To say the October payrolls report will be closely watched across the world would be an understatement. It'll be monumental.
After Friday's release, Federal Reserve policy makers will have only one more jobs report in hand — the November data — before their final meeting of the year on Dec. 15-16. That's when they may decide on the first interest-rate hike in almost a decade. A couple soft payrolls performances could prompt the Fed to keep the rate near zero, where it's been since 2008.
"Their case for whether or not to go in December could be made or lost with the October employment report," said Ryan Sweet, a senior economist at Moody’s Analytics Inc.
America's jobs engine sputtered in August and September amid financial-market turmoil and concern that a hard landing in China could spill over into emerging economies. The key question is: Was that weakness in hiring temporary, or the start of a downshift? Last month's report may hold the answer.
Here's what to look for when the Labor Department's figures are released on Friday at 8:30 a.m. in Washington:
Employers probably added about 180,000 workers in October, according to the median forecast in a Bloomberg survey of economists. With September's 142,000 gain and August's 136,000 increase, the average for those two months was only 139,000. In the first half of this year, the average was 213,000. It was 260,000 for all of 2014, which was the best year for hiring since 1999.
So revisions matter, more than ever, and many economists expect to find better readings on the prior two months.
"The book is far from closed on the last few months,"' said Conrad DeQuadros, senior economist at RDQ Economics. "It's not clear that the labor market actually did slow down."
One of the Fed's preconditions for raising rates is "some further improvement" in the labor market. Fed officials said in October that they'd consider a rate increase at their next gathering, and Fed Chair Janet Yellen this week reinforced the view by saying December was a "live possibility."
The median forecast in the Bloomberg survey calls for the unemployment rate to fall to 5 percent, the lowest since April 2008. It's inching closer to the 4.9 percent rate that Fed officials consider consistent with full employment, or the level below which inflation pressures start to build.
The unemployment rate may be understating how much slack remains in the labor market. Yellen has said she watches measures such as part-time workers who would prefer full-time jobs, as well as the participation rate, which shows the share of working-age people in the labor force.
"The unemployment rate continues to drift lower," said Sweet, who reckons monthly payroll gains of about 100,000 may be enough to absorb new entrants into the labor force and keep the jobless rate steady. "If other measures of labor-market underutilization continue to improve, then I think the Fed's going to feel comfortable on the job-market front."
With all eyes on the October payrolls number and prior months' revisions, wages may garner a tad less attention this time, although they'll certainly be monitored. Job-market watchers have been frustrated as a significant pickup in worker pay has been elusive.
Average hourly earnings have been stuck in a narrow range around 2 percent since the expansion began in June 2009. The Bloomberg survey median forecast calls for a 2.3 percent advance in the 12 months ended in October, which would be the strongest reading since May, after three months of 2.2 percent gains.
"Wages are a bit on the back burner for now," said Sam Bullard, senior economist at Wells Fargo Securities LLC. Even with the projected increase for last month, "it's not dramatically different from the trend. Wages are still pretty tame."