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Surprise! Shutdown may have pushed jobs numbers higher

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Friday morning's shockingly high payroll numbers might have been boosted by the government shutdown in October.

Payrolls were up 204,000 last month, easily beating expectations and defying predictions that the 16-day shutdown would scare businesses away from hiring.

The Labor Department said that there had been no "discernible" impact on the payroll figures from the 16-day shutdown. But the real story may be that the figures were influenced in the opposite direction from what was expected.

The figures may have been boosted by an unusually high response rate from employers. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says the response rate to whats known as its "establishment survey" was 83.5 percent. That's the highest response rate for the initial survey on record. A year ago the response rate for the initial survey was just 72 percent. Last month it was 79 percent.

The high response rate may be due to the additional time the shutdown afforded employers to respond. Typically data collection would have begun on the 13th of the month. But because the government was shut down, the data collection didn't begin until Oct. 17.

That gave employers 12 and a half days to respond, instead of the usual 10, said Megan Barker, a spokesman for the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

But while the extra data may have made the result more accurate, it didn't overstate the pace of hiring, she said.

"With more data we get closer to the population number so we got a better representation because we did get a larger sample for the month," she said.

Indeed, the high number likely is not some kind of statistical illusion? The delayed numbers may actually be more reliable since they include more responses. In other words, they may be more like a typical secondary or even final release.

This is somewhat confirmed because the October number is very much in line with the revised payroll counts for the prior two months, which were revised up by a total of 60,000 jobs. The picture of the three-month trend is of an economy adding around 200,000 jobs a month, compared with the 170,000 per month of the prior three months.

One thing to note: government employees who were furloughed during the shutdown were counted as employed for this survey because they were still paid despite not working.

—By CNBC's John Carney. Follow him on Twitter @Carney

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