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U.S. President Barack Obama smiles as he speaks during a campaign rally in Fairfax, Virginia October 5, 2012. The unemployment rate dropped to a near four-year low of 7.8 per cent in September, a potential boost to U.S. President Barack Obama's re-election bid. (KEVIN LAMARQUE/REUTERS)
U.S. President Barack Obama smiles as he speaks during a campaign rally in Fairfax, Virginia October 5, 2012. The unemployment rate dropped to a near four-year low of 7.8 per cent in September, a potential boost to U.S. President Barack Obama's re-election bid. (KEVIN LAMARQUE/REUTERS)

Today's U.S. jobs report will become backdrop for election finale Add to ...

If not for the small matter of who will lead the world’s largest economy next year, Friday’s U.S. jobs numbers likely would be met with a shrug.

The trajectory of the economy appears to be set.

The Federal Reserve plans to keep interest rates low until well into 2015 because that’s how long most policy makers think it will take to get the unemployment rate down to a rate closer to the trend rate of 5.5 per cent or so.

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The most recent data suggest the Fed is right.

It’s going to be a steady, but slow, climb out of the pit left by the Great Recession.

The consensus on Wall Street is that when the Labor Department’s October survey is released at 8:30 a.m. Washington time, the report will show non-farm employers added 125,000 positions, compared with 114,000 in September, barely enough to stay ahead of population changes.

Economists will get excited when that number climbs above 200,000, which happened for three consecutive months through February. Politicians, on the other hand, will get excited no matter the outcome. The campaign for the White House has revolved around the strength of the economy, and the October jobs numbers will become the backdrop for its finale.

Last month, the Labor Department reported the unemployment rate dropped to 7.8 per cent from 8.1 per cent in August, the first reading below 8 per cent since the first month of Barack Obama’s presidency. 

The jobless rate, which is determined by a separate survey of households, rarely falls that much in one month. The data were quirky; for example, there was a surge in employment by 20-somethings, which could be related to temporary hiring for the election campaign. Few expect a repeat in October. The Wall Street consensus, according to Royal Bank of Canada, is for an unemployment rate of 7.9 per cent.

The Obama campaign probably could live with that. The president could spend his final days telling voters that he successfully reversed a jobless rate that peaked at 10 per cent. However perverse, Republicans and their candidate, Mitt Romney, surely are hoping the unemployment rate popped back above 8 per cent, which might create the impression the economy is stuck in a bad place. Few sitting presidents have won re-election without obvious signs of economic momentum.

Neil Irwin of the Washington Post observed Thursday that the last three times the unemployment rate fell 0.3 percentage points or more in a single month, it declined again in the following month. He also observed that the additional 872,000 people who the household survey said found work in October is out of whack with the number of people that businesses said they added. Something has to give.

Another obscure way to gauge underlying strength in the U.S. labour market is to watch income tax payments, which the Treasury Department releases daily.

The data have the advantage of being based on hard cash, rather than estimates with wide margins of error. In September, the Treasury collected almost $4-billion (U.S.) in personal income taxes, about $1-billion more than the same month a year earlier. Last month, the Treasury received individual income taxes of $1.4-billion, compared with $1-billion in October 2011.

But again, those figures suggest steady, unspectacular employment gains. We know how the Fed responded after accepting that reality in September: Its third extraordinary bond-buying program since the start of the financial crisis. We’ll find out what American voters want to do about the new normal on Nov. 6.

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