Why You Never See the Best Employment Data

On the first Friday of each month the Bureau of Labor Statistics releases the Employment Situation Report. The data – especially the payroll employment change – is the subject of much speculation, forecasting, and spinning once it is announced. Most sophisticated analysts (like me) regularly report that the sampling error is +/- 120K jobs or so. And that is after the second revision. Few realize that the revisions mostly “top off” the sample responses. There is also non-sampling error, of course, if the current universe of employers is not representative.

The BLS method involves attempting a “count” of the total number of jobs, via a survey, in one month and subtracting it from the prior month. It is not a direct count of change in the number of jobs. ADP attempts a similar estimate using payroll data from their private clients. Today they reported a gain of 246K private jobs. Both are estimates – and only estimates!

The most accurate employment report comes from a source you never hear about, the quarterly Business Dynamics Report. It is based upon the Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages (QCEW), the authoritative final count of all things labor. The QCEW is the basis for the final benchmarking of all the major BLS reports. Why? The data is drawn from local employment offices, not surveys. Businesses are legally required to report all workers. It is the basis for employment insurance, and there is obviously no incentive to overstate employment.

Why Don’t We Hear About This?

No one reports the results of the Business Dynamics Report or the QCEW because we do not have this great and accurate data until eight months later. From the Wall Street perspective, it is “old news.” Here is an important table from the last report.

For our current purposes, the key number is the net employment change of 307,000. I am going to compare that to the estimates made at the time of the original releases.

We should also observe that overall job creation in the quarter was almost 7.5 million jobs. This is very important, but no one seems to know it. Jobs destroyed were over seven million, leaving the net of 307 thousand. This is around 100K per month, and that is all you will hear about.

Please also note that the new jobs come from both additions at current establishments and opening establishments. New jobs from new businesses were 1.4 million for the quarter. The data from this series proves that those complaining about the BLS birth/death adjustment are wrong now, and always have been.

The Estimates

If we fire up the Wayback machine, we can look at the reported employment data from this period. To understand the data, we must realize that the BLS, ADP, (and others) are all making an estimate of the “true job growth.” Their estimates represent different methods, all with pluses and minuses. Let’s see how the two estimates did against what we now know to be “the truth.”

We do not have monthly data for the BED series, but we can see how the two sources did for the entire three-month period. “Truth” was a gain of 307K. Both estimating sources were a bit too high, with the BLS doing better for this round. I have occasionally done this comparison, concluding that the ADP method should also be considered. It would be useful to do this analysis over a longer period. It takes a lot of careful work. (Perhaps if I get a good summer intern, this will be one of the projects. Applications welcome).

Implications for Investors

I understand that investors generally tune out educational posts, especially when a “deep dive” is involved. This is discouraging, since one of my missions is to help people “navigate the noise.” In the case of employment data, it is nearly all noise!

Here are conclusions I have reached, and which you might consider:

  • BLS and ADP both provide useful estimates of employment change. It is a mistake to regard (as most do) the BLS as the “official” result.
  • We should expect variation in the monthly BLS numbers. The survey has a confidence interval of 120K! If the data are real, then the reports should fluctuate around truth.
  • Traders focus on the BLS. They must, since that will be the trading flow. If you are a trader and want to game that announcement, you are on your own. If you are an investor, you should include both reports in your thinking.
  • Do not be bamboozled by those who claim that seasonal adjustments or estimates of new jobs are misleading. I have studied dozens of these claims. None of the writers show any real expertise in data analysis or a proven track record. They are all men on a mission or women on the warpath.
  • The overall path of employment growth remains solid. That will be true even if we get a “weak” payroll employment number on Friday.

And Finally

This topic is (yet another) example of how difficult it is to find real experts. It takes real skill and knowledge. You cannot just read the newspaper.

Other Reading

Your Employment Report IQ – No one knows even 25% of these answers, despite the importance. My favorite prof and greatest teacher introduced me to labor economics. He “approved this message” and said that everyone should read it. While I appreciate the encouragement from a great mentor, the viewership was about 10% of my WTWA pieces – and far less than other pseudo-experts. Trying to help people is an uphill battle!

My best single piece on the monthly employment report. Guessing beans in a jar?