Hurricane Harvey is going to make it harder to gauge the US jobs market

The Bureau of Labour Statistics stressed Friday that Hurricane Harvey had “no discern able effect” on the August jobs report. It had conducted the survey for the report during the week of the 12th, before the storm made landfall in Texas. 

But the economic impact of what could be the costliest storm in US history is set to start showing up soon.

“It’s going to be more difficult in the next two months to gauge the jobs market,” said Carl Tannenbaum, the chief economist at Northern Trust.

“The data is going to be very noisy.”

One of the earliest indicators of the impact of Harvey would likely be in weekly initial filings for unemployment claims. Jobless claims, which have held under 300,000 since March 2015, could spike in the coming weeks as Texans seek the government’s assistance.

There could also be a subtraction from the headline number of nonfarm payrolls in the coming months, although some economists expect it to be muted and fairly localised to Texas. The August jobs report did show a slowdown in the overall pace of job creation after a strong start to the summer, although, again, it was not linked to Harvey.

 “While Houston is one of our largest cities, it represents a relatively small fraction of the overall population of the US,” said Cathy Barrera, the chief economist at ZipRecruiter. It held about 0.7% of the US population in a 2016 Census Bureau estimate. “That being said, if we zoomed in on that region, we could certainly see unemployment pick up there.

Seth Carpenter, an economist at UBS, estimates that employment would fall by about 10,000 in September, followed by a 30,000 rise in October. 

“It would be important to watch over the coming weeks what happens to the individuals and the families whose homes were flooded there,” Barrera said. After Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, some people who were displaced had to move rather far away from their homes. Many actually ended up in Houston, and the population of New Orleans has since not recovered (although the pace of population growth has), Barrera said.

“So many people left the area that employers had a hard time finding labour, so wages actually went up in the area,” Barrera said. It’s still too soon to say whether that would happen in Houston because of fewer workers, or whether businesses would struggle to reopen and so would create fewer jobs.

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