The Bad News Behind the Good Jobs Numbers

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Victor J. Blue / Bloomberg / Getty Images

A construction crew prepare a Komatsu Ltd. excavator to use during the groundbreaking ceremony for the Hudson Yards development in New York, Dec. 4, 2012.

Never underestimate the importance of expectations. While most of us were bracing for a poor jobs report due to the disruptive effects of Hurricane Sandy, the headline numbers of 146,000 jobs added in November and a four-year-low unemployment rate of 7.7% sent stocks higher in the minutes after the reports’ release. The Labor Department claimed that the effect of Sandy on the report was minimal, saying in a statement, “Our analysis suggests that Hurricane Sandy did not substantively impact the national employment and unemployment estimates for November.”

In other words, we should not look at this report as surprisingly good given the effect of the super storm. Rather, the Labor Department claims that the jobs numbers should be analyzed without taking the storm into account at all. And by that standard, not only were the job numbers themselves fairly modest, but there are some worrying details in the report that should give one pause before celebrating these numbers too enthusiastically.

Construction Employment

The report showed a decrease in construction employment of 20,000 jobs. This is troubling — or at least confusing — if Sandy did in fact have a minimal effect on the report, as recent housing start data has been starkly positive, and just this week the Commerce Department announced that construction spending increased in October, showing the continuance of a positive trend. Unfortunately, it seems, this activity isn’t leading to job growth. Either that or the storm had more of an impact on these numbers than the Labor Department’s statement suggests.

Revisions to Previous Months

Each month, the Labor Department issues its estimate for the previous month’s job growth, but it also issues revisions for the two months prior to that as well. And this report showed a net downward revision of 49,000 jobs. So really this report gave us a net job gain of 97,000 — a much less impressive figure than the headline 146,000.

Declining Participation Rate

After showing a solid 0.3% gain last month, the participation rate — or the percentage of adult workers in the workforce — declined once again by 0.2%. That drop in the participation rate appears to be the primary reason the unemployment rate dropped to 7.7%, as the household survey actually showed a net decline in jobs. While some of the overall decline in the participation rate has been driven by demographic reasons — an older country is going to have fewer people able to work — that only tells part of the story. Some of the decline in participation is undoubtedly a product of a depressed economy, and a true jobs recovery would have this number moving upwards, rather than the other way around.

Overall, this report is probably nothing to get excited about either way. It’s roughly in line with the steady-but-unspectacular growth the economy has been producing for the past year. But any proper reading of the report will take into account some of the figures beneath the headline, and the details of this report say that it is less of a cause for celebration than the headline numbers would suggest.

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