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August 15, 2016
Payroll Employment Growth: Strong Enough?
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics' estimate of nonfarm payroll employment is the most closely watched indicator of overall employment growth in the U.S. economy. By this measure, employment increased by 255,000 in July, well above the three-month average of 190,000. Yet despite this outsized gain, the unemployment rate barely budged. What gives?
Well, for a start, there is no formal connection between the payroll employment data and the unemployment rate data. The employment data used to construct the unemployment rate come from the Current Population Survey (CPS) and the payroll employment data come from a different survey. However, it is possible to relate changes in the unemployment rate to the gap between the CPS and payroll measures of employment, as well as changes in the labor force participation (LFP) rate, and the growth of payroll employment relative to the population.
The following chart shows the contribution of each of these three factors to the monthly change in the unemployment rate during the last year.
A note about the chart: The CPS employment and population measures have been smoothed to account for annual population control adjustments. The smoothed employment data are available here. The method used to compute the contributions is available here.
The black line is the monthly change in the unemployment rate (unrounded). Each green segment of a bar is the change in the unemployment rate coming from the gap between population growth and payroll employment growth. Because payroll employment has generally been growing faster than the population, it has helped make the unemployment rate lower than it otherwise would have been.
But as the chart makes clear, the other two factors can also exert a significant influence on the direction of the unemployment rate. The labor force participation rate contribution (the red segments of the bars) and the contribution from the gap between the CPS and payroll employment measures (blue segments) can vary a lot from month to month, and these factors can swamp the payroll employment growth contribution.
So any assumption that strong payroll employment gains in any particular month will automatically lead to a decline in the unemployment rate could, in fact, be wrong. But over longer periods, the mapping is a bit clearer because it is effectively smoothing the month-to-month variation in the three factors. For example, the following chart shows the contribution of the three factors to 12-month changes in the unemployment rate from July 2012 to July 2013, from July 2013 to July 2014, and so on.
Gains in payroll employment relative to the population have helped pull the unemployment rate lower. Moreover, prior to the most recent 12 months, declines in the LFP rate put further downward pressure on the unemployment rate. Offsetting this pressure to varying degrees has been the fact that the CPS measure of employment has tended to increase more slowly than the payroll measure, making the decline in the unemployment rate smaller than it would have been otherwise. During the last 12 months, the LFP rate turned positive on balance, meaning that the magnitude of the unemployment rate decline has been considerably less than implied by the relative strength of payroll employment growth.
Going forward, another strong payroll employment reading for August is certainly no guarantee of a corresponding decline in the unemployment rate. But as shown by my colleagues David Altig and Patrick Higgins in an earlier macroblog post, under a reasonable range of assumptions for the trend path of population growth, the LFP rate, and the gap between the CPS and payroll survey measures of employment, payroll growth averaging above 150,000 a month should be enough to cause the unemployment rate to continue declining.
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