This Friday, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) will release its monthly report on the health of the nation’s labor market. The monthly report provides investors, workers, and policymakers with the most up to date information on U.S. unemployment and job and wage growth. If the report’s data is released early, or even a hint as to whether the data exceeds or falls below market expectations, an individual can use that information to their financial benefit.
When I served as labor secretary Alexis Herman’s chief economist during the Clinton administration, the president and his senior economic advisors were the only administration officials that received the “numbers” early, always a day ahead of their 8:30 a.m. Friday public release. Since my tenure as chief economist, to my knowledge there has been no premature release or hint of the direction of the numbers until last month, when the president hinted at the quality of the numbers. At 7:21 a.m., a full hour before the actual release, he tweeted, “Looking forward to seeing the employment numbers at 8:30am this morning.”
Why the hubbub over his tweet? It does provide a tip about the upcoming report’s quality, but does so to everyone. Therefore no one had insider information. So what is the big deal?
To answer this question, we need to understand how investors could make money by having access to the report prior to its public release.
Suppose I know before the report’s release that it contains a “weak” set of numbers. I could sell stock short and then upon release, purchase the stock at a lower price because the market reacts negatively to the “bad” news.
Suppose the report is “good,” which it was last month, I could purchase stock, a mutual fund, or a stock market index, and sell it on the good news.
So, the first issue of concern is one of equality of opportunity. Most on Main Street don’t have the ability to make these trades. However, the president, his family members, friends, and associates probably have large enough positions and the required networks to do trades to benefit from the tip.
Second, the president has received the jobs numbers a day before their actual release since his inauguration. If he had a better track record of showing respect to his fellow Americans and to government protocols, I might give him a pass for his ill-advised tweet.
Given his proclivity for breaking convention when it comes to sharing information (remember him revealing top secret Israeli intelligence to Russian officials), it is a reasonable to wonder with whom has he spoken between Thursday afternoon/evening and Friday morning, the release of the report? Did he or any of his family members, friends, and associates make trades based on having the report in advance of its public release? Even his advisor Gary Cohn said that he doesn’t give him the numbers because he would talk about them.
Third, what happens this Friday morning when BLS releases its June report? What does it mean if the president tweets or doesn’t tweet in advance of the report? His disregard for process creates yet another source of unnecessary uncertainty for investors.
The president’s reckless tweet has done additional harm. It has further eroded the public’s trust in him, his administration, and government in general. Even if he did not mean to act recklessly with this highly protected information, perception is reality, especially because of his less than pristine ethical behavior.
If BLS’ data, or any government economic data, becomes politicized and is viewed as “cooked” or “biased” (actual or perceived), both Wall Street and Main Street will have difficulty making investment, planning, and consumption decisions…
What needs to happen is simple. More members of Congress need to support Senators Warren, Wyden, and Bennet’s proposed investigation of the president that seeks to find out how he has been handling the privilege of possessing the jobs report data prior to its public release.
If BLS’ data, or any government economic data, becomes politicized and is viewed as “cooked” or “biased” (actual or perceived), both Wall Street and Main Street will have difficulty making investment, planning, and consumption decisions, thereby weakening consumer and investor confidence in the economy, which in turn will slow economic growth.
Knowing whether or not the president is abusing his privilege of having the information prior to release, and knowing that the government data’s creation and dissemination process continues to be beyond reproach, is just as important as knowing whether foreign governments have interfered with our elections.