New York - The latest jobs report provided more confusion than clarity about just where the U.S. economy is headed.
Twenty thousand more Americans found themselves out of a job in January. Over the course of this recession 8.4 million jobs have been lost - much more than originally thought. And it's a gigantic hole to climb out of.
But buried in the report were some rays of light. While overall payrolls dropped again, the number of temporary workers jumped and hours worked increased; two things that typically happen right before companies start hiring permanent workers.
Another reason for hope - the unemployment rate dropped to 9.7 percent.
Sure, some of that may be due to the fact that discouraged workers, people who have been out of work for an extended period of time, simply stopped looking.
But some economists say the household survey, which is used to calculate the unemployment rate, is better at picking up small business hiring and may be better at signaling a turn in the economy.
That is encouraging. But I can't help but worry that it is going to take a long time for the consumer to feel confident about jobs.
The severity and speed with which companies slashed workers in this last recession was a clear indication that employees are viewed as little more than a commodity.
I heard someone call it the evolution from just-in-time inventories to just-in-time firing.
Companies may be start to hire, but workers know they won’t think twice about letting them go the minute business dips or profit margins come under pressure.
This isn't completely new. Anyone who has worked in construction knows that when the project is completed it is time to look for work again.
But the approach seems to be spreading to the white collar world. Job security, to the extent it existed at all, seems to be dead.
And the unemployment rate will have to get a whole lot lower before managers worry that staff isn’t easily replaceable.
That worry is bound to weigh on consumers and impact their spending decisions. I guess it is what people mean when they talk about the new normal.
It was one of those moments where I needed to run a reality check of my own as I was preparing for our live coverage from Davos and an interview with Bob Diamond of Barclays Bank.
Diamond appeared on the first panel at this year’s World Economic Forum, ringing alarm bells about the impact of the proposed banking reforms by the Obama administration on his sector and the overall economy.
That message circled the globe quickly, and 24 hours later Diamond came to our live-shot location to give us his analysis after the State of the Union address.
President Obama was preceded on the subject the night before in the Swiss Alpine Resort by his French counterpart Nicolas Sarkozy - who positioned himself off of the bar charts to the left.
In case you missed the subtleties, this is a high-stakes showdown within the G20. While Sarkozy is flanking the left; Diamond and his core set of commercial bankers are on the right.
I posed a question on the correct solution to this challenge and received the most balanced response from Stanley Fischer, who has spent time in all three camps as Deputy Managing Director of the IMF, as a private banker for Citigroup and now as the Central Bank Governor of Israel.
Fischer believes that some intervention is needed and the line between investment banking and general consumer banking often gets blurred within the world’s largest institutions.
While the world’s wealthiest and most powerful debated the merits of greater regulation, I was watching the conferences on Yemen and Afghanistan from a distance. The debate in Davos: proprietary trading and bonuses. The debate in London: halting the rapid decline of two potential failed states.
Prior to this deep and prolonged economic crisis - made worse by loose lending and trading by Western institutions - the wealthier Gulf states started to invest their surpluses closer to home, with a particular eye on Egypt, Jordan, Tunisia and Morocco. But vast swaths of the Middle East and North Africa - part of the Muslim community - are being left behind.
In Yemen, 43 percent of the population lives on less than $2 a day according to the Organization of the Islamic Conference.
“You can understand everyone below the age of 25 is revolutionary,” said Abu Bakr al-Qirbi, Yemen’s foreign minister, “He becomes more so when he does not have a chance for a job.”
The London conference on Yemen was convened to halt the country’s rapid decline into a failed state. As a base for an al Qaeda cell and with conflict on the border with Saudi Arabia, the government is fighting what appears to be a losing battle.
Policy makers and business leaders from the West and the East are mindful of the wealth gap in the Muslim world but have been slow to take action. At the London Conference, Yemeni officials say only seven percent of the $5 billion pledged to Yemen five years ago has been delivered.
In total, there are 1.5 billion Muslims, a big potential market, but 39 percent live below the poverty line, according to the World Islamic Economic Forum.
The chairman of the World Islamic Economic Forum, Musa Hitam was in London to address the issue of economic empowerment.
"One and a half billion Muslims to begin with. Wow! Big figure. But that figure in terms of value in terms of value and potential and economic terms is relatively much smaller than a western market say of 200 million," he said.
That is today’s reality. Per capital income in Yemen is roughly $2,500 a year according to the IMF. Next door, in Saudi Arabia it is ten times more. It is a similar story in Sudan, which is also home to vast natural resources.
Successful Muslim economic models, with reform programs well underway certainly exist. Southeast Asia’s largest market Indonesia is a member of the G20 - along with Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
Today Muslim countries represent one fifth of the world’s population but only six percent of global output. It is a figure leaders shy away from discussing, but know all too well needs to be addressed.
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