The November Jobs Report Disappoints Broadly

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Los Angeles job fair has applicants (Lucy Nicholson/REUTERS)

The monthly report on employment, given out by the Labor Department, is the most important statistic of the month for the White House, the American household and the financial industry. The report released on Friday morning at 8:30 am didn’t disappoint–it is already a big event around the world’s markets–but it did disappoint in its content, delivering just 39,000 non-farm payroll  jobs in the past month. The private sector added only 50,000 jobs. These numbers are way below what financial market participants had expected. They were looking  for a gain of 150,000 non-farm payroll jobs and 160,000 private sector gains. Some of this shortfall is due to seasonal adjustments, but that ‘s only a partial explanation. To add agony to disappointment, the unemployment rate ticked up a bit, from 9.6% to 9.8%.

What’s going  on? The animal spirits that the Fed hoped to whip up with its $600 billion QE2 has run smack into the realities of the financial crisis and the past recession.

The Fed did succeed in whipping up bullish sentiment in the financial markets a few weeks ago, but what it couldn’t change is the sluggish nature of this economic recovery: More than 15 million Americans who want to work are unable to find jobs.

The disappointing jobs numbers are a reminder–a shocking reminder to some– that the recent recession was not typical in any respect. Unlike most recent recessions,  where the Fed raises interest rates to temper demand, this past recession was brought on by over-indebtedness on the part of individuals, financial firms and many governments. With those causes, there is no pent-up demand to unleash at the end of the recession, just skittish consumers, cautious employers and a landscape dotted with many foreclosed homes. Even a bit of good news on Black Friday can’t change that larger reality. Hence, the November jobs report.

What will come from the Friday employment report? The financial markets will readjust to a less bullish scenario–and early reports on Friday suggested that they already were, with Treasuries and gold rising in value and stocks and the dollar taking a hit. In the days ahead cyclical stocks, whether retailers or automakers, may weaken as investors trim their positions. The dollar will likely continue to weaken, though Europe’s banking crisis will probably keep the dollar’s fall modest. Of more consequence, the White House and Congress will get a kick in the pants about extending unemployment benefits (which just expired) and reaching a compromise on tax cuts. Therein lies the silver lining to this dark cloud: While nothing is guaranteed, this latest report increases the odds that Congress, duly frightened, will begin acting in a more  bipartisan fashion. That may be hard to believe in light of recent comments from the Hill, but it could happen.