SAN FRANCISCO/ WASHINGTON, Oct 4 (Reuters) - Last month's slowdown in U.S. jobs growth may be a sign weakness in manufacturing is spreading to the broader economy, or it could simply reflect an expected downshift in a fundamentally healthy labor market.
What it is not is a watershed moment as Federal Reserve policymakers weigh where next with interest rates.
"While not everyone fully shares economic opportunities and the economy faces some risks, overall it is as I like to say in a good place," Fed Chair Jerome Powell said in brief remarks in Washington. "Our job is to keep it there as long as possible."
Powell and his top lieutenants, Vice Chair Richard Clarida and New York Fed President John Williams, have repeatedly used similar phrasing to describe the economy and the Fed's role, as Fed policymakers delivered rate cuts in both July and September, despite opposition to the move from several of their number.
Friday's jobs report, which showed the unemployment rate fell to a 50-year low but wage growth barely budged, clearly had not shifted Powell's view.
Traders of rate futures were quick to judge the Fed would stay on track for at least one more interest-rate cut this year. But they also pared bets on a fourth rate cut in 2019 that they had piled into earlier in the week after data showed factory activity was contracting and growth in the massive U.S services sector was slowing.
As Fed policymakers sift through the economic data ahead of their next interest-rate setting meeting Oct. 29-30, they remain divided as they assess the downside risks of trade disputes and of geopolitical tensions to the economic outlook. September's rate cut drew three dissents of 10 votes; at least two non-voters have since said they too disagreed with the decision.
Part of the problem is that, as with Friday's jobs report, the data are not sending a crystal clear message.
Policymakers are "wrestling with" figuring out if the U.S. economy is headed for a "soft landing" or a "steep decline," Atlanta Fed President Raphael Bostic said during a moderated discussion at Tulane University in New Orleans.
Prolonged U.S. trade tensions with China are causing some businesses to sit "on the sidelines" and have the potential to affect consumers, he said. Still, he projects that the economy will grow above-trend in 2019, lifted by a tight labor market with an unemployment rate at 3.5%.
"There are lots of reasons to be optimistic about this economy," Bostic said. "But also we need to recognize that there's a lot of uncertainty out there."
KEEPING AN OPEN MIND
Bostic's counterpart at the Boston Fed, Eric Rosengren, who opposed the central bank's two rate cuts this year, said he too was parsing the data, and had an "open mind" on policy ahead.
U.S. employment growth was getting to what he "would expect in kind of a stable economy," Rosengren told CNBC in an interview. "I think the bigger question is whether it ends up being weaker from here and that depends importantly on what happens on the consumer side of the economy."
The Labor Department report Friday showed the unemployment rate fell to 3.5% last month as U.S. employers added 136,000 jobs, down from 168,000 jobs created in August but still plenty to keep up with labor market growth.
Rosengren said he is attentive to whether slowing global growth and trade tensions begin to have broader effects on the U.S economy, but that so far though tariffs and trade uncertainty has slowed exports and manufacturing, the consumer continues to buy goods, including cars.
"We still have more data between now and when the meeting actually occurs."
Analysts for their part largely ratified the rate-futures view of the takeaway from the data so far
"Given the mounting global growth concerns and worrisome forward-looking indicators, we believe it would have taken a much stronger number to convince Fed leadership that they have already taken out enough insurance against downside risks," JP Morgan economist Michael Feroli told investors in a note.
Minneapolis Fed President Neel Kashkari, who has wanted the Fed to make bigger rate cuts in part to aid the pocketbooks of regular Americans, on Friday said monetary policy had a "huge role to play" in keeping the labor market strong.
"The benefits (of a tight labor market) are amazing, and we somehow have to keep it going," he said.
(With reporing by Jonnelle Marte in New York; Additional reporting by Gertrude Chavez-Dreyfuss and Lucia Mutikani, Editing Chizu Nomiyama and Andrea Ricci)