Analysts reached for superlatives – “blowout” and “blockbuster” among them ─ to describe November’s surprisingly strong employment report. Employers added 266,000 workers to their payrolls, blowing well past the 187,000 economists had predicted. October’s anemic 128,000 gain was revised upward slightly, to 156,000, and the unemployment rate remained unchanged at 3.5 percent. Average hourly earnings increased by 7 cents – a 3.1 percent year-over-year gain.
Recession fears, which had been inching higher, receded somewhat in October, as employment growth, low interest rates, and signs of life in the housing market offset concerns about a decline in manufacturing activity, anemic business activity, and slower worldwide economic growth.
The recession concerns that have been humming quietly in the background grew louder this month as the hiring pace slowed and some key economic indicators slid. Employers added 136,000 jobs in September and the unemployment rate (3.5 percent) hit a 50-year low.
“Disappointing.” That’s a description that hasn’t applied to the U.S. employment growth in a long time. But the Department of Labor’s August employment report fell well short of predictions, adding to concerns that the economy may be slowing and firming expectations that the Federal Reserve (Fed) will continue slashing rates in order to forestall what some see as a growing risk of recession.
The Federal Reserve’s decision to cut rates by a quarter-of-a-point this month didn’t surprise anyone – but it also did little to satisfy either critics (including two Fed dissenters) who thought the reduction was unnecessary (and possibly harmful) or President Trump, who has been demanding larger cuts to boost economic growth.
Will they, or won’t they?The ‘they’ is the Federal Reserve and the question is whether the policy-setting Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) will lower interest rates when it meets next in late July. The committee voted 9-1 in June to leave rates unchanged, but a post-meeting statement, eliminating previous references to “patience,” signaled a willingness to consider a rate cut, though probably not before next year. The statement also downgraded the committee’s assessment of economic strength from “solid” to “moderate.”
Reflecting the impact of the simmering (trade war with China and the threat of tariffs on Mexican goods, the employment picture darkened considerably in May. Employers added only 75,000 workers to their payrolls, way below the 180,000 analysts had expected, while estimates for March and April were also scaled back.
If you’re looking for consistency, you won’t find it in recent economic reports, which seem to reflect the oft-heard complaint that economists “point in all directions.” Underscoring that point, Barron’s reported recently that the International Monetary Fund has scaled back its forecast for this year “as economic pessimism grows,” while a Housing Wire headline announced much more cheerfully that “Recession Fears Diminish as the Nation Approaches a Goldilocks Economy.”
“Everyone can relax.” That conclusion from a Wall Street Journal report, reflected the consensus exhale accompanying the March employment report. Employers added 196,000 jobs for the month, beating analysts’ expectations and pretty much erasing the fears stirred by February’s stunningly anemic 20,000 gain. That total was revised upward to 33,000, The statistical adjustments also added another 1,000 jobs to the robust January total, boosting it to 312,000.
If you believe a ground hog can predict the weather, we should expect an early spring: Punxsutawney Phil did not see his shadow when he emerged from his winter home this month. On the other hand, this famous Philadelphia rodent is almost always wrong, so perhaps it’s best not to put away the parkas and gloves just yet. We might also hope the housing statistics will be an equally inaccurate predicter of the market outlook, because early indicators have not been positive.
“Patience” was the byword for the Federal Reserve, driving a unanimous decision by the policy-making Federal Open Market Committee to stand pat on interest rates for now, and producing a decidedly less hawkish tone in the statement released after the committee’s January meeting.
An increasingly jittery public, anxious for some good news, got a solid dose of it in the December employment report: Employers added 312,000 workers to their payrolls for the month, blowing well past the 182,000 jobs analysts were predicting, and extending the steak of consecutive monthly job gains to 98 months - -the longest on record.
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