November jobs report: Surprise!

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The unemployment rate fell to 7.7 percent, the lowest level since 2008, the Department of Labor reports.

The economy generated 146,000 new jobs last month. Many economists expected only about 85,000 new jobs because they believed Superstorm Sandy and the looming “fiscal cliff” would weigh on hiring in November.

But the Labor Department says Sandy did not “substantially impact” the employment estimates for November.

The report is not as positive as the headlines may suggest, says IHS Global Insight economist Patrick Newport. That’s partly because the department revised down previously released employment numbers for October and September. In October, the economy gained 138,000 jobs, not 171,000 as the department previously reported. In September, the economy added 132,000 jobs, not 148,000.

It’s likely the department may revise down the November figures, too, once it gets more data from regions affected by Sandy, says Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics.

Zandi says the lower unemployment rate was a surprise, but it may have been affected by Sandy.

Sandy likely caused people to stop looking for work,” he says. “Therefore, they fell out of the labor force. The survey was done early this month and when Sandy’s impact on the job market was at its peak.”

Still, the numbers can be taken as a sign that the job market is holding firm, despite concerns over the fiscal cliff, Zandi says.

What do the job numbers mean for borrowers?

That’s good news for the economy and for workers. For mortgage borrowers, it could mean slightly higher interest rates. Normally, when investors feel the economy is doing well, they pull money out of safer investments such as U.S. and Treasury bonds to invest and choose riskier investments.

Also, remember the Federal Reserve is holding rates down to help the economy. If unemployment continues to drop, the Fed may decide the economy is finally ready to walk on its own. When that happens, mortgage rates will likely rise.

But that’s not going to happen so soon, economists say.

“We are not expecting (the unemployment rate) to drop much below this soon,” Newport says.