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Place your job bet
No one can seem to guess the number correctly -- which makes for great fun.
August 5, 2005: 8:38 AM EDT

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NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - Lots of people watch the monthly employment number for all the right reasons. We here at CNN/Money don't.

Well, let me amend that. Sure we watch it because that's our job. But we also watch it because that's our bet.

You see, our newsroom does a monthly pool. You make a guess on what the monthly payroll figure -- that's the jobs added number -- will be. If nobody hits the nail on the head, it rolls into the next month's pool. And so on.

No doubt some people are mortified by the prospect of newsroom bets in general. But I would counter such "tut-tuts" and "how dare yous" with this: It's an economic experiment.

You see, while this pool has been going on nearly a year, nobody's hit the number. Not once. In fact, we had to start a second "horseshoes and hand grenades" pool -- where the winner is who ever gets closest to the official jobs added number -- just to keep interest up.

Now our staff here is in the business of following this number and investigating the business conditions going into this number. We've got some pretty sharp minds (present company excluded). Still, no winner.

I'd be pretty depressed about that except for the fact that professional economists can't seem to get the number right either. I'm sure some single, lonely dismal scientist has hit it here or there, but I'm talking the group here, since that's the number that gets floated out to Wall Street. The closest the consensus "guess" compiled by Briefing.com has come lately was August last year. It missed by 6,000 -- close when you consider some of the spectacular misses over the same period (see chart).

Now economists are smart folks. The staff here is pretty smart. But nobody can hit this number. It's too volatile. Some of our writers have just given up and make wild, outlier bets in hopes of just winning the who's-closest pool.

If you are wondering, CNN/Money gamblers are a little better than the economists, according to figures compiled by the keeper of our pool. We underestimate by an average of 13,000, whereas they tend to overestimate by an average of 17,000. But they've been closer than we have 6 out of the last 11 months.

Well, if smart people can't guess the number, then there must be something squirrelly about the number itself. Like it's random. Or measured wrong.

Or just unguessable in today's bizarre world of flat yield curves and jobless recoveries.

I'll update this column after the number comes out Friday morning.

My bet? No winner. (My other bet is 232,000).

Update: The number came in at 207,000. Again, the economists and CNN/Money staff missed it. Sigh.

____________________________________

Allen Wastler is Managing Editor of CNN/Money and appears weekends on CNN's "In the Money." He can be emailed at wastlerswanderings@cnn.com.  Top of page

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