September's Jobs Report May Be the Most Important in Years

On Friday, the U.S. government will release its official report on unemployment for September. It might be the most important employment report in years. Its results will likely have fiscal and monetary policy ramifications for years to come. So how will it look?

But first, why is Friday's report so important? For starters, it's the last measure of unemployment that Americans will see before the midterm elections, which are largely expected to significantly shift the makeup of Congress to the right. The report is also the last one the Federal Reserve will see before it meets again in November, where many expect it will further loosen monetary policy. Finally, the report could play a significant role in how businesses and consumers feel about holiday hiring and spending. More improvement will encourage retailers to ramp up hiring in the expectation of stronger spending, while labor market deterioration will have the opposite effect.

At this point, the measures of September unemployment we've seen don't paint a very clear picture. This morning, the Labor Department reported that initial unemployment claims fell to 445,000 during the week ending October 2nd. During the five weeks of September, they averaged 456,000, which is a decline from the prior four weeks of August when they averaged 487,000. The averages of continuing claims, however, rose slightly by 1,500 to 4,512,250 in September. Extended benefits grew during the month.

Another important indicator is the monthly report from payroll specialist ADP. It surprised economists by showing 39,000 private sector net job losses in September. That was far worse than the 20,000 additional jobs analysts expected. It was also the worst initial estimate by ADP of 2010 so far.

The report (.pdf) from outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc. doesn't help clear things up. It says September layoffs rose 7% from August to 37,151. That's still the second lowest of the year, however.

If you put this all together, it appears to indicate that firms are still very slow to hire, but layoffs aren't increasing much either. Although fewer Americans are losing their jobs, many still remain unemployed. So it's hard to imagine that Friday's big report would indicate a huge decline in private sector jobs, but there's also little indication that much job growth is occurring either.

Feel free to weigh in with your predictions below. But don't forget that temporary Census jobs are still likely to have an effect on the overall jobs number. As many as 82,000 Census job cuts could hit in September, according to the government report for August. So private sector job growth will probably have to exceed that for net job gains, yet firms have only added a net average of 71,500 jobs for last four months.