BLS Jobs Report Ok in December 2012, Nothing Exciting

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The December 2012 BLS jobs report was just ok.

  • the real unadjusted jobs loss comparing the changes between November and December appears to be average historically – and the loss is more than 2011.
  • economic intuitive sectors of employment continues to show a growing economy (albeit slowly).
  • As an overview – the rate of growth of jobs (between 1.7% to 1.8% year-over-year for most of 2012) remains slightly faster than population growth.  However the employment / population ratio is not reflecting this gain and remains stagnant between 58% and 59% since 2010.

A summary of the employment situation:

  • BLS reported: 155K (non-farm) and 168K (non-farm private). Unemployment = 7.8% (up from 7.7% but was revised now to 7.8% – see note below)
  • ADP reported: 215K (non-farm private)
  • Market expected: 150K (non-farm), 145K to 165K (non-farm private), 7.7% unemployment
  • Econintersect‘s Forecast: 135K (non-farm private) based on economic potential
  • The NFIB released a statement (below) saying that small business growth was literally zero in December 2012.

Per the BLS:

Seasonally adjusted household survey data have been revised using updated seasonal adjustment factors, a procedure done at the end of each calendar year. Seasonally adjusted estimates back to January 2008 were subject to revision.

The BLS reports seasonally adjusted data. This data is highly manipulated, and Econintersect believes the unadjusted data gives a clearer picture of the jobs situation. Also, It should be pointed out that the BLS has issued a Preliminary Benchmark Announcement saying they are currently reporting seasonally adjusted non-farm private jobs 453,000 too low (details here).

This report is inconsistent this month between the survey and the establishment surveys.

Non-seasonally adjusted non-farm payrolls fell 103,000 – worse than last year’s November / December fall, but rather typical for the 21st century.

Historical Unadjusted Private Non-Farm Jobs Growth Between November and December (Table B-1, data in thousands)

/images/bls non-adjusted change.PNG

As always, the recent past data (last three months) is revised. The change in total nonfarm payroll employment for November was revised from +146,000 to +171,000.

Change in Seasonally Adjusted Non-Farm Payrolls Between Originally Reported (blue bars) and Current Estimates (red bars)

/images/z bls1.png

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


The BLS reported U-3 (headline) unemployment was unchanged with the U-6 “all in” unemployment rate (including those working part time who want a full time job) also unchanged at 14.4%.

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 unadjusted data base, demonstrated by the graph below.

Employment-Population Ratio

The jobs picture when you view the population as a whole, and with this months improving data seems to be on a gentle improvement trend since the middle of 2011.

  • Econintersect uses employment-populations ratios to monitor the jobless situation. Changes in the base data effect our view of the economy.
  • In the latest BLS report employment-population ratio declined 0.1 to 58.6. 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.

Employment Metrics

The 3 year growth trend is up, and the short term trends are mixed depending on the periods selected – however, it seems the growth trend in 2012 is flat.

Unadjusted Non-Farm Payrolls Year-over-Year Growth

Another way to view employment is to watch the total hours worked which has been been growing at a slower and slower rate since the middle of 2010.

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

The bullets below use seasonally adjusted data:

  • Average hours worked (table B-2) was again rose 0.1 to 34.5. A rising number indicates an expanding economy if the employment is also rising. This number has been in a narrow channel several months (now at the high side of the channel).
  • Government employment contracted 13,000 with the Federal Government down 3,000, state governments up 4,000 and local governments down 14,000.
  • The big contributor to employment growth this month was education & health care (65K) and manufacturing (25K).
  • Manufacturing expanded 25,000.
  • The unemployment rate for people between 20 and 24 (Table A-10) jumped from 12.6% to 13.7%. This number is produced by survey and is very volatile.
  • Average hourly earnings (Table B-3) rose 10 cents to $23.73. Wages growth remains in a “less good” trend.

Private Employment: Average Hourly Earnings

Economic Metrics

Economic markers used to benchmark economic growth were ok, and well away from recessionary levels.

The truck employment grew (4.2k), and growth in this sector shows an expanding economy.

Truck Transport Employment – Year-over-Year Change

Temporary help fell marginally 0.6K but remains in the growth range seen during the last 6 months.

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.

Chief economist for the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) William C. Dunkelberg released the following statement in advance of this jobs report:

“Job creation in December was essentially zero, although it improved infinitesimally from the November report—but it’s nothing to write home about and certainly not a sign that robust growth is on the horizon.

“The average change in employment per firm increased to 0.03, up from -0.04 workers, with 11 percent of surveyed owners (up 1 point) reporting they added an average of 2.9 workers per firm over the past few months, and 13 percent reducing employment (up 2 points) an average of 1.9 workers (seasonally adjusted). The remaining 76 percent of owners made no net change in employment.  Forty-one percent of the owners hired or tried to hire in the last three months and 33 percent (80 percent of those trying to hire or hiring) reported few or no qualified applicants for open positions.

“Sixteen (16) percent of all owners reported they had hard-to-fill job openings, a drop of 1 point from the previous month. This measure is highly correlated with the unemployment rate, so the NFIB survey anticipates little change in the rate.

“If there is any news in the numbers, it’s the substantial weakening of job creation plans, which fell 4 points, indicating that only (a net) one percent of owners plan to increase employment in the months to come. Not seasonally adjusted, seven percent of owners plan to increase employment at their firm (down 4 points), but 11 percent plan reductions (down 2 points).

“The plunge in job creation plans and the decline in job openings likely reflect the pervasive frustration with Washington policy and the resulting economic uncertainty that peaked in December as Congress took us right to the edge of ‘the cliff.’ With the debt/deficit still a persistent problem, and states and cities struggling to fulfill all of the promises politicians made but did not fund, January is expected to bring disappointment, as most observers expect the beginning of the New Year to be sluggish. The cliff deal did bring some certainty about tax rates and extenders for another year, but the health care act and EPA regulations are now pouring out, providing little comfort about the course of future costs. If the unemployment rate falls, it is likely to be due more to demographics than new job creation which will not be strong, since holiday consumer spending failed to deliver the surge many had hoped for.

“We may have some certainty, but there is little reason to be hopeful. Happy New Year.”

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.

The above graphic (updated through October 2011) is the month-over-month change in employment based on the original headline non-farm employment level and the current stated employment levels at month end. You will note some pretty drastic backward revision for a major economic release the market reacts to in real time.

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.

Econintersect has repeatedly pointed out questions about how the seasonal adjustment algorithms and data gathering methodology used by the BLS introduce uncertainty into interpretation of month to month changes in employment.

Econintersect believes the simplistic sampling extrapolation technique of ADP yields a far better picture of the employment situation than the complicated, convoluted Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) methodology. However, ADP is using a new methodology beginning with the October 2012 data – and only time will tell if their new approach was as good as their old one.

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

Because of the differences in methodology, many pundits ignore the ADP numbers – while waiting for the BLS numbers. Although there can be a low correlation in a particular month, the different methodologies tend to balance out, and the correlations are excellent outside of the data turning points. We are now 16 months past the post recession turning point in employment.

However, there is some discussion that neither the ADP or 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 Januarys.

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:

  • If Econintersect used employment / population ratios to determine the number, the exact number seems to be between 140,000 and 160,000. The graph below uses the historical employment-population ratios to show jobs growth per month if the population was 300 million.

Historical Monthly Jobs Growth Comparison if Population was 300 Million

  • 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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