Tracking the Labor Market with “Big Data”

Tomaz Cajner, Leland Crane, Ryan Decker, Adrian Hamins-Puertolas, and Christopher Kurz at FEDSNotes: “Payroll employment growth is one of the most reliable business cycle indicators. Each postwar recession in the United States has been characterized by a year-on-year drop in payroll employment as measured by the BLS Current Employment Statistics (CES) survey, and, outside of these recessionary declines, the year-on-year payroll employment growth has always been positive. Thus, it is not surprising that policymakers, financial markets, and the general public pay a great deal of attention to the CES payroll employment gains reported at the beginning of each month.

However, while the CES survey is one of the most carefully conducted measures of labor market activity and uses an extremely large sample, it is still subject to significant sampling error and nonsampling errors. For example, when the BLS first reported that private nonfarm payroll gains were 148,000 in July 2019, the associated 90 percent confidence interval was +/- 100,000 due to sampling error alone….

One such source of alternative labor market data is the payroll-processing company ADP, which covers 20 percent of the private workforce. These are the data that underlie ADP’s monthly National Employment Report (NER), which forecasts BLS payroll employment changes by using a combination of ADP-derived data and other publicly available data. In our research, we explore the information content of the ADP microdata alone by producing an estimate of employment changes independent from the BLS payroll series as well as from other data sources.

A potential concern when using the ADP data is that only the firms which hire ADP to manage their payrolls will appear in the data, and this may introduce sample selection issues….(More)”