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The U.S. labour market is at least as weak as it was four years ago, just before the world's largest economy shed jobs for 25 consecutive months.

Shockingly, the U.S. payrolls were unchanged in August, according to a preliminary reading released Friday by the Labour Department.

This redefines the economic narrative. The Wall Street consensus was for an increase of 65,000 jobs. That number is weak, but indicative of the notion that the U.S. economy is muddling along. Stagnant jobs growth is something weaker than muddling.

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The White House -- as it always does -- will caution investors and voters to resist making too much of one month's data. Fair enough. In August, employment in the information industry lost 48,000 positions, reflecting a strike at Verizon Communications Inc. that has since ended.

But that does little to mask the trend. Hiring in July and August was revised lower. The U.S. economy has now failed to create enough positions to keep up with natural changes in the size of the labor force for four consecutive months.

You can also look at the trend this way. The U.S. economy began that two-year stretch of job destruction in February, 2008. In the preceding four months, the payrolls increased by a monthly average of 79,000 jobs.

Over the four months through August, American employers added 39,500 workers. Even if you correct for the Verizon strike -- and for the sake of argument put those 48,000 information workers back in the mix -- U.S. payrolls would have increased only by an average 51,500 per month.

The White House is correct to concentrate on the trend. And that's precisely why President Barack Obama's economic speech next Thursday had better be a good one.

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About the Author
Senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation

Kevin Carmichael is a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation, based in Mumbai.Previously, he was Report on Business's correspondent in Washington. He has covered finance and economics for a decade, mostly as a reporter with Bloomberg News in Ottawa and Washington. A native of New Brunswick's Upper St. More

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