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The days of blockbuster jobs numbers are over, but that's OK

The US Chamber of Commerce in Washington, D.C.
Nicholas Kamm | AFP | Getty Images
The US Chamber of Commerce in Washington, D.C.

Just like the nature of jobs, the nature of the government's monthly employment report is changing.

Likely gone are the days when the labor data took markets by storm with 275,000 or 300,000 monthly gains. In their place is a future of plodding increases where progress will be measured by more arcane gauges of job quality and worker behavior: What's happening with temp agencies? Is the labor force growing or contracting? Is the skills gap narrowing?

Of course, economists always dig through the monthly nonfarm payrolls report and sift out the various factoids. But with the labor market clearly tightening, sweating the details will become all the more important.


"They definitely shouldn't expect 270,000 jobs every month. There can be a month of outlier numbers, but that is not going to be the trend going forward. That is not required at this stage," said Bodhi Ganguli, lead economist at Dun & Bradstreet. Continued high numbers of job creation "would indicate overheating in the economy, and volatility would have to move in line with that."

September's report was the second in a row of sub-200,000 increases, and the sixth such report of 2016. In 2015, there were only three reports below that level.

The paradigm shift, despite being a sign that the jobs market is reaching full employment, may not be so easy for markets to digest. Multiple economists and Federal Reserve officials described September's numbers as a "Goldilocks" report, but the market didn't think so. Stocks sold off, and interest rates on government bonds edged higher as the market digested the report.

Rather than reflecting an economy that is not too hot and not too cold, the report presented more of a mixed bag.

The job creation actually fell below Wall Street estimates, and the unemployment rate moved up a notch to 5 percent. The latter indicator, though, reflected a statistical quirk in which the headline rate can move higher if re-entrants to the labor force outnumber jobs created.

The labor force participation rate in September rose to 62.9 percent, its highest since March, reflecting an influx of 444,000 returning workers and some remaining slack. Wage growth increased but was still fairly muted at a 2.6 percent annualized rate.

Economists believe the level of new jobs required to keep the unemployment rate stable is now trending below 100,000. It's all part of a broader move toward full employment, in which the economy has taken in as many workers as it can under current conditions. The Fed estimates that rate around 4.8 percent, though some economists think it could be lower.

"September's steady but unspectacular employment numbers suggest that the combination of tight labor markets, falling profits and higher wages may slow job growth in the coming months, but the news is not all negative," Brian Schaitkin, senior economist at The Conference Board, said in a statement. "A combination of more confident workers and still risk-averse firms is making it increasingly difficult for businesses to find the right workers at the right price."

What this all means to investors is that the labor market is changing. As the plodding recovery continues, there simply won't be room for gaudy numbers on "Jobs Friday."