Economists Await Shutdown-Delayed Jobs Report

Thanks to the shutdown, economists are flying blind without government data. The Bureau of Labor Statistics will finally release the September jobs report on Tuesday, more than two weeks after it was slated to come out.

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One effect of the 16-day government shutdown is that economists have had only a murky picture of the state of the economy. That's because the government is one of the most important sources of economic data. And as NPR's Dan Bobkoff reports, most of the people responsible for compiling and analyzing the numbers were furloughed, even barred from checking their email.

DAN BOBKOFF, BYLINE: For economists used to sifting through government data, on jobs and inflation and consumer prices and everything else they used to interpret and forecast the state of the economy, there's apparently just one metaphor that will do to describe the past few weeks.

DIANE SWONK: I've been having to sort of fly blind.

BOB MURPHY: We've been flying blind.

NARIMAN BEHRAVESH: Maybe not flying blind but flying without instruments and in a bit of fog, so maybe that is flying blind.

BOBKOFF: That's economist Diane Swonk of Mesirow Financial, Bob Murphy of Boston College, and Nariman Behravesh of IHS Global Insight.

BEHRAVESH: It's just a sense of how's trend changing? Are we starting to see some improvement, let's say, the employment situation? Or is it the way it was before? Or is it worsening? We don't have a clue.

BOBKOFF: And no data are more important to economists like Behravesh than the monthly jobs report. This is the one that usually comes out the first Friday of the month, right at 8:30 in the morning. It's when we get the latest number of jobs created and the current unemployment rate. The news moves markets. The Bureau of Labor Statistics, which compiles the jobs data, says it will release its September numbers on Tuesday, two and a half weeks behind schedule. And its October report will come out November 8th, a week behind schedule. These numbers are more important than ever. Behravesh says the Federal Reserve is using the unemployment rate to decide when to start cutting back on its bond buying program.

BEHRAVESH: They are facing a decision and I think that decision may, in fact, possibly be delayed even further by this hiatus in data releases.

BOBKOFF: Beyond the jobs numbers, economists like Diane Swonk are waiting on a lot of other data.

SWONK: We didn't get a report for retail sales and we lost construction data, we lost a lot of economic data.

BOBKOFF: Many government reports are behind schedule, but others have been canceled altogether. Tough luck for fans of the Natural Gas Weekly update. We will never know what its number was yesterday.

And behind every economic report out in the coming days, there's a team of harried economists racing to get back in gear after unwanted vacation. At the Bureau of Labor Statistics, all but three of its 2,400 workers were furloughed. Erica Groshen was among those three because, well, she's the boss. She says her staff bounded through the doors yesterday.

ERICA GROSHEN: You never saw a group of happier, more excited people.

BOBKOFF: Keep in mind, these are economists and analysts. They live for this stuff. Instead, many of them had a lot of time around the house, with mixed results.

GROSHEN: We did hear a lot of stories about some people's houses being much cleaner than normal and other people's houses being much dirtier than normal.

BOBKOFF: Now, she says her staffers are working fast to get everything ready for Tuesday's jobs report and that the data will be as accurate and complete as ever, despite the delay.

GROSHEN: Same collections, same analysis, everything is the same.

BOBKOFF: And I asked her what it was like for her staff whose whole job it is report on the state of employment in this country to effectively be laid off for a couple of weeks.

GROSHEN: I think they generally have a lot of empathy anyway. They wouldn't have gone into this deal if they didn't think it was important. But, yeah, it's all the more real when it's themselves and their families.

BOBKOFF: It's perhaps one of the few times they might imagine their own lives reflected in the jobless numbers. Dan Bobkoff, NPR News.

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