The U.S. economy lost 1.2 million jobs between June and July. But that’s not how it got reported. When the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) released its jobs figures for July, it said the economy gained 163,000 jobs. So what gives?So how accurate is the seasonal adjustment for July? Not very according to the NYT's.
BLS isn’t hiding anything. The discrepancy just has to do with what’s known as “seasonal adjustments.” The U.S. economy follows certain predictable patterns in hiring and layoffs every year. School districts always let workers go for the summer and hire in the fall. Retailers always staff up for the Christmas holidays and lay people off afterwards. Students always flood the labor market in June.[...]
This is exactly what BLS does in its monthly jobs reports. As Jacob Goldstein of Planet Money points out, the U.S. economy had 1.2 million fewer jobs (pdf) in July than it did in June. But, according to the bureau, the economy still had 163,000 more jobs than one would’ve expected, given seasonal trends. That’s a sign of a steadily recovering labor market. So BLS reported it as a 163,000 gain in jobs.
In the last 10 July jobs reports, dating back to 2002, the agency has added an average of 1.33 million jobs to its original estimate. Last year, for example, the agency estimated that payrolls declined by 1.3 million jobs in July, but it reported a seasonally adjusted increase of 96,000 jobs.
That places a huge premium on the accuracy of the adjustment: A 5 percent error in the adjustment would have shifted the reported total last July by two-thirds.
And even in the best of times, the bureau’s estimates are rarely that accurate.
The government has estimated an average change of 149,700 jobs in the last 10 July jobs reports, but it has since revised those estimates by an average of 92,900 jobs per year. In other words, the initial estimate is generally off by about 62 percent.
In three of those 10 years — 2002, 2003 and 2007 — the agency wasn’t even correct about whether the economy gained or lost jobs.
So take Friday’s report with a measure of caution.