January Employment Report: a Home Run or a Foul Ball?


The January employment report, released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics this morning, blew past all expectations in every way imaginable.  According to the establishment survey, 243,000 jobs were added in January, far exceeding expectations for 150,000 new jobs.  And, even more impressively, the household survey claimed that the employment level grew by 827,000, and the unemployment rate fell to 8.3%.  It would have fallen even more except for the fact that 508,000 workers re-entered the labor force.  By any measure, this report looks like a real home run for President Obama!

That ball is going … going … going …. Uh,oh.  Did it hit the foul pole?  Was it really a home run or a foul ball?  The report looks pretty rosy until you read the fine print which, apparently, none of the analysts did today.  Near the bottom of the report (link provided above) you’ll find the following note about the establishment survey:

Revisions to Establishment Survey Data

In accordance with annual practice, the establishment survey data released today have been revised to reflect comprehensive counts of payroll jobs, or benchmarks. These counts are derived principally from unemployment insurance tax records for March 2011. In addition, the data were updated to the 2012 North American Industry Classification System (NAICS) from the 2007 NAICS. This update resulted in minor changes to several detailed industries. The benchmark process resulted in revisions to not seasonally adjusted data from April 2010 forward and to seasonally adjusted data from January 2007 forward. Some historical data predating the normal benchmark revision period also were revised due to the implementation of NAICS 2012 and other minor changes related to rounding and the recalculation of aggregate series.

In other words, the baselines for the establishment survey have been changed.  How much?  Who knows?  Nobody.  This was the perfect opportunity to inflate the number of jobs created by monkeying with the baseline. 

And what about the household survey?  What explains the huge leap in the employment level?  Look a little further down on the report and you’ll find the following:

Adjustments to Population Estimates for the Household Survey

Effective with data for January 2012, updated population estimates which reflect the results of Census 2010 have been used in the household survey. Population estimates for the household survey are developed by the U.S. Census Bureau. Each year, the Census Bureau updates the estimates to reflect new information and assumptions about the growth of the population during the decade. The change in population reflected in the new estimates results from the introduction of the Census 2010 count as the new population base, adjustments for net international migration, updated vital statistics and other information, and some methodological changes in the estimation process. The vast majority of the population change, however, is due to the change in base population from Census 2000 to Census 2010.

Once again, with the baselines changed, who knows what the real numbers are?  You could make the numbers say practically anything you want.  If you were Secretary of Labor, appointed by President Obama and, assuming you’d like to hang onto your job for another four years, wouldn’t this be a perfect opportunity to buff up the president’s image with some good news on the jobs front? 

The problem is that this jobs data isn’t corroborated by other economic data.  4th quarter GDP growth was virtually all due to inventory-building.  Retail sales data has been weak in January, following a strong holiday season.  The housing sector is continuing to decline.  The trade deficit is as bad as ever.  The Federal Reserve is so concerned about the weak state of the economy that it recently vowed to keep interest rates at zero for three more years.  Consumer confidence is falling again and the percentage of people saying that jobs are hard to get is rising.  This isn’t a picture of an economy that’s adding 243,000 jobs per month.  Something doesn’t add up.  Looks to me like that ball went foul. 

Nevertheless, here’s my calculation and charts for unemployment:

Unemployment Calculation     Unemployment Chart     Labor Force & Employment Level     Unemployed Americans     Per Capita Employment

* * * * *

If you can believe the data, the 243,000 added jobs break down as follows:

  • Professional & business services:  + 70,000
  • Manufacturing:  + 50,000
  • Leisure & hospitality:  + 44,000
  • Health care:  + 31,000
  • Construction:  + 21,000
  • Wholesale trade:  + 14,000
  • Mining:  + 10,000
  • Retail trade:  + 5,000
  • Government:  no change

2 Responses to January Employment Report: a Home Run or a Foul Ball?

  1. Mark Hall says:


    Doesn’t it appear VERY ODD that our U.S. Labor Dept. says we added 243,000 jobs in January and that our unemployment rate is now 8.3% while Canada reported that for the “same” January period its unemployment rate ROSE to the highest level in nine months.


    • Pete Murphy says:

      I have to admit that I don’t generally follow what’s happening in the Canadian economy, Mark, but you’ve made a very astute observation here. No two economies on earth are more closely linked through free trade than the Canadian and U.S. economies. It’s highly unlikely that the two are headed in opposite directions. If anything, I’d expect that, in the same economic environment, the Canadian economy would be much more likely to recover first, given their income from oil and gas exports.

      There’s definitely a rat in this woodpile somewhere. Unfortunately, it’s here to stay. The numbers released by the Labor Department for January employment are now the new baseline.

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