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Keeping The Biggest Secret In The U.S. Economy

In one part of the BLS offices, a supervisor rings this bell to let employees know that it is officially 8:30 AM. (Bureau of Labor Statistics)

The single most important number in the U.S. economy comes out on the first Friday of each month at 8:30 a.m. That's when the government reports how many jobs were added or gained in the previous month.

The number moves markets, and economists and traders around the world wait anxiously to see what it will be. If you found out early what the number was going to be, you could make a fortune.

The government knows this, of course, and officials take extreme precautions to make sure that no one finds out early.

I visited the Bureau of Labor Statistics recently and talked to Megan Barker, an economist who works on the jobs report. But I couldn't visit her office: Unless you have business inside Barker's office, there is no getting in.

The maintenance crew doesn't collect trash in the days leading up to a release. The IT department is also kept away. Computer problems? Tough luck.

So what exactly is going on that's so top secret? Inside, economists are sifting through data from thousands of employers and people around the country. Each month, the BLS surveys about 140,000 businesses and government agencies.

Don't even think about asking these economists who's on the list. They won't say.

The end result are the numbers that tell us how many jobs the U.S. economy added or lost the previous month — the number Wall Street is watching so closely.

Barker and a handful of other people know it by Tuesday — but they are under strict rules not to tell anyone.

"We keep it very secret," Barker says. "I know my parents ask me every Tuesday, 'So what do you think?' And I'm like, 'Well, what do you think?' So I even have to be secretive with my parents."

Barker and her colleagues have to keep this secret until 8:30 a.m. on the day of the release.

Journalists standing by at the Labor Department get the numbers a half hour early, but they can't talk about them until precisely 8:30 a.m.

That can mean waiting through several long seconds of dead air, as CNBC's Hampton Pearson did during December's release.

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CNBC's Hampton Pearson waits for the bell.
Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now, every month at this time, money managers and traders around the world wait for those unemployment numbers released by the government's Bureau of Labor Statistics. In the run up to their release, that bureau becomes less like a standard government office and more like something out of a spy movie. Here's Caitlin Kenney of NPR's Planet Money team.

CAITLIN KENNEY, BYLINE: When these numbers come out, they move financial markets. Mike Shea works on Wall Street at Direct Access Partners. His company trades for big pension funds, hedge funds, and mutual funds. He says on the morning of a release, everyone in his office is staring at their computer screens, waiting for the numbers to appear.

MIKE SHEA: I will be watching as closely as I can. I will be, as a client of mine says, we will be aggressively watching.

KENNEY: Shea says after the numbers appear, billions of dollars are traded in just the first 30 minutes. There's so much at stake. Just imagine if you knew what the numbers were going to be before the official release, before anyone else.

SHEA: Look, if the market's going to go down two percent in ten seconds, and you sell before everybody else does, then you've just made a lot of money.

CAITLIN KENNY, BYLINE: How much money could you make?

SHEA: I guess it would depend on how much money that you could put to work. If you had millions or billions, I suppose you could make millions or billions.

KENNY: The Bureau of Labor Statistics knows this, so they do everything possible to keep these numbers locked up until the official release. Their security precautions are clear from the moment you set foot inside their office. I came here to talk to a BLS economist named Megan Barker, but when I asked to see her office...

MEGAN BARKER: I can't let someone who doesn't have the right clearance in.

KENNY: What if I didn't have the microphone, could I go in?

BARKER: No.

KENNY: And it's not just me who can't go in. Karen Casanovich(ph) her co-worker, another economist, it's a no-go for her too.

KAREN CASANOVICH: I'm not allowed in Megan's office suite at this moment.

BARKER: Even with 1500 people in here, not everyone has access to our suite, and even people within our suite, don't have access to certain parts of our suite. So that's just the level of defense.

KENNY: Did you catch that? The first level of defense. The ladies explained to me that Megan's office suite is under lockdown. Unless you have related work inside, there's no getting in. It's not just Megan's office. The maintenance crew doesn't collect trash in the days leading up to a release. The IT department is also kept away. Computer problems? Tough luck. So what exactly is going on in there that's so top secret?

Inside, economists are sifting through data from thousands of employers and people around the country. Each month the BLS surveys about 140,000 businesses and government agencies, but don't even think about asking these economists who's on the list. Is the BLS in it? I mean, are you part of the data?

BARKER: Can I say that?

CASANOVICH: Who is and who isn't in the survey is not something we can comment on.

KENNY: Megan Barker's office puts out the numbers that tell us how many jobs the U.S. economy added or lost in the previous months. This is a number that Wall Street is watching really closely. She and a handful of other people know it by Tuesday, but they're under strict rules not to tell anyone.

BARKER: We keep it very secret. I know my parents ask me every Tuesday, so what do you think? I'm like, well, what do you think? So, I mean, I even have to be secretive with my parents.

KENNY: Megan and her colleagues have to keep this secret until 8:30 AM on the day of the release. Journalists who stand by at the Labor Department can get the numbers a half hour early, but they can't talk about them until precisely 8:30 AM, even if it means sitting there for several long seconds of dead air.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS PROGRAM)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 1: CNBC's Hampton Pearson joins us now from the Labor Department with the numbers. Mr. Hampton.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 2: Four, three, two, one.

HAMPTON PEARSON: Up 200,000. December non-foreign payrolls increased by 200,000 jobs.

KENNY: That was CBNC's Hampton Pearson covering December's release, and that was a Labor Department employee you heard in the background. He was counting down the seconds until Hampton Pearson was allowed to speak. Caitlin Kenny, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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