The Employment Situation, aka Monthly Jobs Report: The Top Dog of Economic Reports?

Whether you use the official name—the Employment Situation—or call it the jobs report, nonfarm payrolls, or unemployment, this report offers insight into many facets of the economy. Here’s a primer.

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Key Takeaways

  • The “Employment Situation” report is one of the largest and most important economic indicators to watch when planning your investments
  • The primary figures consist of a few key indicators, but interpreting their meaning requires some flexibility and savvy

You’ve probably heard people call it by different names—the employment report, jobs numbers, nonfarm payrolls—but they all refer to the same colossal report: the Employment Situation.

Released monthly by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statisticsa division of the Department of Labor—the Employment Situation is the nation’s largest and most detailed compilation of employment data available (minus farming jobs). 

Report name: Employment Situation

Released by: Bureau of Labor Statistics

Release date: Generally, the first Friday of the month

Release time: 8:30 a.m. ET

What the Employment Situation Report Tells You

In a nutshell, the Employment Situation report aims to lay out a comprehensive picture of the previous month’s state of employment in the United States, namely:

  • How many people are working now
  • How many people are looking for work
  • How much people are getting paid
  • How many hours people are working

The Employment Situation consists of two separate reports: an establishment survey that tracks approximately 697,000 work sites for nonfarm payroll, work hours, and wage data; and a survey of households of approximately 60,000, presenting data on unemployment and unincorporated self-employment.

Now, imagine taking all of this information and breaking it down across multiple demographics. It’s a lot—perhaps too muchto digest. And that’s why many investors are content reading the summary that accompanies each report. But if you’re looking for industry-specific info, you can often find useful nuggets deep in the survey. It’s all there at bls.gov.

What Makes the Employment Situation So Important?

When it comes to economic reports that sometimes move markets, the Employment Situation arguably holds a lot of weight. Minus U.S. farming jobs (11%, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture), this report covers 89% of the jobs that drive the entire economy. In addition to providing recent data on employment across nearly all sectors of the U.S. economy, the report can also be used to forecast potential trends in other aspects of the economy.

What to Look for in the Employment Situation Report

The Employment Situation typically summarizes data according to five main categories:

1. Nonfarm Payrolls

The nonfarm payrolls number presents the total number of full- and part-time workers in every U.S. sector and industry minus farming jobs.

When private payrolls are highlighted, all government jobs are excluded; when manufacturing payrolls are highlighted, it refers only to manufacturing jobs.

2. Unemployment Rate

The unemployment rate tells you the percentage of unemployed people in the labor force. Keep in mind: it counts only people who are actively looking for jobs.

3. Average Hourly Earnings

The average hourly earnings tells you how much U.S. workers are getting paid.

4. Average Workweek

The average workweek figure tells you the number of hours people worked over a period of a week.

5. Participation Rate

The participation rate tells you the percentage of people who are either working or looking for work. Because it also presents the percentage of people who are not working, it can help you better understand the unemployment rate.

Slicing and Dicing the Numbers

Many traders surf the jobs report each month. They pay close attention to the numbers, waiting to see if the “actual” numbers miss or beat the “consensus” figures. But aside from trading major surprises in the employment figures, how might you use the jobs report to make longer-term portfolio decisions?

According to Alex Coffey, senior specialist, trader group at TD Ameritrade, the jobs report can help you determine aggregate wage growth. “For example, market participants like to use average hourly earnings growth and the length of the average work week to gauge what the aggregate wage growth was for the month,” he said. “This is important because it can help forecast the health of the consumer—which drives roughly two-thirds of the U.S. economy.”

Plus, some of the granular, job-category-specific data from the establishment survey can help investors analyze the health of certain sectors. For example, the survey tracks employment changes in residential and commercial building construction, mining, and several categories of retail employment, among others.

“Specific sector data is used to help forecast the health of companies in an industry,” Coffey pointed out. He added that such data can also offer clues to other key economic indicators. “For example, the number of manufacturing jobs from the establishment survey is used to help forecast durable goods data.”

It’s important to remember, though, that one month’s set of numbers doesn’t constitute a trend. It’s best to consider each data point in the context of trends across time periods to get a more complete picture.

Bullish, Bearish, or Somewhere in Between?

Suppose the Employment Situation data is about to be released and you’ve read up on the analyst consensus reports. How might the market react to a solid (or not-so-solid) set of numbers?

Before we get into a basic bullish/bearish interpretation, first realize that the economy is not a washing machine. It’s cyclical but not mechanical, meaning it’s not always predictable.

The Bullish Interpretation

An expanding economy often coincides with a healthy labor market. Rising job numbers and a declining unemployment rate can mean there are more workers in the economy to spend money on goods and services. If the average workweek numbers trend up, it can indicate production gains, which, in turn, can signal the need for companies to hire more workers. If companies are able to ramp up their production, then they may increase wages without having to increase their product prices.

There’s a flip side to all of this, of course, and you might see it in an expanding yet maturing economic cycle.

The Not-So-Bullish Interpretation

Although a healthy labor market indicates economic growth and supports corporate earnings, it can also mean that the economy is “overheating.” If employment grows too rapidly in a maturing economy, it can create a situation in which the production of goods may not be enough to keep up with consumer demand—a formula for inflation (more money chasing fewer goods). If wages rise while production slows (or can’t keep up with demand), then wage pressures may begin hurting companies’ profit margins, forcing them to increase product prices. If the prices of goods begin to rise too quickly, the Federal Reserve may counter these inflationary pressures by raising interest rates. This can potentially slow the economy, marking the end of a bull market and ushering in a recession.

The Bearish Interpretation

When the economy is in a recession, typically you’d see an increase in the unemployment rate (meaning a decrease in job growth), along with a decrease in average hourly workweek and possibly even wages. But at a certain point, these factors, particularly unemployment, may drive the Federal Reserve to begin slashing interest rates to boost the economy. A decrease in interest rates means that businesses can borrow money at a cheaper rate, allowing them to invest in infrastructure and begin hiring. On a larger scale, this can kick-start an economic expansion, beginning another bull market cycle.

Bottom Line: Critical and Comprehensive, but Not Always Clear

The monthly Employment Situation report provides a comprehensive overview of the nation’s labor market. It’s notable for its potential to move markets in the short and long term.

As a forecasting tool, however, the meaning of the numbers and what they potentially indicate for the future of the markets may not always be clear. Remember, the economy isn’t a mechanical gadget. In general, employment trends from the monthly jobs report can help you strategically position your portfolio. Just remember that interpreting this report can sometimes be a blend of art and science.  

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Key Takeaways

  • The “Employment Situation” report is one of the largest and most important economic indicators to watch when planning your investments
  • The primary figures consist of a few key indicators, but interpreting their meaning requires some flexibility and savvy

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