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posted on 06 October 2017

September 2017 BLS Jobs Situation Nasty

Written by Steven Hansen

The headline seasonally adjusted BLS job growth was extremely below expectations. The internals say this is not a good report. All this bad stuff blamed on Hurricanes Irma and Harvey.

Analyst Opinion of the BLS Employment Situation

The household and establishment surveys were extremely out of sync from each other. There was no good news in the establishment survey (the household survey was excellent). Part of the explanation from Sentier Research:

The Census Bureau conducts nationally representative household surveys used to generate important statistics such as the monthly unemployment rate, housing characteristics, consumer expenditures, etc. All of these surveys are based on samples of housing unit addresses. Persons that have been displaced by Hurricane Harvey will no longer be at those addresses when the Census interviewers arrive or call, resulting in these households being listed as vacant. Without going into great detail these statistical series based on these surveys may be significantly affected even as the Census Bureau will make every effort to account for this disruption.

For the monthly Current Population Survey (CPS) used to measure employment and unemployment the monthly interviews are normally scheduled for the week of the month containing the 19th day and the questions refer to the previous week containing the 12th day.

  • The year-over-year rate of growth for employment decelerated this month (blue bars on graph below). This is a year-over-year analysis which has no seasonality issues.

  • Economic intuitive sectors of employment were very soft.
  • This month's report internals (comparing household to establishment data sets) was extremely inconsistent with the household survey showing seasonally adjusted employment expanded 906,000 vs the headline establishment number of contracting 33,000. The point here is that part of the headlines are from the household survey (such as the unemployment rate) and part is from the establishment survey (job growth). From a survey control point of view - the common element is jobs growth - and if they do not match, your confidence in either survey is diminished. [note that the household survey includes ALL jobs growth, not just non-farm).
  • The household survey added 575,000 people to the labor force.
  • The NFIB comment on the Jobs Situation is at the end of this post.

A summary of the employment situation:

  • BLS reported: -33K (non-farm) and -40K (non-farm private). Unemployment rate improved 0.2 % to 4.2 %.
  • ADP reported: 135K (non-farm private)
  • In Econintersect's September 2017 economic forecast released in late June, we estimated non-farm private payroll growth at 150,000 (based on economic potential) and 205,000 (fudged based on current overrun of economic potential).
  • The market expected (from Bloomberg / Econoday):
Seasonally Adjusted Data Consensus Range Consensus Actual
Nonfarm Payrolls - M/M change 30,000 to 140,000 95,000 -33,000
Unemployment Rate - Level 4.3 % to 4.5 % 4.4 % 4.2 %
Private Payrolls - M/M change 20,000 to 150,000 117,000 -40,000
Manufacturing Payrolls - M/M change 10,000 to 15,000 11,000 -1,000
Participation Rate - level 62.7 % to 62.9 % 62.8 % 63.1 %
Average Hourly Earnings - M/M change 0.2 % to 0.4 % 0.3 % +0.5 %
Average Hourly Earnings - Y/Y change 2.5 % to 2.6 % 2.6 % +2.9 %
Av Workweek - All Employees
34.4 hrs to 34.5 hrs
34.4 hrs 34.4 hrs

The BLS reports seasonally adjusted data - manipulated with multiple seasonal adjustment factors, and Econintersect believes the unadjusted data gives a clearer picture of the jobs situation.

Non-seasonally adjusted non-farm payrolls contracted 697,000 - worst September since 2008.

The comparing the jobs gains this month with the same month historically:

Last month's headline employment gains were revised SIGNIFICANTLY down. Generally speaking, employment is overstated when the economy is slowing and understated when the economy is accelerating.

Most of the analysis below uses unadjusted data, and presents an alternative view to the headline data.

Unemployment

The BLS reported U-3 (headline) unemployment was 4.2 % with the U-6 "all in" unemployment rate (including those working part time who want a full time job) improved 0.3 to 8.7 %. These numbers are volatile as they are created from the household survey.

BLS U-3 Headline Unemployment (red line, left axis), U-6 All In Unemployment (blue line, left axis), and Median Duration of Unemployment (green line, right axis)

Econintersect has an interpretation of employment supply slack using the BLS employment-population ratio, demonstrated by the graph below. The employment-population ratio improved 0.3 to 60.4.

Employment-Population Ratio

The jobs picture - when the employment / population as a whole - has been on an uptrend since mid-2011. This ratio is determined by household survey.

  • Econintersect uses employment-populations ratios to monitor the jobless situation. The headline unemployment number requires the BLS to guess at the size of the workforce, then guess again who is employed or not employed. In employment - population ratios, the population is a given and the guess is who is employed.
  • This ratio has been in a general uptrend since the beginning of 2014. The employment-population ratio tells you the percent of the population with a job. Each 0.1 % increment represents approximately 300,000 jobs. [Note: these are seasonally adjusted numbers - and we are relying on the BLS to get this seasonal adjustment factor correct]. An unchanged ratio would be telling you that jobs growth was around 150,000 - as this is approximately the new entries to the labor market caused by population growth.
  • The growth in employment since the Great Recession has been in full-time jobs.

Employment Metrics

The growth trend in the establishment survey's non-farm payroll year-over-year growth rate was trending up beginning of 2014 but has been trending down beginning in 2015. Year-over-year growth insignifiantly declined this month.

Unadjusted Non-Farm Payrolls Year-over-Year Growth

Another way to view employment is to watch the total hours worked which are in a long term downtrend - but currently in a short term uptrend.

