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Jobs data should be strong, will jar market if not

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Economists expect a steady pace of job growth of about 200,000 in September, but if there's a miss that would spark market fears that the economy is slowing down and the Fed was right to hold off on a September rate hike.

The September employment report is the last jobs number the Fed will see before it meets Oct. 28, so traders are giving it extra weight. The Fed is not expected to raise rates in October, and the market sees a less-than-50 percent chance it will hike in October. But Fed officials have made clear they want to raise rates this year, and many economists still expect to see a December rate hike.

The Fed has said it will base its decision on the economic data though it did caution that it held off in September because of international developments, meaning a slowing China and its possible impact on the economy. According to Thomson Reuters, the consensus is for job growth of 203,000, compared to 173,000 last month, and an unemployment rate unchanged at 5.1 percent.

Job seekers wait in line to meet with representatives during a weekly job fair event in Dallas on Sept. 2, 2015.
Laura Bukman | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Mesirow Financial chief economist Diane Swonk expects to see 220,000 payrolls, a 5.1 percent unemployment rate and wage growth of 0.2 percent. She expects the Fed to hike rates in December.

"They (the Fed) already think we're getting close on employment," she said. "If you get a little bit of wage acceleration that would give them a little more confidence." She said the Fed wants to move ahead on a rate hike, the first in nine years. "The Fed is also just very concerned even though markets have been volatile. Are they feeding bubbles?"

Traders were rattled Thursday when ISM manufacturing data came in at 50.2, below the 50.6 expected and just above 50, the number that divides expansion and contraction in the sector. But that was offset by a jump in construction spending and a 10-year high in the pace of September vehicle sales.

"ISM is softer but it's still above 50," said Arthur Bass, of COEX Partners. "It's getting back toward the flip over, and Chicago PMI did flip over. … The Fed may have missed its window for tightening which is why we're seeing all these 'Fed on hold through 2016' bets being made in the euro dollar market."

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Art Cashin, director of floor operations at UBS, said there was some market talk that the September nonfarm payrolls could be weaker. A weak number would be negative of stocks. "If it's a bad number, they'll figure that puts the Fed further on hold, and may mean the economy is more vulnerable. I think the real problem is numbers like the ISM and regional ISM have all been dreadful," he said.

Swonk said both the ISM number and weaker exports suggest weakness related to China's slowdown. While U.S. trade exposure to China is not great, she said 29 countries from Australia to Chile and South Korea all count on China for more than 20 percent of their exports.

"It looks like GDP is coming in at 1.7 percent and that's not good. That suggests you could have a slowdown in employment later in the fourth quarter. What we're seeing right now is the residual of a really good consumer. Exports are down, exports are weak. We were seeing the slowdown of China before we knew it," she said.

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Challenger, Gray and Christmas on Thursday reported that the number of announced layoffs jumped to 58,877, a 43 percent increase in August. Companies announcing layoffs recently include Hewlett-Packard, Wal-Mart, Caterpillar and Conagra.

"It's interesting that we are beginning to see some big layoff announcements this year," said Challenger CEO John Challenger. "One of the things you start to see as you get near the end of a period of expansion, but before it really turns, is you start to see major layoffs occurring, big mega-layoffs like we're seeing now."

At the same time, weekly jobless claims are sending good signals for the job market. They were 277,000 Thursday, the 30th week below 300,000, and at the lowest four-week rate in 15 years.

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Stephen Stanley, chief economist at Amherst Pierpont, expects 190,000 jobs and he, too, sees wage growth at 0.2 percent. He said that could take the year-over-year pace to 2.4 percent, its best rate since 2009.

"To me, the labor market right now is pretty rock solid. The pace of job growth is a little slower than it was last year, in large part because it was harder to find work," he said. "There are some sectors of the economy — manufacturing and oil and gas — that are softer. In general, labor demand is strong."

Stanley said the jobs number should help push the Fed to raise rates. "We've seen so much improvement in the labor market that the Fed has not reacted to. … The fact they held off in September, I understand they were a little skittish. I think the market action since the September meeting demonstrates they made a mistake. They managed to stoke fears in the market about what the Fed knows."

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