BLS Jobs Situation Bad and Confusing in March 2013

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The March 2013 BLS jobs report was unexpectedly weak.

  • the real unadjusted non-farm private jobs gain comparing the changes between February and March was low historically for periods were the economy was expanding.
  • economic intuitive sectors of employment were mixed, and the data in the jobs report was extremely contradictory with itself this month.

A summary of the employment situation:

  • BLS reported: 88K (non-farm) and 95K (non-farm private). Unemployment = 7.6% (down from 7.7%)
  • ADP reported: 158K (non-farm private)
  • Market expected: 185K to 192K (non-farm), 210K (non-farm private), 7.7 to 7.8% 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 improved in March 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 extremely inconsistent this month between the survey and the establishment surveys.  It tells me that on one hand the economy contracted, and on the other hand – that the economy expanded.

Non-seasonally adjusted non-farm payrolls rose 684,000 – the worst growth since the end of the Great Recession, and on the low historically

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

/images/bls non-adjusted change.PNG

As always, the recent past data (last two months) was revised upward somewhat making this month’s data not quite as terrible – but still bad.

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 0.1% to 7.6% with the U-6 “all in” unemployment rate (including those working part time who want a full time job) dropped marginally 0.5% to 13.8%.

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 data it appears there has been little improvement in the jobs situation since the end of the recession.

  • 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 declined 0.1 at 58.5. 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 even though the year-over-year growth this month is the lowest since May 2011.

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 34.6. 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 7,000 with the Federal Government down 14,000, state governments up 9,000 and local governments down 2,000.
  • The big contributor to employment growth this month was temp services (20.3K), education / health care (44K), and tech services (24.6k).
  • The big headwind this month was retail trade (-27K)
  • Manufacturing contracted 3,000.
  • The unemployment rate for people between 20 and 24 (Table A-10) declined from 13.1% to 13.3%. This number is produced by survey and is very volatile.
  • Average hourly earnings (Table B-3) rose one cent 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 fell (6.9k). Note: Growth in this sector shows an expanding economy.

Truck Transport Employment – Year-over-Year Change

Temporary help jumped 20.300.  Note that many believe (I am not convinced yet), that Obamacare is creating a shift from permanent to temporary jobs.

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 is drifting in a positive direction—this according to small-business owners, who reported increasing employment an average of 0.19 workers per firm in the month of March. This is the best reading NFIB has recorded in a year and the fourth consecutive month of small-business job growth. Forty-seven (47) percent of the owners hired or tried to hire in the last three months and 36 percent (77 percent of those trying to hire or hiring) reported few or no qualified applicants for open positions.

“But, while actual job creation appears to be rising, plans to create jobs took a dive, falling 4 points to a net zero percent of small employers who plan to increase total employment. It seems that the stamina for growth is waning, even with decent reports on consumer spending at the macro level.

“Eighteen (18) percent of all owners reported job openings they could not fill in the current period, down 3 points from February. This measure is highly correlated (inversely) with the unemployment rate, so it is suggestive of a minor increase in the percent of our labor force that is unemployed. The BLS numbers on Friday will likely hold steady, but prospects for stronger gains over the next few months are not promising.

“Once again, our bifurcated economy may have large firms doing well but the Main Street owners not sharing in the gains and finding little reason to take on new employees. Owners are still pessimistic and see little reason to hire. Small businesses need a shot in the arm; but seeing as this is unlikely, the slow crawl to eventual prosperity might be the best we can hope for.”

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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