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October jobs report far better than expected

Published: Saturday, Nov. 9, 2013 9:27 a.m. CDT

WASHINGTON (MCT) - All of a sudden, the American economy is looking very resilient - much more so than experts had thought.

Despite forecasts that job growth would be sapped by the budget impasse and government shutdown, employers in the U.S. stepped up their hiring last month by adding 204,000 new jobs across a wide spectrum of industries.

The increase in payrolls was almost double what many analysts were predicting and immediately triggered speculation that the Federal Reserve would be more prone to start reducing its large bond-buying stimulus program next month.

The Labor Department's report Friday also made substantial upward revisions to job growth for the prior two months, to 163,000 in September and 238,000 in August.

Taken together, the data over the last three months indicate that the American job-creation machine is not sputtering, as some had feared, but is continuing to run at a fairly steady, if moderate, speed.

The unemployment rate, however, edged up to 7.3 percent last month from 7.2 percent in September amid an unusually large drop in the total number of people working or actively looking for jobs - what economists call the labor force.

That data injected a measure of skepticism to an otherwise optimistic report, though analysts noted that survey calculations of the unemployed and the labor force were complicated by the partial government shutdown, which temporarily furloughed hundreds of thousands of employees.

The payroll numbers are based on a much larger, separate sample of employers, not households, and thus are considered more reliable and less volatile from month to month. Labor Department officials said they saw no discernible effect on new jobs stemming from the shutdown. The report counted federal workers on furlough as employed because they were receiving back pay.

Analysts thought job growth in October would have been stronger had there not been the 16-day closure of many federal facilities and operations. Anecdotal reports suggested that some private employers may have put their expansion plans on ice as they awaited greater clarity on the political and economic outlooks.

"If some people did delay their hiring, November could be a pretty strong month" for job gains, said Sophia Koropeckyj, a labor economist at Moody's Analytics in West Chester, Pa.

After Friday's report, Koropeckyj forecast job growth rising to 250,000 a month by the middle of next year. "It's slowly inching up," she said.

Chris Nelson, chief executive of Kemin Industries, a Des Moines maker of nutrition ingredients for the food industry, said the dysfunction in Washington may not touch his company's employment right away but could down the road. Kemin has added 80 employees this year and has 30 openings in the U.S., he said.

"The last charade played out in Washington has, quite frankly, shaken my confidence in any relative credibility and stability of the government," he said.

Even amid such concerns and uncertainty, Kemin and some other companies have kept hiring. The pickup last month came in a broad range of low- and high-paying sectors, including manufacturing, health care, retail and professional services, such as engineering and computer design.

"Perhaps the biggest surprise was the increase of 53,000 jobs in the leisure and hospitality category," which includes restaurants and hotels, said Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington.

"That sector might have been expected to take a hit from the closing of national parks and other government-run tourist destinations," he said. "That doesn't seem to have been the case."

The latest jobs report is likely to boost confidence in an economy that has been difficult to read lately.

Earlier this week, officials said economic growth in the third quarter improved to a solid 2.8 percent annual rate, from 2.5 percent in the prior quarter, but that was largely because of a bigger-than-expected restocking of goods. Both consumer spending and business investment growth slowed in the third quarter.

Measures of retail activity in October have largely exceeded expectations, and holiday sales and hiring are projected to rise above last year's levels.

Yet Main Street isn't enjoying the party on Wall Street, where the Dow Jones industrial average soared to a new high Friday. Consumer confidence, as tracked by the University of Michigan and Thomson Reuters, fell this month to its lowest level in nearly two years, the survey group said Friday.

And while housing prices are recovering, many workers have yet to see substantial wage gains. The Labor Department report Friday said average hourly earnings rose just 2 cents last month, to $24.10, after increasing by 3 cents in September.

Analysts pointed out that the economy, after nearly four years of recovery, still needs to create 1.5 million jobs to make up the 8.7 million that were lost between late 2007 and early 2010.

The number of unemployed last month stood at more than 11 million, and that doesn't include many who had dropped out of the job market because they could not find adequate work or were too discouraged. Nearly 4 out of 10 of the officially unemployed have been without work for more than six months - double the percentage before the recession.

At the October pace of job creation, "it will still take five years to get back to the pre-recession unemployment rate of 5 perccent," said labor economist Heidi Shierholz at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington.

Still, Shierholz was pleasantly surprised by the strength of Friday's report, saying the underlying trend of job growth now looks more like 200,000 a month than 150,000 a month.

"It's not gangbusters, but it's better," she said.

(c)2013 Tribune Co. Distributed by MCT Information Services

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