Meet the man behind the highly influential monthly jobs report, which remains the best argument against recession talk
- The US jobs report is among the most important economic records the government publishes.
- James Walker leads the team of economists who write the press release that accompanies the report.
James Walker works in a locked room on a secure server creating a report that will move the stock market, shape Americans' views of the economy, and be the primary focus of the president's remarks that day.
It's the monthly employment report, showing how many new jobs the US economy added in the last month. It's been under intense scrutiny since the pandemic recession began, and is currently the main line of defense for those claiming the US economy isn't in another recession.
"There is going to be a lot of chatter today on Wall Street and among pundits about whether we are in a recession," President Joe Biden said in July. "But if you look at our job market ... we see signs of economic progress."
The Bureau of Labor Statistics publishes the report at 8:30 a.m. ET on the first Friday of every month. Every word is carefully scrutinized, Walker said, especially when it comes to the unemployment rate.
"Are we going to say it 'rose' or 'declined,' or is it more of an 'edged up' or 'edged down' or 'changed little?'"
Every word in the report matters to the economists, investors, and politicians who base their research, trades, and policymaking on monthly hiring data.
But by then Walker and his team are already looking ahead to the next month's report.
The work of a small group of experts moves markets and shapes policy
The monthly jobs report, officially titled the Employment Situation Summary (ESS), captures the current state of the US labor market in roughly 1,500 words. That includes the number of jobs added or lost every month, the latest unemployment rate, and, more recently, pandemic-specific data including how many Americans are working from home.
Within the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a group of 15 staffers is responsible for condensing swaths of data into a concise press release. Walker, a supervisory economist who's worked at BLS for more than 25 years, leads that cohort.
But to Wall Street, every last detail in the Friday release is a goldmine. Bank economists use the government data in complex models that forecast the economy's health and influence where cash is best invested.
That has massive implications for the broader economy. A disappointing report, for example, can amplify concerns of an economic downturn, drag stock prices sharply lower, and kick off a media cycle of doom and gloom.
On the other hand, a stronger-than-expected print can ease fears that a recession is nigh. That's exactly what the July release accomplished. Just hours after the latest report's release, JPMorgan economists said the rosy numbers "should mollify recession fears." It was "nearly impossible to find any sign of weakness in labor conditions," Charlie Ripley, senior investment strategist at Allianz, said.
Behind the scenes of a typical Jobs Week
The report is a primary source documenting the country's recessions, recoveries, and expansions, and a human touch elevates the release beyond the facts and figures it includes, Walker said.
"We try to make this data not just about words and tables," he told Insider. "We try to tell the story of what's been happening."
That human touch is also why the report isn't finalized until the night before its release. The team starts writing the ESS "as soon as we get the numbers" on either the Friday or Monday before the scheduled public release, Walker said.
The final press release usually isn't approved until 4:30 p.m. or 5 p.m. ET the Thursday before "jobs day," as it's informally referred to by economists. That's a mere 16 hours before the financial world is shaped by the release the next morning.
And while economists, investors, and politicians rush to Twitter on Friday morning to either celebrate or bemoan the numbers, Walker and his team are hard at work on their next releases. The week after Jobs Day sees the BLS team publish various analyses of the latest employment data. In the weeks since the August data's release, the team has written separate reports on summer youth employment and workers who lost their jobs because their employer closed or moved.
Keeping the most important economic report of the month secret is hard
Writing the ESS is difficult enough on its own, but keeping it secret is another task entirely. Since the monthly report is hugely influential to investors' economic outlooks, a leak could give a trader an incredible advantage in the market.
Even an early hint at the report's figures can throw Washington and Wall Street into a frenzy. President Donald Trump raised concerns about insider trading and abuse of presidential power in June 2018 when he tweeted he was "looking forward to seeing the unemployment numbers" an hour before the employment report was published.
Investors regarded the tweet as a clear sign the hiring data would surpass expectations, as the president receives a preview of the report the night before its release. When jobs data ended up beating expectations later that morning, investors who were first to read Trump's tweet enjoyed solid gains.
To ensure it upholds its end of the confidentiality bargain, BLS has several measures in place to prevent any kind of leak.
Once Walker's team starts writing the report, they put up a sign barring any unauthorized workers from entering their office. They work on a secure server that only certain employees have access to, and any printed materials aren't allowed to leave the rooms used for writing and editing the report.
Keeping data secure only got tougher when the pandemic reached the US and BLS workers transitioned to remote work. Walker now has to lock down a room at home to best replicate procedures he'd follow at the BLS office. When he and his teammates step away from their computers, they need to lock the device and remove their ID cards to ensure nobody even has a shot of logging in and snooping around the unpublished report.
Among the most challenging parts of the transition to remote work was the loss of an office staple: the printer. Since working from home in early 2020, Walker can't print any drafts or tables related to the ESS. Losing paper copies "has been really difficult," he said, as much of the fact checking and editing in pre-pandemic times was done with printed drafts, highlighters, and red pens.
Walker and the ESS team will need to get used to the new workflow. The BLS is leaving its office near Union Station in Washington, DC to an office complex in Suitland, Maryland. Yet that facility won't be available for at least a year, Walker said, and even then, it won't feature the same security the ESS team enjoyed in Washington.
"We'll be working from home — probably forever — doing the Employment Situation. In fact, we work harder and longer from home," Walker said.
How the workforce evolves, and the way that's captured in the government's employment report, keeps the job exciting, Walker said. A native of Flint, Michigan, the team supervisor pays extra attention to job creation in the motor vehicle and parts manufacturing sector.
"When I go back to Michigan, I can actually see [what we report] in the factory parking lots," he said. "I'm like, 'Wow, it's amazing I'm working on this.'"
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