By Jeff Cox, CNBC–

The unemployment rate fell to 3.9 percent in April, an 18-year low, even as nonfarm payrolls rose by just 164,000, according to a report Friday from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Economists surveyed by Reuters had expected payroll growth of 192,000 and the jobless rate to drop by one-tenth of a percent to 4.0 percent. The official jobs tally initially showed an increase of an upwardly revised 135,000 in March.

Stock market futures moved lower following the release, while government bond yields also drifted downward.

“The expectations were a little bit elevated going into this probably just because last month’s report was a little bit weaker,” said Charlie Ripley, senior investment strategist at Allianz Investment Management. “Net-net this was a little bit softer than people were expecting. this goes into a lot of the other data that we’ve been seeing … a little bit of a soft patch.”

The closely watched average hourly earnings number rose by 4 cents, equating to a 2.6 percent annualized gain, a bit off the pace from the previous month. The average work week was unchanged at 34.1 hours.

A more encompassing measure of unemployment that includes discouraged workers and those holding part-time positions for economic reasons fell to 7.8 percent, the lowest since July 2001. Unemployment for blacks fell to a fresh record-low of 6.6 percent, down three-tenths of a point.

The drop in the unemployment rate came amid another decline in the labor force participation rate to 62.8 percent, the lowest since January. The number of people counted as out of the labor force swelled by 410,000 to 95.74 million.

Professional and business services created the most new jobs, with 54,000, while manufacturing and health care added 24,000 apiece. Mining saw 8,000 new jobs, bringing to 86,000 the total unemployment growth since October 2016 for a sector that President Donald Trump promised to target when he campaigned.

In addition to the upward revision for March, February’s number edged lower from 326,000 to 324,000.

The report comes with job creation off to its best start in five years during the first quarter.
Markets have been watching the employment numbers as much for signs of wage inflation as for the pace of job gains. Average hourly earnings have been increasing at about a 2.7 percent pace, which is above the recovery pace but still short of where Federal Reserve officials are targeting.

The central bank is also looking closely at the data. Fed officials have indicated they are likely to raise interest rates a total of three times in 2018, though a faster pace of wage inflation could make for more aggressive policy moves.