Percent Change Year-over-Year Non-Farm Private Weekly Hours Worked

The bullets below use seasonally adjusted data from the establishment survey except where indicated:

  • Average hours worked (table B-2) was unchanged at 34.4. A rising number normally indicates an expanding economy .
  • Government employment grew 7,000 (7K) with the Federal Government unchanged, state governments up 2K and local governments up 5K.
  • There was no big contributor to employment growth this month. The leisure and hospitality sector lost 111K jobs.
  • Manufacturing was down 1K, and construction was up 8K.
  • The unemployment rate (from household survey) for people between 20 and 24 (Table A-10) degraded 0.4 to 7.5 %. This number is produced by survey and is very volatile.
  • Average hourly earnings (Table B-3) was up $0.12 to $26.55.

Private Employment: Average Hourly Earnings

Economic Metrics

Economic markers used to benchmark economic growth (all from the establishment survey).

The truck employment was down 1.0K.

Truck Transport Employment - Year-over-Year Change

Temporary help up 5.9K.

Temporary Help Employment - Year-over-Year Change

Econintersect believes the transport sector is a forward indicator. Others look at temporary help as a forward indicator.

Food for Thought

Who are the victims in this employment situation. It is not people over 55.

Index of Employment Levels - 55 and up (blue line), 45 to 54 (red line), 35 to 44 (green line), 25 to 34 (purple line), 20 to 24 (light blue line), and 16 to 19 (orange line)

Women are doing better than men.

Index of Employment Levels - Men (blue line) vs Women (red line)

Mom and Pop employment remains below recessionary levels.

The less education one has, the less chance of finding a job.

Index of Employment Levels - University graduate (blue line), Some college or AA degree (orange line), high school graduates (green line), and high school dropouts (red line)

Here is an indexed view of employment levels.

Index of Employment Levels (from the BLS Establishment Survey) - Hispanic (blue line), African American (red line), and White (green line)

However, keep in mind that population growth is different for each group. Here is a look at employment to population ratios which clearly shows NO group has recovered from the Great Recession:

Employment / Population Ratios (from the BLS Household Survey) - Hispanic (blue line), African American (red line), and White (green line)

NFIB Comment on the Jobs Situation

Small business jobs activity faltered in September, with fewer owners trying to hire workers and more planning to cut positions, according to the monthly NFIB Jobs Report.

"We've had a very strong run since last November, and last month that stalled," said NFIB President and CEO Juanita Duggan. "Finding qualified workers is a serious problem for small business owners and it may be discouraging employment activity."

The adjusted average employment change per firm dipped to -0.17. Fifty-seven percent of small business owners reported hiring or trying to hire in September, but 49 percent said they couldn't find qualified workers. Nineteen percent of small business owners said finding qualified workers was their number-one concern.

"The tight labor market has been a very tough problem for small business owners, and last month it appears to have reduced employment for the first time in months," said NFIB Chief Economist Bill Dunkelberg. "Small business owners are seeking workers to meet higher consumer demand, but they can't find people with the skills to fill the jobs. This is a very serious problem in the construction and manufacturing industries."

Decreased employment among small firms was reported in six of the nine Census regions, which means that hurricanes in Texas and Florida can't be blamed for the slowdown.

Caveat on the use of BLS Jobs Data

The monthly headline data ends up being significantly revised for months after the initial release - and is subject also to annual revisions. The question remains how seriously can you take the data when first released.

Econintersect Contributor Jeff Miller has the following description of BLS methodology:

  1. An initial report of a survey of establishments. Even if the survey sample was perfect (and we all know that it is not) and the response rate was 100% (which it is not) the sampling error alone for a 90% confidence interval is +/- 100K jobs.
  2. The report is revised to reflect additional responses over the next two months.
  3. There is an adjustment to account for job creation — much maligned and misunderstood by nearly everyone.
  4. The final data are benchmarked against the state employment data every year. This usually shows that the overall process was very good, but it led to major downward adjustments at the time of the recession. More recently, the BLS estimates have been too low.

ADP (blue line) versus BLS (red line) - Monthly Jobs Growth Comparison

However, there is some discussion that neither the ADP nor BLS numbers are correct - as both are derived by a sampling methodology. The answer could be that there is no correct answer in real time - and that it is best to look at the trends. As has been noted, all eventually end up correlating.

The BLS uses seasonal adjusted data for its headline numbers. The seasonally adjusted employment data is produced by an algorithm. The following graph which shows unadjusted job growth - seasonal adjustments spread employment growth over the entire year. Employment does not really grow in the second half of the year and always falls significantly in January.

Non-Seasonally Adjusted Employment - Private Sector

There is the proverbial question on what is minimal jobs growth each month required to allow for new entrants to the market. Depending on mindset, this answer varies. According to Investopdia, the number is between 100,000 and 150,000. The Wall Street Journal is citing 125K. Mark Zandi said 150K. Econintersect is going with Mark Zandi's number:

  • In Econintersect's June 2014 economic forecast released in late May, we estimated non-farm payroll growth at 160,000 (unadjusted based on economic potential) and 229,000 (fudged based on current overrun of economic potential).
  • If Econintersect uses employment - population ratios, the correct number would be the number where this ratio improved. Using the graph below, the ratio began to improve starting a little after mid-year. This corresponds to the period where the 12 month rolling average of job gains hit 150,000.

Employment to Population Ratio

Note: The ratio could be fine tuned by adjusting to the ratio of employment to working age population rather than the total population. However, this would not change the big picture that an increase of somewhere around 150,000 (+/-) is needed for the growing population numbers. We have estimated 140k - 160k. The number might possibly be within the range 125k - 175k. Econintersect cannot find reason to support the estimates below 125k.

The question of how changing demographics impact the employment numbers is at the margins of analysis. Econintersect will publish more on this fine tuning going forward, both in-house research and the work of others.



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