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Don’t be surprised: Employment data get revised

BLS revisions to metro area employment data can be substantial but predictable

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) released the latest state and local employment data on March 13, 2017. The BLS initially estimated that St. Louis added 38,300 jobs in 2016, but the revised data show that St. Louis actually added 17,100 jobs. This isn’t the first time large revisions have occurred in St. Louis: Last year, BLS revisions to St. Louis employment added 6,800 jobs. Each March, these revisions account for data through the third quarter of the previous year. They can have a significant impact on the story of job growth in the region, so it’s important to be cautious about these preliminary estimates.

The top graph shows year-over-year growth in total nonfarm employment in the St. Louis MSA before and after the revision. Before the revision, St. Louis was estimated to have added 38,300 jobs and grown at 2.8% in 2016. St. Louis has not seen growth that strong since the 1990s. However, the BLS revised those numbers down to around 17,100 jobs added and growth of only 1.3%. While these revised numbers still show moderate growth, it is below the national rate of 1.6% and represents a significant decline from 2015’s 27,800 jobs added and 2.1% growth. Overall, the MSA has 16,600 fewer jobs than previously thought.

Data revisions occur because counting new jobs is a difficult process that relies on samples and advanced statistical techniques. As more information becomes available, data are revised. The BLS uses the monthly Current Employment Statistics (CES) survey to estimate local employment for nonagricultural industries, but the best source of local employment statistics comes from their Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages (QCEW). The QCEW includes data derived from establishments’ reports to the various unemployment insurance programs that are released with about a 6-month lag. Every March, the BLS reconciles the CES estimates with the data from the QCEW, which can result in significant revisions, as we’ve seen repeatedly here in St. Louis.

This year’s revisions underscore the importance of a cautious approach, despite the temptation to take unrevised data at face value: The BLS often revises employment data significantly, and the average absolute revision to 2016 metro area employment growth this year was 1.1 percentage points. The good news is that the revisions are generally predictable. The QCEW data had been growing at a much slower pace than the CES for much of the year for both nonfarm and leisure and hospitality employment. In addition, employment in St. Louis tends to follow the national cycle, so any large deviations in growth from the national rate should be corroborated with other sources of information. It can also be worthwhile to look at other sources such as the Fed’s Beige Book, to gain an understanding of the labor market beyond the latest BLS estimates. While the unrevised estimates were reporting strong growth in St. Louis, the Beige Book reported only modest or moderate growth for the region.

The BLS revised employment numbers in many of the MSAs in the Eighth District. In Memphis, the unrevised data reported employment gains of 2,700 and growth of 0.4% in 2016, but the revision brought those numbers up to 7,900 and 1.2%. In Louisville, jobs for 2016 increased from 4,400 to 5,400 and growth increased from 1.7% to 2.7%. In Little Rock, numbers were revised down only slightly, beginning in July 2015, with minimal effects on jobs added and growth in 2016.

How these graphs were created: The St. Louis Fed maintains records of all data revisions in its ALFRED® database, which allows you to retrieve vintage versions of data that were available on specific dates in history. On the “All Employees: Total Nonfarm in St. Louis, MO-IL (MSA)” page on FRED, click on “ALFRED Vintage Series” in the “Related Content” section underneath the chart to retrieve the two most recent releases, which currently include the revision. Under the “Edit Graph” button, click on “Format” and change the graph type from bar to line. Click on “Edit Lines” and select “Percent Change from Year Ago” for the units and copy to all. The three other graphs are built in a similar fashion.

Suggested by Charles Gascon and Paul Morris.

View on FRED, series used in this post: LOINA, LRSNA, MPHNA, STLNA

More on boundary changes

In our previous post, we mused about changes in country boundaries that can affect the time series of that region, taking up the example of German reunification. Such changes aren’t limited to international borders; they can also occur within a country. FRED has data for subnational units only in the United States. And although state boundaries haven’t changed much, some county boundaries have. The most dramatic changes happen when metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs) are redrawn. In 2010, the U.S. Census Bureau removed Scott County from the Louisville MSA, dropping about 24,000 residents, which can be seen clearly in the graph above.

The Census Bureau doesn’t recalculate population time series, but the Bureau of Labor Statistics adopts new definitions (after a delay) and recalculates its statistics. This is visible in the graph below, which shows the same series, total non-farm employees, with two data vintages. The ALFRED site allows us to see how data are revised over time and in this case shows the data as of March 17, 2014, and March 25, 2016. The difference is the deletion of Scott County.

How these graphs were created: For the first graph, simply search for “Louisville population.” For the second, Go to ALFRED, search for “Louisville employment,” change the graph type to “line,” expand the sample period to 10 years, and change the earlier vintage to 2014-03-17.

Suggested by Christian Zimmermann

View on FRED, series used in this post: LOINA, LOIPOP

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