BLS Jobs Situation Unexpectedly Strong in February 2013

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The February 2013 BLS jobs report was unexpectedly strong.

  • the real unadjusted non-farm private jobs gain comparing the changes between January and February was the best growth since 1999.
  • economic intuitive sectors of employment showed the economy was growing.

A summary of the employment situation:

  • BLS reported: 236K (non-farm) and 246K (non-farm private). Unemployment = 7.7% (down from 7.9%)
  • ADP reported: 192K (non-farm private)
  • Market expected: 165K to 170K (non-farm), 178K to 180K (non-farm private), 7.9% unemployment
  • Econintersect‘s Forecast: 125K (non-farm private) based on economic potential
  • The NFIB released a statement (below) saying that small business employment growth was marginally improved in February 2013.

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.

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

Non-seasonally adjusted non-farm payrolls rose 512,000 – better than any growth in the last ten years.

Historical Unadjusted Private Non-Farm Jobs Growth Between January and February (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 in December was revised from +196,000 to +219,000, and the change for January was revised from +157,000 to +119,000..

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 fell 0.2% to 7.7% with the U-6 “all in” unemployment rate (including those working part time who want a full time job) dropped marginally 0.1% to 14.3%.

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 is unchanged at 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 the last 12 months is relatively 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 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 10,000 with the Federal Government unchanged, state governments down 8,000 and local governments down 2,000.
  • The big contributor to employment growth this month was leisure and hospitality (24K), health care (39.1K), admin services (44.3k), professional services (26.8K), retail (23.7K), construction (48K), and the movie industry (20.8K).
  • Manufacturing expanded 14,000.
  • The unemployment rate for people between 20 and 24 (Table A-10) contracted from 14.2% to 13.1%. This number is produced by survey and is very volatile.
  • Average hourly earnings (Table B-3) rose 4 cents to $23.82. Wages growth at this point appears to be improving.

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 (5.6k), and growth in this sector shows an expanding economy.

Truck Transport Employment – Year-over-Year Change

Temporary help jumped 16,000 reversing previous losses, and remains in the growth range seen during the last 12 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:

“If anything positive can be said about job creation among small firms in February, it’s that it didn’t decline. NFIB’s study showed a slight improvement over the January reading, with the average change in employment per firm increasing to 0.1—up from 0.09 workers per firm during the previous month. The increase is small, but the trend is in the right direction for a change. Ten percent of the owners (down 1 point) reported adding an average of 3.5 workers per firm over the past few months. Offsetting that, 12 percent reduced employment (up 3 points) an average of 2.5 workers (seasonally adjusted), producing the small gain of 0.1 workers per firm, overall. The remaining 78 percent of owners made no net change in employment. Forty-four (44) percent of owners surveyed hired or tried to hire in the last three months and 34 percent (77 percent of those trying to hire or hiring) reported few or no qualified applicants for open positions. Small Business Jobs Graph

“Twenty-one (21) percent of all owners reported job openings they could not fill in the current period, up 3 points from January and up 5 points from December. While an unimpressive number, this measure is highly correlated with the unemployment rate, and suggests a minor improvement in the unemployment rate.

“Job creation plans rose 1 point; a net four percent of owners expressed plans to increase total employment. Again, this is historically weak but 3 points better than December, so at least the trend is positive. Not seasonally adjusted, 17 percent plan to increase employment at their firm (up 5 points, up 10 points from December), and seven percent plan reductions (down 1 point from January and down 4 points from December).

“Overall, labor market indicators improved in February, building upon the modest gains of December and suggesting the possibility of better job creation and reduced unemployment numbers. However, keep the champagne on ice: employment is still below its 2008 level, so there is a long way to go before our economy is healthy and employment is restored to its pre-recession level. A continued rebound in the labor intensive housing industry will certainly help a lot.”

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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