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Fiscal cliff? What fiscal cliff? No evidence in jobs numbers

December 7, 2012: 1:43 PM ET

If uncertainty were the issue it would already be slowing hiring. It's not.

121207063219-jobs-report-unemployment-hiring-gallery-horizontalFORTUNE -- Earlier this year, economists seemed convinced that even the very threat of the fiscal cliff would send the U.S. plunging into recession. Less than a month away, the economy still appears to be climbing.

The best piece of evidence yet that the fiscal cliff - the massive mix of tax increase and spending cuts that are set to start January 1st - has had little or no impact, at least when it comes to hiring, came from the November jobs report. Those predicting an uncertainty-fueled slowdown didn't get one.

Employers added 146,000 people to their payrolls, which was still weak, considering there are 11.4 million Americans looking for work. But it was no less weak than it has been for most of the year. In fact, hiring was up a bit from the month before. The unemployment rate fell to 7.7%, a new post-recession low.

"If the fiscal cliff were having an impact, we would have gotten a much different report than the one we got," says Michael Hanson, a senior U.S. economist at Bank of America who had been predicting a pre-fiscal-cliff drop-off.

MORE: Alan Simpson paints dire fiscal cliff market outlook

Dive a little deeper into the data, and it's clear the fiscal cliff has been more of a talking point than an actual economic catastrophe. One of the places you might expect to see evidence of the fiscal cliff would be in temporary hires. If you are an executive and you're worried that the economy would soon slow but you had work that needed to get done, one thing you might do was hire temps. But we didn't see a big spike in temporary workers. Companies added just 18,000 temps to their payrolls in November. That was slightly more than the 14,000 that were added in October, but not much. And it was less than the 19,700 that employers added in the same month a year ago. Nearly 90% of all the hires companies made in November were full-time.

An area where you might see a fiscal cliff drop would be manufacturing, particularly that of durable goods. Any durable good being produced now would likely have to be shipped and sold early next year, when the fiscal cliff will potentially be at its steepest. And yet car makers and others continue to hire. In all, durable goods manufacturers added 11,000 jobs in November. Again, not a lot, but not slowing either.

Yes, the economy is still weak. But there are a lot of reasons for that other than the fiscal cliff, including Europe's debt problems, a slowdown in China and the damaged housing market.

MORE: Will Obama and Congress punt on real tax reform?

Nonetheless, BofA's Hanson contends the while the affect on the jobs market has been more benign that he thought, the fiscal cliff does appear to be holding back business investment. What's more, the most recent reading of the consumer confidence number showed a big drop. "The real question is what happens in December."

It's probably true that the real impact of the fiscal cliff, no matter how big or small that turns out to be, is ahead of us, if we do actually go over it. But here's what's also true: The run-up to the fiscal cliff proves once again that all this talk of how uncertainty alone is the main thing holding back the recovery is, as Joe Biden would say, a bunch of malarkey.

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About This Author
Stephen Gandel
Stephen Gandel

Stephen Gandel has covered Wall Street and investing for over 15 years. He joins Fortune from sister publication TIME, where he was a senior business writer and lead blogger for The Curious Capitalist. He has also held positions at Money and Crain's New York Business. Stephen is a four-time winner of the Henry R. Luce Award. His work has also been recognized by the National Association of Real Estate Editors, the New York State Society of CPA and the Association of Area Business Publications. He is a graduate of Washington University, and lives in Brooklyn with his wife and two children.

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