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Without Key Jobs Data, Markets And Economists Left Guessing

Stock investors and business journalists unite each month for one shared, suspenseful moment — the 8:30 a.m. release of the Labor Department's employment report.

The unveiling of the report — so rich with data on job creation, unemployment, wages and hours — can be counted upon to set off a tsunami of tweets. Economists jump in with instant analysis and politicians fire off press releases with reactions.

That market-moving report was due this Friday.

But it won't come out — leaving Federal Reserve policymakers, investors and job seekers scratching their heads about labor-market conditions.

Because of the federal government's partial shutdown, the Labor Department is not releasing its most closely watched report. "An alternative release date has not been scheduled," the Labor Department said Thursday.

Economists will have to try reading tea leaves — or at least examining less-reliable private reports — to get a sense of what the job market did in September.

"You hate to have data delayed because that creates uncertainty," said John Canally, an economist for LPL Financial, a Boston-based financial services firm. Not getting that jobs report "deprives the markets of important information," he said.

Among economists, the monthly jobs report, compiled by the Labor Department's Bureau of Labor Statistics, is considered a "gold standard" report. It has a long history and a broad reach, including information from both employers and members of households.

On Thursday, economists did get one government-generated report with the release of data on initial claims for unemployment compensation. The first-time claims increased by 1,000 to a seasonally adjusted 308,000 last week. Economists had forecast 314,000 new claims would be filed, so the report suggests the job market was a bit stronger than most people had thought.

That report, based on state data, may continue to be published throughout the shutdown. Unfortunately for economists, other reports from the BLS and Commerce Department will go dark for the duration. For example, on Tuesday, Commerce failed to issue its usual construction spending report. Next Tuesday, it will not be able to release its scheduled international trade report unless the shutdown ends.

The loss of such reports is particularly damaging to investor confidence at a time when the Fed is considering a major policy shift, according to Robbert van Batenburg, market strategist for Newedge, a global financial services firm based in Paris.

For years, the Fed has been holding down interest rates, waiting for signs that the economy is improving. The time for that policy shift is just about now.

But exactly when the Fed will change direction will depend on the strength of the job market. Investors are aware of "the data dependency of the Fed, and the Fed leans toward using government data," van Batenburg said.

Translation: When we all know the Fed is using BLS data to set policy, then we're all on the same page.

If the Fed starts relying on information from less reliable sources, then things will get even more confusing for investors trying to guess what Fed policymakers are thinking.

Even worse, the loss of key government reports means Fed officials are more likely to make a bad call about the direction of the economy, he said. "The more data you have across the spectrum, the better your decision-making," he said.

Still, if the shutdown lasts only a short while, investors and economists will be able to make their forecasts with the help of private reports. The monthly ADP National Employment Trends report, for example, offers an assessment of private-sector jobs issued by the payroll-processing company. On Wednesday, ADP said the private sector created 166,000 jobs in September.

That report is not as complete as the BLS monthly snapshot, which counts government workers such as firefighters and teachers, but it's becoming widely followed as a supplement to the government data.

On Thursday, another closely watched private report was issued. The outplacement firm Challenger, Gray and Christmas said companies announced plans for 40,289 layoffs in September. That's 20 percent fewer job cuts than in August.

Other reports that carry weight among economists include: Standard and Poor's Case-Shiller U.S. National Home Home Price Index; Markit's Purchasing Purchasing Managers' Index; the International Council of Shopping Centers and Goldman Sachs Retail Chain Stores Sales Index; the Institute for Supply Management's Manufacturing ISM index and the Conference Board's Consumer Confidence Index.

"In the short term, you can live without the government reports," van Batenburg said. But over time, the loss of the best data will erode confidence that the Fed policymakers and investment advisers are making informed judgments. "It all depends on the duration of the shutdown," he said.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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