Say it with confidence: Consumer surveys as a leading indicator of jobs

September 5, 2013

It turns out people are better employment forecasters than economists. A report from New York Fed economists finds that confidence measures gleaned from consumer surveys are very tightly correlated with the path of U.S. employment.

The paper offers some illustrative charts that make a rather convincing case.

The chart below plots the Present Situation Index against the unemployment rate, whose scale is inverted so that high levels represent strong labor market conditions (low unemployment) and vice versa. One readily apparent feature is that the two series move together very closely throughout the period and, most notably, during all five of the recessions since 1977. It’s hard to tell from inspecting the chart, but the highest correlation (0.89) occurs at a two-month lead; that is, the Present Situation Index is even more strongly correlated with the unemployment rate two months into the future than it is with the concurrent rate.

The next chart looks at the relationship between changes in this index and payroll job growth – both over twelve-month intervals. This measure of employment is based on a different survey than the survey for the unemployment rate, but payroll employment is typically growing when unemployment is declining and vice versa. Once again, it’s very apparent that the two measures move closely together, and again formal analysis reveals that the Present Situation Index tends to foreshadow movements in employment by a couple of months. In particular, twelve-month changes in the index are most highly correlated with twelve-month job growth four months into the future – the correlation is 0.83.

The authors appear surprised by their own findings, but ultimately find a way to rationalize them:

All of this, of course, begs the question: Why would the general public be able to give a slightly earlier read on the job market than the employment data do? One likely reason is that many people (survey respondents) are in the labor force, and almost everyone has close friends and relatives that work. So it stands to reason that most would be attuned to the general tone of the job market—at least in their region or neighborhood. For instance, people may well be aware, before layoffs actually begin, that a company’s business is slumping or that budgets are tight. Conversely, people are likely to be aware of a flurry of new job openings or a company’s need to increase staff before those new jobs actually get filled and are measured as new employment in the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ labor market report.

So what does it all mean for Friday’s employment report? The Conference Board’s headline consumer confidence number rose to 81.5 in August from 81.0 in July. As for the ‘present situation’ index that is the focus of the New York Fed economists’ research – it dropped rather sharply to 70.7 from 73.6.

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