Oh-So-Coy Job Stats Set to Put Markets in a Tizzy

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The markets want to believe in the soft landing, they really do. But these are insecure times for Fed-watching investors — especially when the numbers keep sending mixed signals. Yesterday, it was soft retail sales (slowdown) and surging factory orders (rebound!). Friday the indecision got an early start with the 8:30 a.m. release of June's unemployment numbers by the Labor Department.

The news was good. Sort of.

Unemployment fell back to 4.0 percent from May's 4.1 percent. As far as the market is concerned, that's bad, but not very. More dramatically, the economy created only 11,000 non-farm jobs — a fraction of the 260,000 expected by analysts — and that's very good. But the pool of available labor continued to shrink, by some 3 percent, and that's not so good for wage and inflationary pressures.

As the market-floor TV pundits say when they're confused and on the spot, Wall Street has some "digesting" to do. The early book is that these numbers, while not incredibly reassuring to those rooting for the Fed to stand pat in August (and that's pretty much everybody, Wall Street or Main Street), don't seem particularly likely to alarm Alan Greenspan much either.

So what now, Dow? More halting rallies, more scowling pullbacks. The NASDAQ, which has been pulling free of the Fed watch and flying on its own private indicators, will likely continue to do so. Greenspan doesn't have to worry much for another month — he'll have July's labor market picture in hand weeks before that all-important August interest-rate meeting. In the meantime, the stock markets will do the worrying for him.