Interpreting the Employment Data

The employment report for October was extremely negative, consistent with recession levels.  Here is our assessment written on Friday for RealMoney:

Today's employment report had a number of interesting features. The
large downward revision to last month brought the total net losses
close to what we expected. Modelers (like me) use the final revised
data. (There is no advantage to using the unrevised data — a subject
for another day). Revisions come because the "early returns" only
include those responding on time, perhaps 65% of the sample. We get big
revisions when the "late responders" are significantly different from
the early responders.

There was a dramatic spike in other unemployment measures.
Involuntary part-time workers rose 645,000 in the month, to a total of
6.7 million. These are people who would prefer full-time work. There
was also an increase of 164,000 in "discouraged workers" to a total of
484,000. These people are not counted as official unemployed since they
did not look for work in the last four weeks.

The payroll data come from the week including October 12th, and therefore may not capture events since then.

As to the future, there are even more big variables than normal,
so forecasting is even more difficult. Here is what to look for. Obama
economic policy, the transition, the use of TARP funds, the timing and
nature of additional stimulus will be important both in the direct
effects, and in whether they succeed in improving consumer and business

In short, the headline numbers did not really capture the negative impacts.

The Birth/Death Adjustment

Some of those commenting continue to cite the BLS birth/death adjustment as a source of error.  These observers depict a bad situation as even worse, continuing their multi-year theme of attacking the BLS methodology.

This viewpoint has been so pervasive that it is now accepted as the conventional wisdom.  Nearly everyone on the NYSE floor, as reported by our favorite source, Art Cashin, thinks that the BLS overstates employment.  The mainstream media has extensively reported this viewpoint, and the biggest Internet bloggers push the story.

They are all wrong — completely wrong.

This is easy to check.  On a regular basis the BLS compares their forecasts with the actual results.  If the critics were correct, the results from state employment data would eventually reveal this.

Last month we highlighted the results from an extensive study by the BLS where they compared their forecasts with actual results.  It was a slam-dunk victory for the BLS.  We urge readers to review this article for a factual assessment of BLS methods.

Despite this evidence, many critics repeat the old lies.  Here is a typical comment from Alan Abelson, who says almost the same thing about the payroll report each month:

All told, 240,000 payroll slots went up in smoke, and that doesn't
count those mythical jobs that padded the total by 71,000 via the
infamous birth/death model. And the unemployment rate jumped to 6.5%,
from 6.1%, the highest level since March 1994.

We are determined to correct this inaccuracy.

The Challenge for Critics

Anyone who maintains that the BLS is inventing jobs or padding the total should be able to meet this simple challenge:

Find a year where the payroll employment report would have been more accurate without the BLS adjustment.

We eventually have the data from state sources, so if the critic is correct this should be easy to do.  Critics, put up or shut up.

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