Will the nation's unemployment rate stay below 8 percent through Election Day?
Friday's employment report for the month of October will contain the answer. Set for release at 8 a.m., it will be the final report card on the U.S. hiring landscape for the election season. Politicos will be looking for a sharp movement either way, but especially for a reversal of the surprising gain seen in the September report.
At the time, the Labor Department said unemployment had dropped three-tenths of a percentage point to 7.8 percent, a sharp decline that brought the jobless rate to its lowest level since Barack Obama was sworn in as president in January 2009.
But the good news of a monthly jobs report only last 30 days, when it is supplanted by the latest numbers. With Friday's report, Gov. Mitt Romney will be looking for ammunition in his argument that President Obama's economic policies aren't working fast enough to jumpstart hiring.
A return to 8-percent unemployment could give Romney's campaign a boost. Should the unemployment rate climb back to 8 percent, it would be the largest increase in the unemployment rate since November 2010, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Politics aside, Friday's employment report will be the biggest economic news of a week that has brought mostly positive indicators. A national reading of consumer confidence out Thursday hit an four-year high, and a rebounding housing market helped lift construction spending to a three-year high in September. But a manufacturing index for October continues to reflect a slow pace of economic growth.
While the Institute for Supply Management index reading of 51.7 is high enough to suggest the economy continues to expand, it is well below the 53 reading recorded in June, according to a Wells Fargo analysis.
The unemployment rate may get the most attention politically, but economists tend to put more faith in the monthly payroll numbers. Last month, the report showed employers added a modest 114,000 jobs. That's a preliminary number, and will be revised in Friday's report. Analysts expect October brought an additional 125,000 payroll positions. Anything above or below that number will mean more ammunition for one campaign's economic argument.
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