The countdown is on: The latest jobs report is coming Friday, and with markets roiled by Brexit and hints of a slowdown in the U.S., the short-term stakes are even higher than normal.
Markets are looking to the number to tell whether last month's dismal 38,000-job gain was a fluke, and whether the U.S. economy is on the path to full employment as economists said previously.
The Labor Department is expected to report 170,000 new jobs during June, according to the median estimate in a Dow Jones survey of forecasters. The most obvious part of the gain will be the return to work of 35,000 strikers at Verizon Communications who were counted last month as unemployed, and who returned to work in late May, after the survey on which that month's jobs report was based.
"The anticipation level heading into this is higher than it's been for years,'' said Jim O'Sullivan, chief economist at High Frequency Economics, who expects the Labor Department to report 210,000 new jobs, a total buoyed by the returning strikers.
The biggest question for stock markets in the second half of the year is what the U.S. economy is really up to, followed by shocks from offshore markets and the residual prospect that the Federal Reserve might raise interest rates, which futures prices suggest will not happen again until mid-2017.
Most of the recent U.S. data has actually been fairly good, suggested John Canally, LPL Financial's chief economic strategist. June's Institute of Supply Managers manufacturing and non-manufacturing surveys each handily beat expectations. Projections for second-quarter growth in gross domestic product, which slumped to 1.4% in 2015's fourth quarter and 1.1% in the first quarter of this year, are expected to rebound to nearly 3% in the second quarter, Maki said.
Consumers are doing most of the lifting, as business investment growth remains mediocre, hurting investment-dependent companies like Dow Jones Industrial Average members Boeing (BA - Get Report) and Caterpillar (CAT - Get Report) .
New-home sales are up 6.4% year-to-date and May existing home sales rose 1.8% to an annual pace of more than 5.5 million, the best in nine years. June auto sales came off their record recent pace, but remain solid.
There's no sign yet that any May hiring slowdown, reflecting the weak first-quarter growth with a lag, has scared consumers into spending less at retailers like Walmart (WMT - Get Report) or Kohl's (KSS - Get Report) .
Also, travel spending remained strong at sites like Expedia (EXPE - Get Report) and Priceline (PCLN) , at least before the Brexit vote, and high hotel occupancy has bolstered Marriott International (MAR - Get Report) and its merger partner, Starwood (HOT) . Indeed, many economists still doubt the slowdown ever was as severe as the government says: Moody's Analytics points to the much lower-than-usual response rates to last month's employer survey as a sign the number may be revised.
"With a second-quarter GDP bounce, there's no reason the job market should stay depressed," said Dean Maki, chief economist at Point72 Asset Management, the private office for investor Steve Cohen, who said the 4.7% unemployment rate will reach 4.4% by the fourth quarter and 4% next year. "I don't think 38,000 is anything like the trend.''
The market's pessimism about May's jobs report was compounded by British voters' decision last month to leave the European Union in the so-called Brexit referendum, which caused an overnight loss of as much as $3 trillion in asset values worldwide. Most of the damage to equity prices, at least, has been recovered in the two weeks since.
The jobs report won't shed any light on impacts from Brexit, because the surveys for the June report were taken the week of June 12, before the June 23 referendum. That means any impact on U.S. business investment, including investment in new employees, won't be visible in time for the Fed's next monetary policy committee meeting on July 26 and 27, Maki said.
While a strong jobs report that starts pushing up other rates and dragging down bond prices might shake the cautious central bank into the "go" part of its stop-and-go rate posture sooner than many think, economists say a hike won't happen in July. And futures prices indicate a less than 2% chance the committee will boost the Federal Funds Rate to 0.5% to 0.75% at its September meeting.
The current rate of 0.25% to 0.5% reflects a December hike of 25 basis points that was the first since rates were cut to nearly zero during the 2008 financial crisis.
"If unemployment still trends down, they could begin tightening by September," O'Sullivan said.
Futures have had a history recently of overreacting to shifts in the outlook for the Fed, and even a jobs report that simply meets expectations is likely to shake them out of the post-Brexit gloom that is still priced in, said Canally.
That all goes out the window if the jobs report is another negative surprise, marking a consistent departure from the trend of 160,000 to 200,000 jobs per month that economists think is sustainable with the unemployment rate already at a low 4.7%.
But unless the jobless claims data and many other indicators are way off, the path back to the 2% to 2.5% annual growth that prompted the Fed to say it might raise rates as many as four times this year is likely to be shorter than many investors assume.