Private payrolls in the US increased 121,000 in September, well below Econoday.com's consensus forecast for a 175,000 gain. Last month's advance was also dramatically weaker than August's revised surge of 254,000, according to this morning's release from the Labor Dept. Despite the surprisingly softer report, the year-over-year trend ticked up to 2.0%, a two-year high.
The faster annual pace is encouraging, on its face. But keep in mind that the stronger year-over-year change for last month reflects an unusually weak year-ago comparison. In September 2017, private payrolls were virtually flat on a monthly basis, edging up a slight 16,000 - the smallest monthly gain since 2010.
Some analysts advise that Hurricane Florence, which struck the mid-Atlantic states on the East Coast last month, may be a factor. "You really can't put any stock at all in a weak payroll number that comes after a major storm in the survey week," says Thomas Simons, an economist at Jefferies LLC. "There will be displacements, and distortions. I'd expect a solid rebound in the next month," he notes, citing other reports that point to "a very strong labor market."
Jim O'Sullivan at High Frequency Economics agrees. The September data have shown a tendency in recent years to be under-reported initially and revised up later. Storm Florence likely caused some temporary weakness as well."
Nonetheless, short of an extraordinarily strong surge in October employment, it'll be tough for next month's year-over-year trend to hold at the 2.0% mark as the weak September 2017 data falls out of the comparison. A pullback would hardly be a tragedy. Any annual gain in the 1.5-2.0% range, which is likely for the immediate future, would signal continued strength for the labor market and the economy overall.
Indeed, earlier this week, the ADP Employment Report painted a much stronger profile of private-sector job growth in September: companies added 230,000 workers, the biggest monthly rise since February.
"The job market continues to power forward," said Mark Zandi, chief economist of Moody's Analytics, which co-produces the data with ADP. "Employment gains are broad-based across industries and company sizes."
That's a sign that today's official September data from Washington may be revised up in next month's release.
Considering both estimates as one metric suggests that while the labor market may not be accelerating, at least not as fast as ADP's September numbers show, it's still premature to assume that's today's Labor Dept. release is a convincing clue that a worrisome slowdown in job growth has arrived.
Consider that the unemployment rate in September fell to 3.7%, according to today's update. That's the lowest since 1969. Good news, although the low jobless rate may be laying the groundwork for slower job growth in the months ahead as the economy runs out of available workers to hire.
For now, it's reasonable to assume that the labor market is still expanding at a healthy pace. Expecting a return to 2.0%-plus year-over-year gains in the months ahead, however, is probably expecting too much.