Fox Business anchor Stuart Varney is reviving jobs trutherism in reaction to Labor Department data showing a steep drop in unemployment claims, echoing a conspiracy theory pushed by the right last week accusing the Obama administration of manipulating unemployment data. But the data quirk that Varney highlights - missing numbers from one large state - is not unusual.
The Labor Department released its weekly estimate for first-time unemployment claims on Thursday, reporting that that key economic indicator had dropped to a four-year low of 339,000 first-time claims. The weekly moving average, which adjusts for week-to-week fluctuations, also dropped in the most recent data. Varney appeared on Fox's America's Newsroom to discuss the numbers and dismissed the "rosy results" which he noted were put out "three and a half weeks before the election."
Varney claimed that the drop in initial claims was due to one "large state" not reporting its figures, hinting that this may have been intentional. His suggestion that the Obama administration conspired to deflate jobless claims continued on his Fox Business show, Varney & Co.:
The irregularity in reporting weekly unemployment data that is central to Varney's conspiracy theory is hardly unusual. In fact, MarketWatch explains "the process is so complicated the federal government even has to make estimates for some states when they are tardy in reporting." The article further explained the challenges in collecting unemployment data from every state on a weekly basis
Each state has its own method of processing and calculating jobless claims before they file their reports to a federal data-exchange system.
Yet states rarely submit their reports at a uniform time each week. Data collection is often interrupted by bad weather, special state holidays or administrative delays caused by problems such as computer breakdowns. Individuals can also file a protest if their claim for benefits is rejected. (MarketWatch, 11/11/2010, emphasis added)
When discussing that later revisions to the data are "the norm," the same MarketWatch article further discredited claims that the Labor Department manipulated the data for political purposes:
The information is compiled by career civil servants free from political interference and their methods made publicly available. That's why it's virtually impossible to find any economist, even those who lean strongly liberal or conservative, who suspects foul play. (Market Watch, 11/11/2010).
Such volatility in weekly jobless claims reports due to incomplete data is precisely why economists choose to focus more on four- week averages as an indicator of labor market conditions - a figure that shows signs of improvement, falling by 11,500 to 364,000 jobless claims.
In fact, four-week averages of weekly jobless claims have been on a downward trend since 2009:
(Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, accessed 10/11/2012)
UPDATE: Business Insider reports that all states did in fact report data, but that it is likely the data was incomplete for California. Claims are expected to rise to about 335,000-365,000 when data are revised, slightly lower than the 370,000 expectation.