Washington Insider-- Friday

Economic Focus Returns to Job Losses

Here’s a quick monitor of Washington farm and trade policy issues from DTN’s well-placed observer.

Farm Bureau Outlines What It Sees Needed For Next Ag Aid Efforts

The American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) is calling on congressional leaders to put together a major aid package for U.S. agriculture, going beyond additional payments to farmers.

The group said in a nearly five-page letter to leaders that efforts need to include replenishing Commodity Credit Corporation (CCC) funding to a new cap of $68 billion; waiving any farmer payment caps; including provisions in the $3 trillion-plus, House-passed aid package, including direct payments for losses after April 15; providing support for biofuel production facilities; allowing aid to independent and contract poultry producers not eligible for the $16 billion in Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP) payments being distributed by USDA; allowing Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acreage for emergency haying and grazing; easing rules in the Paycheck Protection Program’s (PPP) forgivable loans, including allowing farms to get funding for H-2A workers; making farmers eligible for PPP loans even if they show Schedule F losses in farm income; making Farm Credit institutions eligible for the PPP's set-aside for small financial lenders; funding to offset costs of accommodating social distancing needs in H-2A housing and to obtain personal protective equipment for employees; providing business targeted, limited liability protections that would shield farmers and ranchers; including several rural broadband provisions, including accelerated funding for the implementation of the Broadband DATA Act; and waiving overtime fees for federal meat inspectors in small and medium-sized packing plants.

The package pulls together many efforts that various farm/commodity groups and lawmakers have called for in recent weeks. The next aid package is not seen being acted on by Congress until after the July 4 recess.


USDA Tweaking CFAP

USDA today is publishing a rule in the Federal Register that will make several small corrections to the final rule published May 21 for the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP).

The changes include clarifying the definition of “Slaughter Cattle – fed cattle” to be animals with a weight of 1,200 pounds or more that are intended for slaughter, that payment calculations for livestock specify that they are based on unpriced livestock sales and specifies they apply to livestock inventory owned between April 16, and May 14, 2020.

The changes also “removes the definition of ‘unpriced inventory’ and adds a similar definition of ‘unpriced’ to be consistent with the use of the term throughout the regulation; the new definition also specifies that ‘unpriced’ is based on whether a forward contract, agreement, or similar binding document was in place as of January 15, 2020.”

The changes would also make dairy operations that dissolved on or after March 31 to be eligible for payments, with USDA noting the dairy change would not increase CFAP costs. There were also changes made for specialty crops.

Washington Insider: Economic Focus Returns to Job Losses

After the U.S. labor market posted a surprise improvement for May, “the weekly jobless-claims data will again remind people that economic pain remains widespread, even if it’s gradually abating," Bloomberg reports this week.

About 1.55 million Americans are expected to have filed for unemployment benefits last week, according to the median estimate of economists. While that would mark the 10th straight decline from the record 6.87 million in late March, it’s still more than seven times the pre-pandemic average, Bloomberg said.

The total number claiming benefits through the regular state programs – which is reported with a one-week lag – are projected to have declined to 20 million in the week ended May 30. That’s still more than 11 times the level prior to the pandemic.

While the weekly report is beset by quirks and data-gathering issues, it sheds light on the still-elevated ranks of the unemployed. “That provides a counterpoint to the market exuberance following the government’s May jobs report, which also had its own data-collection errors that skewed the figures to look more positive,” Bloomberg noted.

The Federal Reserve signaled Wednesday it expects to hold interest rates near zero for at least 2 1/2 years to help employment fully recover. Fed Chair Jerome Powell said that “despite the improvement seen in the May report, unemployment remains historically high,” with the pace of recovery highly uncertain and dependent on containing the virus.

In addition to the depressed state of employment, there are several risks that could hold back a rebound or cause a fresh decline. They include a second wave of the coronavirus causing another round of shutdowns and the chance that businesses will decide to lay off workers who were rehired or retained to comply with loans under the government’s Paycheck Protection Program.

“We have to have a little bit of caution” after the May report, said Beata Caranci, chief economist at TD Bank. “Those businesses that reopened – even at reduced capacity – are naturally going to have demand for workers. The question is: do you get back to where you were before? And I think that’s pretty far-fetched.” “There’s a significant amount of people still displaced,” she added.

Despite the May jobs gain, most economists still expect a record decline in gross domestic product in the second quarter, with Bloomberg’s survey showing an annualized contraction of 34.4%.

The broader issue is how weak economic activity may remain as the unprecedented downturn shuttered businesses and reduced demand permanently in some areas, Bloomberg thinks.

By the end of the year, 8 million to 12 million Americans are expected to remain laid-off, particularly in the hospitality and restaurant industries, according to Daniel Alpert, a founding managing partner at Westwood Capital and co-creator of the Job Quality Index, which measures the ratio of high-quality jobs – those with higher wages and longer hours – to low-quality jobs.

Alpert bases his estimate on a step-down in business creation and increase in business shutdowns, or “deaths.” He said a large portion of the gain in May jobs consisted of workers rehired by businesses using the PPP.

That coincided with a sharp drop in continuing jobless claims for the week ended May 16, also the reference period for the May jobs report that captured a jump in employment. “All it was from a macro standpoint was a transfer of one government benefit for another,” Alpert told Bloomberg. “It’s absolutely not a picture of business and labor markets” coming back and “more importantly it’s not a picture of aggregate demand” returning, he said.

If the PPP program isn’t expanded, employment could weaken again if companies resume layoffs. The deadline for PPP applications is June 30, so companies facing issues after that can’t apply. Businesses who have already applied have until the end of the year to convert their loan to a grant if they rehire employees.

The monthly labor report and weekly claims figures can appear to tell two different stories. Both are important to understanding the reality on the ground, according to Erica Groshen, former commissioner at the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which publishes the monthly jobs report. “In the beginning, we saw just entirely job destruction – at least temporarily – and now we’re in a period of time where we have high volumes of both: job creation and job destruction,” she said.

So, a number of caution flags have been deployed warning investors of future economic weakness. Clearly, these are serious concerns that producers should watch closely as they intensify in this season of political, economic and health uncertainties proceeds, Washington Insider believes.

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