One of the two data points that I track regularly is what it asks people about their employer's hiring pattern. They ask if the company is more on a net hiring path, net firing, or neutral. The result is expressed as net hiring minus net firing. Even during the early months of the Great Recession, when unemployment rates were rising, the result was in the +20-+30 range. Those dates are dropping off of the five-year chart, but can still be seen (LINK).
Because the linked graph has a cursor, I cannot figure out a way to cut and paste it. Please click through to the site. The hiring-not hiring (or, firing) is not weighted for company size. Still, it appears to track with the vigor of the recovery, and before that with the force of the downturn.
From February last year through to Feb. this year, the number has stayed steady at about +15. In 2008, that level was associated with a strengthening recession. The trend is almost stable for the past two years, whereas from 2009 (trough) through 2011, there was a modest but definite improving trend.
Who knows, but my guess is that the Fed initiated QE3 in its various incarnations not because it is reckless per se, but because it looked at detailed employment data trends that suggested stagnation. This of course despite (because?) massive Federal deficit spending and massive monetary stimulation as well.
Other data supports the idea of a real slowdown in the U.S. economy. Cass Freight shipments reports (LINK):
January shipment volumes fell off 4.8 percent from December and were 2.5 percent lower than they were a year ago. For each of the last two years, freight shipment volumes ended the year at about the same place they began. This was the first year since the recession period that January shipments were actually lower than January of the previous year.
The entire text, at least the introductory part, is useful. It beats the Dow Jones Transportation Index, I believe.
What I think is really happening is the classic one. As gasoline prices increase, and they are increasing rapidly, economic activity decelerates and if already flat-lining, heads downward. The problems noted as Wal-Mart recently, at least per leaked internal e-mails, may have substance behind them. As the Cass discussion mentions, at least a mild degree of inventory liquidation may be going on.
The bond bull may not be finished yet.