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Unemployment Rate Falls to 7.3% in August, but Really the Jobs Numbers say "Blech!"

Unemployed military veterans seek jobs at at a Hire Our Heroes job fair.

The headlines seem pretty good. Unemployment fell a tick to 7.3 percent. And jobs growth continued, with payrolls expanding by 169,000 in August, which is just shy of the 175,000 new jobs that analysts were expecting.

But beneath the headline: blech!

The most important news was the revisions to what we had previously thought was a healthy and perhaps self-sustaining recovery. Instead, jobs growth in July was revised from 162,000, to a weak 104,000, and June was also revised downward. Taken together, this month's revisions means we've created 74,000 fewer jobs than previously believed. And the previous jobs report subtracted another 26,000 jobs through revisions. Moreover, for reasons that remain a mystery, revisions have tended to be pro-cyclical, meaning that the healthy recovery we thought we were having might have been expected to yield further upward revisions. All this means that analysts are hastily revising their views.

The other bad news comes from the household survey, where employment fell 115,000, leading the employment-to-population ratio to decline by 0.1 percentage points. So the decline in the unemployment rate isn't due to folks getting jobs; instead, it's due to people dropping out of the labor force.

I have two simple metrics I use to measure the "underlying" pace of jobs growth. The first puts 80% weight on the (more accurate) payrolls survey, and 20% weight on the noisier household survey. That measure suggests employment grew by only 112,000 in August. The alternative is to focus on the 3-month average of payrolls growth, which suggests we're creating slightly around 148,000 jobs per month.

Bottom line: This report says that we're barely creating enough jobs to keep the unemployment rate falling from its current high levels. Policymakers have been looking for a signal that the recovery has become self-sustaining. This report doesn't provide it. And until we're confident that the recovery will keep rolling on, we should delay either any monetary tightening, further fiscal cuts, and definitely postpone the legislative shenanigans that Congress is threatening.

  • Justin Wolfers is currently a Senior Fellow of the Brookings Institution, and is on leave from the University of Michigan, where he is a Professor of Economics and a Professor of Public Policy at the University of Michigan. He is also an editor of the Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, a Research Associate with the National Bureau of Economic Research; a Research Fellow with the Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA) in Bonn; a Research Affiliate with the Centre for Economic Policy Research in London; an International Research Fellow with the Kiel Institute for the World Economy, and a Fellow of the CESifo, in Munich. He was previously a visiting professor at Princeton, an Associate Professor at Wharton, an Assistant Professor at Stanford Graduate School of Business, and an economist with the Reserve Bank of Australia.

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