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Jobless Rate Falls To 9.7 Percent

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

And we begin this hour with a number: 9.7. On its own, not terribly interesting, but when you consider that the unemployment rate in January fell to 9.7 percent from 10 percent, well that's interesting. And it's fair to say, it's a surprise to most economists - surprise, but not entirely good news. The other headline number in the jobs report confused things a bit. It showed a net loss of jobs - 20,000 of them.

To help make sense of things, NPR's John Ydstie has this report.

JOHN YDSTIE: So, how can the unemployment rate improve while businesses continue to cut jobs? The big reason is that the two headline numbers in the Monthly Employment Report are produced by two separate surveys. To get the unemployment rate, the government interviews 60,000 households every month. To report the number of payroll jobs gained or lost, the government questions about 400,000 businesses. In January, the survey of business payrolls found a net loss of 20,000 jobs. But interviews with households revealed a gain of 541,000 jobs.

Mr. TOM NARDONE (Assistant Commissioner, Bureau Of Labor Statistics): The household survey estimates tend to be more variable.

YDSTIE: Tom Nardone, an assistant commissioner at the Bureau of Labor Statistics, says the household survey can experience very big swings, as it did in the January survey released today.

Mr. NARDONE: The big increase in employment this month follows a very big drop in employment in December. And that's why people tend to focus on the payroll survey for measuring job change over the month. It has a larger sample and the estimates tend to be less variable on a month-to-month basis.

YDSTIE: But, says economist Bill Cheney of John Hancock Financial, the household survey does pick up some things the survey of business payrolls doesn't.

Mr. BILL CHENEY (Economist, John Hancock Financial): The payroll survey definitely does miss the creation of jobs by small businesses around the turning points in the business cycle, which is exactly where we are now. So, there are reasons to think that this may be one of those moments where the household survey is telling us something even though it's normally not quite so reliable.

YDSTIE: Ironically, the normally reliable payroll survey has been erratic lately. November's payroll report was revised to show much stronger job growth than previously thought, but the December revision went the other direction, showing much larger job losses for that month. Despite the January payroll losses, there were some silver linings in today's report that suggest job growth will take off soon, says Bill Cheney.

Christina Romer, head of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, agrees there are some encouraging signs in the payroll report.

Ms. CHRISTINA ROMER (Head, White House Council of Economic Advisers): Manufacturing employment grew for the first time in a long time. Retail trade employment actually grew, temporary employment that's been going up for several months kept going up. Obviously, others like construction, we're still seeing important losses. But, you know, I think on net, we are kind of at the stability point.

YDSTIE: But the Obama administration isn't taking any chances. The president was in Lanham, Maryland, today pushing his small business job creation proposals. He had this response to the fall in the unemployment rate and the pick up in areas like manufacturing.

President BARACK OBAMA: Now, these numbers, while positive, are a cause for hope, but not celebration because far too many of our neighbors and friends and family are still out of work.

YDSTIE: The president unveiled another initiative today aimed at helping small businesses boost hiring. It would let small businesses refinance commercial real estate loans with the Small Business Administration. One revision in today's employment report was very sobering. It put the number of jobs lost during this recession at 8.4 million. That's about a million more than originally estimated.

John Ydstie, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

John Ydstie has covered the economy, Wall Street, and the Federal Reserve at NPR for nearly three decades. Over the years, NPR has also employed Ydstie's reporting skills to cover major stories like the aftermath of Sept. 11, Hurricane Katrina, the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal, and the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. He was a lead reporter in NPR's coverage of the global financial crisis and the Great Recession, as well as the network's coverage of President Trump's economic policies. Ydstie has also been a guest host on the NPR news programs Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition. Ydstie stepped back from full-time reporting in late 2018, but plans to continue to contribute to NPR through part-time assignments and work on special projects.