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The employment report does not look pretty

Here's how to read it.

Photograph: Getty Images

On the face of it, parts of August’s U.S. employment report, released on September 6th, don’t look too pretty.

Non-farm payrolls increased by a tad less than expected, (but only missed by a paltry 11,000), and there were revisions down totalling 74,000 to the previous two months’ figures, and at first sight the reasons for the drop in the headline level of employment from 7.4 per cent to 7.3 per cent look disappointing, in that the fall was driven by a drop of 312,000 in the labour force seeking work, whilst the numbers of those in work actually declined by only 115,000, but look closer and you discover that the number of people who aren't working, but would like to be, actually collapsed by 334,000 in August! Think about that. What that is telling us is that work patterns are changing-there are more who want to work only part-time and this fall is also evidence of something much more important to the Fed-a structural change in the U.S. economy that implies it is not going to be able to employ as many people, even when it is growing full tilt-maybe the famous, but enormously difficult to measure, output gap, has shrunk.

The so-called Household Survey of employment, which kicks out the headline unemployment rate, is notoriously volatile, when compared to the Establishment Survey from which non-farm payroll changes are calculated.

The above goes part of the way to explain why I feel these figures weren’t weak enough to stop the Fed tapering down its purchases of US Treasuries, (not Mortgage Bonds), at its 18 Sept. meeting. They may lead to a smaller reduction in purchases, but even that may not be the case. Why?

Well, even parts of the Household Survey were positive-average hourly earnings ticked up from flat in July, (initially reported as -0.1 per cent), to +0.2 per cent, and the average workweek increased from 34.4 hours to 34.5. The broader U6 measure of unemployment fell even further, to 13.7 per cent, from 14.0 per cent. Remember, the Fed told us it wouldn’t just look at the headline figure, but that it would drill down into its composition and look at other labour market indicators.

Just as importantly however, (especially given the volatility and margin for error of the employment survey), we have to remember that recently we have been treated to a veritable slew of positive data surprises, including a drop in the 4-week moving average of those making initial jobless claims to 329,000; a new post-recession low. Other good news has come in the shape of better than expected releases for Existing Home sales, Consumer Confidence, Vehicle Sales and, most encouragingly, as they are forward-looking indicators, the Institute of Supply Managers’ surveys of sentiment in both the manufacturing and services sectors.

None of the above should stand in the way of further advances for developed market equities. Yields are normalising for "good" reasons, and the Fed has done a good job in ensuring they don’t surprise us with their first steps towards tightening-this is not a repeat of 1994’s bond market rout.