Jobs . . . Now You See Them, Now You Don’t

Not being involved in the financial markets, I don’t usually pay much mind to new monthly jobs data.  I know monthly numbers are extremely noisy and will be significantly revised in the future.  However, lots of people do and, consequently, it influences the psychology of the markets.  So one would think that such a closely monitored metric of economic health would be immune to data games . . . you would be wrong.

John Mauldin’s recent weekly e-letter (free subscription) found that last month’s job report may not be as rosy as the Bureau of Labor Statistics would have us believe.

I was sitting in London when the employment numbers came out last Friday, and I didn’t have time to really get into the data. I did send you Lacy Hunt’s quick analysis as to why it was weaker than it appeared, but something else did not seem right. I follow a few people who are pretty good at predicting the employment numbers (like Philippa Dunne of The Liscio Report). Most were expecting numbers in the 60,000 range. Most unusual for there to be such a big miss from these guys. I read the press release and saw nothing to raise my eyebrows. And then Alan Abelson in Barron’s gave us the following, after reciting the headline number:

“Happily, the always astute Stephanie Pomboy of MacroMavens provided a quickie explanation:

” ‘The seasonal bar which the payroll data must jump was (inexplicably and dramatically) lowered from prior Octobers.

” ‘Thus, in October 2009, the BLS set the bar at 870,000 jobs, similar to the 840,000 it anticipated in October 2008. This year, by contrast, it lowered the bar to 768,000. Mumbo, jumbo, payrolls presented “an upside surprise” of 100,000.’

“According to John Williams at Shadow Government Statistics, the BLS’ fiddling with the figures via what he calls ‘seasonal-factor games’ actually created 200,000 phantom jobs last month. John cites such finagling as the reason his prediction of an October decline and a rise in the jobless rate was wrong. It also explains why seasonally adjusted payrolls were revised upward by 110,000 in September, including 56,000 in August.”

In the opinion of your humble analyst, if they are going to make such changes, they should be announced up-front or noted prominently in the press release. People (foolishly) trade on these numbers and money is made and lost. This is serious stuff.

Why would they do this?  I fear that there appears to be a growing politicization of our economic statistical apparatus.  Why else would the Dating Committee declare on September 20, 2010 that the recession had ended in June 2009, just a few short weeks before the mid-term elections?  The recession doesn’t even look over today, November 15, 2010, much less in June 2009.  Things that make you go HHHHmmmmm . . .