Where is employment heading in the Inland Empire?

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Once a year, at the beginning of March, the national release of the monthly labor market data coincides with that of the state and the region. This is due to major annual data revisions for the January report on the sub-national level. The numbers released on March 8 by the Employment Development Department are for January 2024, while the U.S. Department of Labor published the February 2024 data. The February 2024 report for the sub-national level will be released in the middle of March.

We can get the national analysis out of the way: There was a higher than expected increase in the employment numbers (275,000) while the even higher initially released January numbers were revised downwards to more reasonable levels (229,000). Yes, the unemployment rate did increase from 3.7% to 3.9%, but that was due to healthy employment growth being outpaced by an even larger increase in the labor force.

Since then, the inflation numbers have also been published, and while they did not improve further and by the magnitude we’d hoped for, the U.S. economy continues to be on a path for a soft landing (reducing inflation rates to 2% without creating a recession).

This is important, because the Federal Reserve would be less likely to lower interest rates during summer if the job market was as hot as initially estimated and inflation remains sticky above the 2% target. The central bank left interest rates unchanged after its meeting last week, but indicated it is close to start lowering the interest rates as policy makers become confident that “it will be appropriate to dial back.” Chairman Jerome Powell said they were “not far from it.” As the UCLA Anderson Forecast put it in its most recent report, we are on a path to normalcy.

Now let us focus on our state and region. For the Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario Metropolitan Statistical Area, some of the annual revisions were substantial. In the Inland Empire, the Logistics industry lost significantly more jobs (some 5,000 depending on which month you focus on) since last summer than originally assumed and shows a steeper downward trend. On the other hand, Education and Health Services has gained more jobs than previously thought, roughly 10,000 more and the numbers are trending upward, confirming it as the sector with the largest share of labor in the Inland Empire.

The headline news for the Inland Empire is that the unemployment rate jumped up by half percentage points, increasing significantly from 5.0% to 5.5%. Since the Inland Empire’s economy is often described as “first in, last out,” shall we take this as the first sign of the national economy tanking after all, resulting in a “hard landing” (decrease in inflation coinciding with a recession)?

The initially bleak picture is simply an artifact of the data, generated by regularly occurring seasonal patterns. Without getting too technical, we will try to convince you that you should look at seasonally adjusted data rather than the raw data from the EDD. While for some months the difference is negligible, in January it is particularly high, since there are layoffs every year due to the post-holiday season. It is not surprising that the largest raw data (non-seasonally adjusted) employment losses for the Inland Empire came in Retail Trade, Logistics, and Leisure and Hospitality. Filtering out these effects is important since they give a misleading picture of the underlying economy. Total employment reported did not go down 32,300 (which would represent an alarming 2%); instead, it went up by 4,850.

The increase in employment reported by households (+9,100) aligned with the increase in establishment employment (+4,850). Residency measured employment increased by more than what establishments reported. This is probably due to commuters, most of whom work in the coastal areas. The employment status of these commuters is reported by households in the region, not by establishments. This means that significant job growth among commuters could explain the difference for January.

Let us get more specific. Compared to the bleak picture painted by the raw establishment data (decreases of -8,200 in Retail Trade, -7,400 in Logistics, -6,500 in Professional and Business Services, and -3,700 in Leisure and Hospitality), the numbers we get after accounting for seasonal patterns are more positive. The biggest decrease was seen in Professional and Business Services (almost -1,200), at only roughly a fifth of what non-seasonally adjusted data indicated. For Retail Trade (-500), Logistics (+250), and Leisure and Hospitality (-700) numbers also look less worrisome. Bottom line: Do not make major decisions based on non-seasonally adjusted data.

Applying standard statistical techniques to remove seasonal regularities results in the (seasonally adjusted) unemployment rate actually falling by 0.1 percentage points from 5.7% to 5.6% in the Inland Empire.

The change came in the healthiest way possible: through a simultaneous increase in employment and labor force, the former outpacing the latter (+9,100 and +6,200, respectively). After six consecutive months of increases in the civilian unemployment rate, this is encouraging. The result holds despite the fact we only observed significant employment increases during three months in 2023.

The Inland Empire will need more time to recover from the very concerning decreases of 12,800 for the labor force and 13,600 for employment observed between November and December. Despite this, the Inland Empire continues to be the poster child of the economic recovery from the COVID-19 recession,. While we will continue to see some structural adjustment between the industries of the region, we are on a positive path as far as the economy is concerned.

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