Charlotte may have spun words into her web, but some economists say data points can be just as expressive.
National Journal reported last winter on the Atlanta Federal Reserve Bank’s new “spider chart” visualizing the labor market’s progress. With the January jobs report just a few days away, let’s check back in and see how things are moving.
The takeaway: The labor utilization indicators — which describe the situation for those who are unemployed — still stink and are further from precrisis levels than other parts of the job market right now.
A quick primer: The “spider chart” looks complicated at first glance. But, really, it’s just a way of comparing several job-market indicators at once, and seeing how their progress stacks up. In this instance, the Atlanta Fed is looking at 13 different measures of job-market health.
The chart has two rings: One in the middle, which represents the recession-era low point for each indicator, and one on the outside, which represents the indicator’s precrisis level. You can see how close each indicator is to getting back to where it was before the financial crisis by looking at its progress along the spoke.
It probably won’t surprise you that the dark blue line representing the latest data is farthest from the outer ring, on the whole, for the part of the chart that includes the measurements of unemployment, a separate measure of people who aren’t working but want to be, and of people who have to work part time for economic reasons, not personal preference. For these individuals, the recovery is moving at a snail’s pace, even as employers are posting more job openings (seen on the opposite side of the chart).
When the Bureau of Labor Statistics releases its latest employment figures on Friday morning, reporters and politicians are likely to seize on two numbers: The unemployment rate and payroll growth. But these can be tricky figures to decipher, reflecting people departing the labor market rather than getting jobs, or showing weakness due to bad weather, respectively. Looking at a range of labor-market indicators, over time, is a good way to avoid falling into the trap of focusing too much on a single data point. But it’s also important to remember that the Atlanta Fed’s chart doesn’t tell the whole story, either. Just a broader piece of it.