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U.S. jobless rate falls to six-year low in September

(Reuters) – U.S. employers stepped up hiring in September and the jobless rate fell to a six-year low, which could bolster bets on a Federal Reserve rate hike in mid-2015.

Friday’s report on hiring is the most significant gauge of the economy’s health ahead of Nov. 4 congressional elections.

While President Barack Obama’s message of an improving economy has been hampered by persistent drops in family incomes under his watch, the hiring data underscored the strides made in the labor market this year.

U.S. non-farm payrolls rose by 248,000 last month and the jobless rate fell to 5.9 percent, two-tenths of a point below its level a month earlier and the lowest since July 2008, the Labor Department said. The results showed a stronger labor market than analysts had anticipated.

“As demand is continuing to accelerate just a bit, businesses are being compelled to hire at faster pace,” said Russell Price, an economist at Ameriprise Financial in Troy, Michigan.

Most investors are betting the Fed will wait until July to raise its benchmark interest rate, which has been near zero since 2008, although bets on a June hike increased following the release of the data. Yields on government debt and prices for U.S. stock futures rose.

The pace of hiring in America’s economy has decidedly stepped up this year. The gain in payrolls over the last six months is now at its highest level since before the 2007-09 recession.

The government said 69,000 more jobs had been added to payrolls in July and August than previously estimated. Factories added 4,000 jobs in September. The retail sector added 35,300 jobs, which the government said largely reflected an end to employment disruptions at a grocery chain in New England.

There were some downsides in the report. Notably, part of the decline in the unemployment rate was because workers left the labor force. The share of the population with jobs or hunting for one fell to 62.7 percent, its lowest level since 1978.

That rate has declined in recent years as more workers have retired and as people have given up job hunts due to a weak economy.

Still, a measure of unemployment that partially takes into account worker discouragement – which the government calls the U-6 rate – fell last month to 11.8 percent, its lowest since October 2008.

The number of people who held part-time jobs but wanted full-time work declined to 7.103 million, slow progress among a group of workers watched closely by America’s central bankers.

Most economists see the economy expanding at around a 3 percent annual rate in the third quarter, well above the average over the last two years of 2.2 percent.

But solid economic growth and hiring is insufficient for the Fed to initiate an early interest rate increase.

Several officials at the U.S. central bank have expressed concern in recent weeks that inflation remains too low, a sign that a significant amount of slack remains in the economy. Fed policymakers will scrutinize Friday’s data as they prepare for a policy meeting on Oct. 28-29.

Average hourly earnings increased a modest 2.0 percent in September from a year earlier, roughly the level that has been seen in recent years. Before the last recession, hourly earnings often rose at above 3 percent a year.

In a separate report, the Commerce Department said the U.S. trade gap unexpectedly narrowed in August to its smallest level in seven months on an increase in exports. The trade gap fell 0.5 percent to $40.1 billion.

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