(Photo from the Associated Press via the Wall Street Journal.)
During most periods, the “Employment Situation” report that the Bureau of Labor Statistics issues on the first Friday of each month includes the most closely watched macroeconomic data. Since the spring of 2021, high inflation rates have made the BLS’s “Consumer Price Index Summary” at least a close second in interest to the employment report. The data in the CPI report is usually more readily comprehensible than the data in the employment report. So, we think it’s worth class time to go into some of the details of the employment report, as we do in Macroeconomics, Chapter 9, Section 9.1, Economics, Chapter 19, Section 19.1, and Essentials of Economics, Chapter 13, Section 13.1.
When the BLS released the May employment report, the Wall Street Journal noted that: “Employers added 339,000 jobs last month; unemployment rate rose to 3.7%.” Employment increased … but the unemployment rate also rose? How is that possible? One key to understanding media accounts of the report is to note that the report contains data from two separate surveys: 1) the household survey and 2) the employment or establishment survey. As in the statement just quoted from the Wall Street Journal, media accounts often mix data from the two surveys.
The data showing an increase of 339,000 jobs in May are from the payroll survey, while the data showing that the unemployment rate rose are from the household survey. Below we reproduce part of the relevant table from the report showing some of the data from the household survey. Note that total employment in the household survey falls by 310,000, so there appears to be no contradiction to explain—the unemployment rate increased because the number of people employed fell and the number of people unemployed rose. But why, then, did employment rise in the payroll survey?
Employment can rise in one survey and fall in the other because: 1) the types of employment measured in the two series differ, 2) the periods during which the data are collected differ, and 3) because of measurement error. The household survey uses a broader measure of employment that includes several categories of workers who are not included in the payroll survey: agricultural workers, self-employed workers, unpaid workers in family businesses, workers employed in private households rather than in businsses, and workers on unpaid leave from their jobs. In addition, the payroll employment numbers are revised—sometimes substantially—as additional data are collected from firms, while the household employment numbers are subject to much smaller revisions because data in the household survey are collected during a single week. A detailed discussion of the differences between the employment measures in the two series can be found here.
Usefully, the BLS publishes a series labeled “Adjusted employment” that estimates what the value for household employment would be if the household survey was measuring the same categories of employment as the payroll survey. In this case, the adjusted employment series shows an increase in employment in May of 394,000—close to the payroll survey’s increase of 339,000.
To summarize, the May employment report indicates that payroll employment increased, while the non-payroll categories of household employment declined, and the unemployment rate rose. Note also in the table above that the number of people counted as not being in labor force rose slightly and the employment-population ratio fell slightly. Average weekly hours (not shown in the table above) decreased slightly from 34.4 hours per week to 34.3.
A reasonable conclusion from the report is that the labor market remains strong, although it may have weakened slightly. Prior to release of the report, there was much speculation in the business press about how the report might affect the deliberations of the Federal Reserve’s Federal Open Market Committe (FOMC) at its next meeting to be held on June 13th and 14th. The report showed stronger employment growth than economists surveyed by Dow Jones had expected, indicating that the FOMC was likely to remain concerned that a tight labor market might continue to put upward pressure on wages, which firms could pass through to higher prices. Members of the FOMC had been signalling that they were likely to keep their target for the federal funds rate unchanged in June. The reported employment increase was likely not large enough to cause the FOMC to change course.