The Surprisingly Strong Employment Report for January 2022

Leisure and hospitality was one of the industries showing surprisingly strong job growth during January 2022. Photo from the New York Times.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ monthly report on the “Employment Situation” is generally considered the best source of information on the current state of the labor market. As we discuss in Macroeconomics, Chapter 9, Section 9.1 (and in Economics, Chapter 19, Section 19.1), economists, policymakers, and investors generally focus more on the establishment survey data on total payroll employment than on the household survey data on the unemployment rate. The initial data on employment from the establishment survey are subject to substantial revisions over time (we discuss this point further below). But the establishment survey has the advantage of being determined by data taken from actual payrolls rather than by unverified answers to survey questions, as is the case with the household survey data. 

The establishment survey data for January 2022 (released on February 4, 2022) showed a surprisingly large increase in employment of 467,000. The consensus forecast had been for a significantly smaller increase of 150,000, with many economists expecting that the data would show a decrease in employment. The establishment survey is collected for pay periods that include the 12th of the month. In January 2022, in many places in the United States that pay period coincided with the height of the wave of infections from the Omicron variant of Covid-19. And, in fact, according to the household survey, the number of people out of work because of illness was 3.6 million in January—the most during the Covid-19 pandemic. So it seemed likely that payroll employment would have declined in January. But despite the difficulties caused by the pandemic, payroll employment increased substantially, likely reflecting firms’ continuing high demand for workers—a demand reflected in the very high level of job openings.

The employment report includes the BLS’s annual data revisions, which are based on a comprehensive payroll count for a particular month in the previous year—in this case, March 2021. The revisions also incorporate changes to the BLS’s seasonal adjustment factors. Each month, the BLS adjusts the raw payroll employment data to reflect seasonal fluctuations such as occur during and after the end-of-year holiday period. For instance, the change from December 2020 to January 2021 in the raw employment data was −2,824,000, whereas the adjusted change was 467,000 (as noted earlier). Obviously this difference is very large and is attributable to the BLS’s seasonal adjustments removing the employment surge in December attributable to seasonal hiring by retail stores, delivery firms, and other businesses strongly affected by the holidays.

The changes to the seasonal adjustment factors made the revisions to the 2021 payroll employment numbers unusually large. For instance, the BLS initially reported that employment increased from June 2021 to July 2021 by 1,091,000, whereas the revision reduced the increase to 689,000. Table A below is reproduced from the BLS report; the figure below the table shows the changes in employment from the previous month as originally published and as revised in the January report. Overall, the BLS revisions now show that employment increased by 217,000 more from 2020 to 2021 than initially estimated. The BLS expressed the opinion that: “Going forward, the updated models should produce more reliable estimates of seasonal movements. [Because there are now] more monthly observations related to the historically large job losses and gains seen in the pandemic-driven recession and recovery, the models can better distinguish normal seasonal movements from underlying trends.”

Source: The BLS “Employment Situation” report can be found here.

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