Shutdown Might Mean No Jobs Report, But Does It Matter?

The Labor Department made it official this morning. It is postponing the September jobs report because of the partial government shutdown. So, at least for a a while, Wall Street will have to do without its favorite data point. Will the missing report really be a problem? And why didn't the Labor Department just declare the report essential?

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Among the casualties of this week's government shutdown is one pretty big economic indicator. The Labor Department confirmed today that it will not release September's unemployment report tomorrow as scheduled. The Bureau of Labor Statistics, which compiles the report, says it doesn't have enough people on hand to crunch the numbers.

NPR's Jim Zarroli looks at the impact of the decision on the markets.

JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: The monthly unemployment report is arguably the single most important barometer of how the U.S. economy is faring, one that almost always moves the markets in some way. But Labor Department officials said they needed to call off the release of tomorrow's report because of a lapse of funding. In other words, there aren't enough people around to process the numbers.

KATHARINE ABRAHAM: There's three people working at the BLS this week: the commissioner, the deputy commissioner and their associate commissioner for administration. That's it.

ZARROLI: Katharine Abraham, who teaches at the University of Maryland, was BLS commissioner during the government shutdowns of the '90s. Abraham says the Labor Department probably had collected a lot of the data that go into the report by the time the BLS shut down on Tuesday. But, she says, the data often have a lot of anomalies, and dozens of BLS employees typically spend the days before the release of the report going over the numbers to make sure they don't skew the results.

ABRAHAM: So it's not just a mechanical process of here's the data, throw them into the computer, estimates come out the other end. It's actually a more involved process than that.

ZARROLI: Abraham says the payroll survey, which measures the number of new jobs created every month, is especially challenging. Other parts of the report may be further along. For instance, the government may already know what the September unemployment rate is.

Keith Hall was BLS commissioner during the first Obama administration. He says if that's the case, the government should just go ahead and release the numbers it has. Otherwise, there's a risk of a leak.

KEITH HALL: It moves financial markets when the data's released. And when you have this data calculated, there's a real risk of disclosure if a place like BLS sort of sits on the data and holds it for a while.

ZARROLI: Hall, who teaches at George Mason University, says there's precedent for this. During one of the shutdowns of the '90s, the government went ahead and released inflation numbers that had already been compiled. And, Hall says, the Labor Department could do that again.

HALL: BLS could be allowed to let a small group of their employees go ahead and finish up the report and release that report. It wouldn't take that much more work, wouldn't take that much more time.

ZARROLI: Labor Department officials were contacted for this story but didn't respond. If the shutdown drags on, it won't just be the September unemployment numbers that are in doubt. The BLS is supposed to begin surveying the October jobs market within a week. If it can't do that, it will leave a lot of investors and policymakers in the dark. That includes the Federal Reserve. The Fed is trying to decide whether to continue its economic stimulus measures, and it relies heavily on BLS data to make its decision. Jim Zarroli, NPR News.

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