Wall Street hasn't been this unsure about America's jobs market in a long time

The reality of the US jobs market will be dubious for the next few months because of the two tragic hurricanes that slammed Texas and Florida.
When the Bureau of Labour Statistics releases its jobs report for September on Friday, it’s expected to show a significant slowdown in hiring. But the gap in expectations is much wider than normal, as economists wrestle with the impact of the hurricanes.

“This will be the first of several months of employment data that will have an asterisk noting a deviation

from the longer term trend of roughly an 180,000 gain per month,” said Joe Brusuelas, the chief economist at RSM.

Puerto Rico, which was devastated by Hurricane Maria, is not usually counted in the BLS’s monthly payrolls tally.

Here’s what economists are forecasting, via Bloomberg:

  • Nonfarm payrolls: +80,000
  • Unemployment rate: 4.4%
  • Average hourly earnings month-on-month: +0.3%
  • Average hourly earnings year-on-year: +2.5%
  • Average weekly hours worked: 34.4

The economists who come up with these forecasts are widely uncertain about what the next few months will look like. The most optimistic forecast is for 260,000 net new jobs, while the lowest is for a loss of 45,000.

According to UBS, the standard deviation of September payroll forecasts is twice as high as it’s been in the past; it’s far above where it was in the first quarter when it was tricky to estimate the impact of warm winter on jobs growth.

“We think one should not take much signal from either of the next two employment reports,” UBS’s Seth Carpenter said in a preview on Tuesday.

“The Hurricane-effects on the BLS’s measures of employment are likely spread between the reports for September and October, and the BLS is likely working from less information than usual for each of them.”

The BLS said it expects Hurricanes Harvey and Irma to affect job growth, hours worked, and wages. About 6% of the businesses it surveys (23,000 total) are in the affected areas.

But the hurricanes are unlikely to budge the unemployment rate because the BLS counts people as employed as long as they’re paid in the pay period that includes the 12th of the month. That would include people who remained employed even though their offices were destroyed.

So what’s really going on?

The unemployment rate has fallen to a level which many economists associate with full employment, but the number of part-time workers who would rather be full time is much higher than is captured by the official rate.

Although this low rate indicates that competition for workers should be causing pay increases, average hourly earnings have not risen much.

But that’s just one way to look at wage growth. Measured the “right” way, growth is more impressive, according to Rick Rieder, the global chief investment officer of fixed income at BlackRock.

“We’ve hired so many people in this country — lower-income jobs in the last few years,” Rieder said at a media briefing Thursday. “There’s a mix shift that’s taken place” with wages growing at a faster rate for the lowest-paying jobs.

He added that the Atlanta Fed’s wage tracker, which takes out compositional shifts, shows that year-on-year wage growth is 3.5% and rising.

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