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Exaggerated Job Growth Numbers Raise Concerns


The U.S. labor market defied expectations in 2023 by adding a surprisingly large 2.7 million new jobs. However, there is growing concern that these monthly increases have been inflated due to distortions caused by the pandemic. While the official unemployment rate remains at a low 3.7%, it is important to examine the accuracy of the reported job growth figures.

Overstated Job Growth

Throughout the year, the government consistently overestimated job growth, with nine out of the ten months seeing initial overestimations. As a result, the reported employment gains were later revised downwards by an average of 55,000 jobs per month, which is a significant adjustment. June serves as an extreme example, initially reporting 209,000 new jobs before revising it down to a modest 105,000 two months later.

This inflation in job growth numbers could have had unintended consequences for key decision-makers such as Wall Street, the Federal Reserve, and lawmakers in Washington. The perception of a robust labor market may have contributed to the Federal Reserve’s decision to raise interest rates, fearing potential inflationary pressures.

Factors Diminishing Accuracy

One factor contributing to these exaggerated figures is the low response rate of businesses surveyed by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). These surveys play a crucial role in determining the number of jobs created each month. Since the onset of the pandemic, businesses’ response rates to the BLS’s monthly establishment survey have significantly decreased, raising concerns about the reliability of initial estimates.

Richard Moody, chief economist of Regions Financial, asserts that these low response rates continue to hinder the accurate measurement of job growth.

Concerns Persist

Even the December jobs report, which showed a larger-than-expected increase of 216,000 new jobs, raises questions due to a collection rate reaching a 32-year low of 49.4%. The lack of response from businesses surveyed further adds to doubts about the reliability of the reported job growth figures.

It is important for policymakers, economists, and analysts to consider these potential distortions when assessing the true strength of the U.S. labor market. While the unemployment rate remains low and good workers are in high demand, it is crucial to accurately measure job growth for a comprehensive understanding of the economy.

The Challenge of Data Collection in Job Reports

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on the collection rate of the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) jobs report. Prior to the pandemic, the average collection rate for preliminary job reports was around 73%. However, according to the BLS, there is no correlation between a low initial collection rate and large changes between preliminary and final estimates of monthly job gains.

BLS economist Purva Desai explained that the substantial downward revisions in 2023 are not solely due to a lower collection rate. The agency is actively exploring new approaches to encourage more businesses to respond promptly. The key factor is timeliness.

Fortunately, most businesses eventually submit their employment surveys. After the third and final estimate of a monthly jobs report, the collection rate stabilizes at over 90%.

Beyond these explanations, there is still much that is unknown. Desai highlighted ongoing efforts to enhance initiation and data collection by offering respondents more convenient and flexible methods to enroll and report their employment data.

In light of these challenges, experts advise caution when interpreting the initial jobs report and other economic data. Moody and other economists emphasize that these reports are subject to varying degrees of uncertainty and should be approached with skepticism initially.

As we move forward, it will be interesting to observe how the 2024 estimates fare, providing valuable insights into the future of job reporting.

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