What to watch on jobs day: Large downward revisions in employment expected
On Friday, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) will revise nonfarm payroll employment, hours, and earnings data to reflect the annual benchmark process in the establishment survey. Each year, the BLS benchmarks total nonfarm payroll employment to state unemployment insurance tax records. In August 2019, BLS released preliminary benchmark revisions to payroll employment for April 2018 through March 2019, but revisions don’t get officially incorporated into the historical numbers until the final revisions are released. While revisions in most years tend to be relatively small, this year’s preliminary revisions came in much higher. The preliminary estimate of the benchmark revision indicates a downward adjustment to March 2019 total nonfarm employment of -501,000. This means that between April 2018 and March of 2019, there were a half million fewer jobs created than initially reported. Over the last ten years, preliminary revisions averaged about -92,000, so -501,000 is very large in comparison. And, usually the difference between the preliminary revisions and the final revisions is plus or minus 40,000. Therefore, it’s likely tomorrow’s final revisions will also be around 500,000 fewer jobs in that period.
The revisions will also provide details on changes in the initial payroll employment estimates by sector. For instance, in the preliminary release, the revisions were located primarily in “leisure and hospitality”, “professional and business services”, and “retail trade” with downward revisions of -175,000, -163,000, and -146,400, respectively. On Friday, the historical data will reflect the final benchmarks overall and by sector.
Tracking trends in nominal wage growth
Turning to nominal wage growth, the most important economic indicator to watch in 2020, last month there was a large drop for production/nonsupervisory workers. The figure below charts year-over-year changes in private-sector nominal average hourly earnings for “all nonfarm employees” as well as “production/nonsupervisory workers.” After remaining consistently higher than “all nonfarm” for nearly a year and at or above 3.4% for much of that time, it fell to 3.0% in December, its lowest point since September 2018. This begs the question of whether this is simply a blip and production/nonsupervisory workers will continue to pull away or if the separation in growth rates between the two over the last year was mostly statistical noise.
At this point in the recovery—with unemployment at or below 4.0% for 22 months—wage growth remains lower than expected. As employment growth consistently remains higher than working-age population growth, more and more workers are pulled into the labor force and finding jobs. As this slack gets absorbed, workers should be getting scarcer and scarcer. Therefore, employers would typically have to pay more to attract and retain the workers they want. After increasing in 2018, wage growth for all nonfarm employees has slowed for much of 2019 and remains below target levels.
Nominal wage growth has been far below target in the recovery: Year-over-year change in private-sector nominal average hourly earnings, 2007–2019
|Date||All nonfarm employees||Production/nonsupervisory workers|
* Nominal wage growth consistent with the Federal Reserve Board’s 2 percent inflation target, 1.5 percent productivity growth, and a stable labor share of income
Source: EPI analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics Current Employment Statistics public data series
On Friday, the BLS will also be employing new population controls in the Current Population Survey (CPS) starting in January 2020. Unlike the establishment survey, these changes to the CPS are not updated historically so caution should be exercised when making comparisons with data for December 2019 or earlier periods. The BLS is also making some changes to their methodology in terms of providing new seasonally adjusted series for measures of labor market underutilization as well as beginning to include both those in opposite-sex and same-sex marriages in estimates of married persons.
The new benchmarks to the establishment survey as well as revisions to the household survey will provide much fodder for thought on Friday morning. And, wage growth continues to be the most important indicator to watch as it lags behind overall improvements in the labor market.