The U.S. economy added 96,000 jobs in August, far below the consensus of 130,000 and miles off the "whisper" number of 200,000. In addition, July's tally was revised down to 141,000 from 163,000.
The unemployment rate unexpectedly fell to 8.1% from 8.3% and the "real" unemployment rate (U6) fell to 14.7% from 15%, figures the White House will likely highlight as signs the president's policies are working.
But the unemployment rate came down for the "wrong" reason -- a sharp drop in the size of the labor force. The labor participation rate fell to 65.3%, its lowest level since September 1981.
Let's take a look at today's report from three different angles: political, economic and market.
After the Dems Party, a Jobs 'Hangover'
Friday's jobs report will give fodder to both sides of the political debate. As noted above, the White House is likely to tout the decline in the unemployment rate and the fact that August is the 30th month of consecutive private sector job gains.
"While there is more work that remains to be done, today's employment report provides further evidence that the U.S. economy is continuing to recover from the worst downturn since the Great Depression," Alan Krueger, chairman of the President's Council of Economic Advisers, said in a statement Friday.
On the other hand, August is the 43rd consecutive month of unemployment above 8%; along with the decline in the size of the labor force, that's something the Republicans seized on.
"If last night was the party, this morning is the hangover," GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney said in a statement Friday. "After 43 straight months of unemployment above 8%, it is clear that President Obama just hasn't lived up to his promises and his policies haven't worked."
How this plays with voters remains to be seen. Some Americans may simply look at the unemployment rate and take solace that it's coming down. But the pace of job creation is not enough to keep up with population growth -- at 139,000 per month, average job growth is down from an average of 153,000 last year. Eight million jobs were lost during the Great Recession.
One thing potentially working in President Obama's favor is the recent trend in consumer spending, which suggests Americans are feeling better than Friday's jobs report would otherwise indicate.
It's the Consumer Economy, Stupid
"We have a disconnect between how people are spending their money and how the government counts jobs," says Maury Harris, chief economist at UBS. "People were spending more money in July and August -- retailers had pretty good months and auto sales improved. It may be the employment numbers are out of sync with actual consumer behavior."
Harris speculates that the recent improvement in the housing market may explain the disparity. Americans able to refinance their mortgages — or simply feeling less downbeat about home values — may feel more confident about spending, despite the lackluster job growth.
But Sharon Lee Stark, chief market strategist at Sterne Agee, notes that the U.S. savings rate has been coming down this summer, suggesting Americans have been borrowing to fund recent purchases. "If we don't have job growth to fill that void, you'll see consumers back off," she says.
If consumers retreat, Stark and Harris agree that would put downward pressure on the growth of U.S. GDP, which is already likely to be below 2% for the rest of 2012.
Whether it'll stop the stock market from rallying is another story.
An 'Artificial' Market
U.S. stocks were near breakeven in recent trading, hovering near the multi-year highs hit during Thursday's big gains. In a classic case of "bad news is good news," the weak jobs number cemented expectations for more Fed action when Ben Bernanke & Co. meet next week.
The weak August payroll data "definitely puts QE3 on the slate for next week as well as an extension of the Fed's commitment to a low target fed funds rate," Stark says.
Along with the ECB's new "open-ended" commitment to buy EU government bonds, more action from the Fed should keep a floor under financial markets, despite deteriorating economic fundamentals. With Europe in recession, China slowing and the U.S. economy limping along, it's hard to justify stocks being at multi-year highs, if not for the extraordinary support markets are getting from global central banks.
"It's an artificial market for sure," Stark says.