Mae senior debt as he was advising Hank Paulson on the US's rescue last year, based his advice on two key points. First, he noted, equities were junior to other securities. Second, he averred, economic growth was likely to be non-existent. Considering these points, he argued that people should shun equities and buy bonds.

Meanwhile, the Fed's statement yesterday was great for stocks, since it said that one of its programs to buy government bonds would end in October But is the worst over? Interest rates are still about 0 percent and the Fed is still running a variety of programs to take toxic waste off Wall Street's balance sheet. Its Term Asset-Backed Securities Loan Program (TALF) is still buying up $1.45 trillion worth of MBSs and other bundles of loans to consumers and businesses.

However, the Fed's comment that it would wind down that MBS program by year-end was seen as a positive sign. And the TALF, which was created in March because the Fed decided that financial conditions were "unusual and exigent" (UAE), might end if the Fed now thinks that financial conditions have improved so much that they no longer satisfy the UAE test.

Meanwhile, people looking for jobs don't care about whether the recession is declared over or not; they care about getting a new job. With 6.2 million people on the unemployment rolls -- and 558,000 added to the list in the last week, they face formidable competition. This is particularly important because the number of jobs in the U.S. has barely budged from 109 million over the past ten years, according to the New York Times.

More specifically, jobs are up at a 0.01 percent annual rate since then. Underneath the surface, there's good news though. Management and technical consulting jobs are up five percent annually, and so are jobs for elderly home health care workers. Computer systems designers enjoyed 2.4 percent annual growth; lawyers went up by 0.7 percent, and accountants increased by 0.9 percent.

Meanwhile. manufacturing jobs fell 3.7 percent -- with auto-making jobs falling 6.7 percent a year; trailed by a 4.4 percent annual tumble in computer-manufacturing employment.

If you work with people to solve complex brain teasers or you take care of the elderly, your odds of getting a job are good. If you make things, life will be tough. And since, as I posted, the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) dates a recession based largely on job growth, it is probably too early to declare this recession over.

As for investments, if you have extra money, you must decide whether to pour it into stocks or sell into this rally. And if you don't have extra money or a job, it may make sense to heed those job growth trends.

Peter Cohan is a management consultant, Babson professor and author of eight books including, You Can't Order Change. Follow him on Twitter. He has no financial interest in the securities mentioned.
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