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Market's Expectations for April Jobs Report Are Low

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The bar is low for the April jobs report.

The government's monthly employment report is expected to show improvement over March but still deliver a fairly weak picture of job growth when it is released Friday at 8:30 a.m. ET. Economists expect to see 145,000 nonfarm payrolls added in April, and the unemployment rate steady at 7.6 percent, after March's disappointing 88,000 payrolls, according to Thomson Reuters.

But markets are already looking for a lower number, and traders say whisper numbers range anywhere from 110,000 to 130,000. Some of the issues are seasonal, and some may be weather-related due to the cold, snowy spring. But there should also be impact from government budget cuts, and a big factor is expected to be the reluctance of employers to hire in a slowing economy.

"I think April should be better than March, but 150,000 is roughly where we think things are going to be," said Goldman Sachs Chief U.S. economist Jan Hatzius. "The economy isn't growing that fast." Hatzius expects to see that level of job growth for several months before the economy picks up.

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Mark Zandi, Moody's Economy.com chief economist, has a lower assessment of job growth, at just 120,000. "I don't expect any substantive improvement in employment until later in the year. I think it's going to go sideways for the next six months," he said.

"We will downshift for the next six months, as we get through the sequester, health care and tax-increase effects," said Zandi. "The fiscal headwinds are blowing really hard, and it's hard for me to see how this doesn't do some damage to the job market."

The public sector lost an estimated 20,000 jobs in April, including from state and local governments, according to Diane Swonk, chief economist at Mesirow Financial. The "sequester," or automatic budget cuts that hit all departments of the federal government, and especially defense, has sent a ripple across the economy.

"We lost some jobs, and got some employment cuts, but there was mostly collateral damage in the private sector for the sequester, not so much the government sector," she said. Swonk expects a total of 140,000 nonfarm payrolls for April. "The numbers get bigger as we get to May and June."

Swonk also expects another wave of teacher layoffs at the end of the school year. "I think we've got to get through June. I think we'll see some better news as we get into July and August, but I think we're also going to lose some educators. The pink slips are coming through," she said.

Zandi said the shortened hours of workers furloughed due to cutbacks at government contractors could show up in the April report. He is also watching to see if there is any support of anecdotal evidence that employers are cutting back workers' hours so they would not have to pay health care under the new law.

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"I think the key statistic to watch is hours worked. It was the one piece of encouraging data in last month's report. If health care were having an impact you think it would show up in hours worked," said Zandi.

The average workweek increased in March by 0.1 to 34.6 hours.

One silver lining in recent data is that jobless claims have shown improvement, indicating employers are not broadly cutting back on workers. Weekly unemployment claims fell by 18,000 to 324,000 for the week ended April 27, the lowest since January, 2008. That is the second week of decline. Importantly, the survey week for the April employment report did not see an improvement in claims, so the recent numbers are not a factor for the monthly number.

"I would expect claims to start rising again in the near future. I do expect the economy to slow, and it already is because of the fiscal headwinds," Zandi said. He also expects companies to sit on the sidelines for a while. "That's kind of their MO. It's not like they increase layoffs. They just pull back on hiring and they don't feel like filling jobs."

How the markets will react to the number has yet to be seen, after two days of high volatility, on the downside for stocks after the Fed meeting, and on the upside after the European Central Bank cut rates.

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As for stocks, "They don't have an anchor point here so it'd just tough to tell," said Art Cashin, director of floor operations at UBS. "It depends where the money flows and some of its carry trades."

In the bond market, yields rose Thursday as stocks rallied. "We certainly do care what the Fed thinks about the jobs report. If the unemployment rate is down because of a drop in the participation rate, then that's not a worry," said David Ader, chief Treasury strategist at CRT Capital. "Whatever tomorrow brings, if it's another soft number — 120,000 or a bit lower — we are seeing this spring stall, which we have seen several times in the last few years and it's very consistent. We'll probably buy into that."

Besides the jobs report, there is ISM nonmanufacturing data and factory orders, both at 10 a.m.

  • Patti Domm

    Patti Domm is CNBC Executive Editor, News, responsible for news coverage of the markets and economy.

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