Thursday, May 30

Jobs Gains Heat Up Even as the Federal Reserve Looks for Cooling

Federal Reserve officials are likely to keep a close eye on the job market’s strength in light of September jobs data, which showed that employers hired at an unexpectedly rapid clip.

Employers added 336,000 jobs last month, sharply more than the 170,000 economists had predicted. Fed officials have been keeping careful track of the labor market’s strength as they try to assess both how much more they need to raise interest rates to bring inflation under control and how long borrowing costs should stay high.

That pace of hiring suggested that the labor market continues to chug along even in the face of the Fed’s 19-month campaign to cool the economy by raising borrowing costs. Central bankers have lifted rates to a range of 5.25 to 5.5 percent, and suggested at their September meeting that they could make one more rate move in 2023 before holding borrowing costs at a high level throughout 2024.

The question now is whether policymakers will see the job market resilience as a welcome development — or a concerning one. The Fed’s next meeting is Oct. 31 to Nov. 1, so policymakers will not receive another employment report before they need to make their next rate decision.

Fed officials had embraced a recent slowdown in hiring — and that trend now seems far less certain. But the September jobs report did contain some evidence that the economy is simmering down. The data showed that pay grew at only a modest pace in September, for instance.

Given that, the strong job gains alone might not be enough to force the Fed to make another rate increase this year. Officials are likely to continue to watch other incoming data — including an inflation report set for release on Oct. 12 — as they contemplate whether borrowing costs need to rise further.

Employment data “continues to say it’s a strong labor market, but it is getting a little bit less tight than we saw before,” Loretta J. Mester, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, said during a CNN International interview on Friday afternoon. Given that wage growth continued to cool, she said the fresh report “doesn’t really change my view that we have a strong labor market and yet — and good — we also see inflation progress.”

Economists noted that a few key developments could slow growth this autumn, which could also keep the Fed from reacting too sharply to the fresh hiring figures. Longer term interest rates in financial markets have climbed sharply in recent weeks, for example, and that will make it more expensive for consumers to finance a car or house purchase and for businesses to expand.

“In isolation, economic data would probably justify the Fed hiking at the November meeting — what gives me pause for thought is the fact that long-term yields have increased significantly,” said Blerina Uruci, chief U.S. economist at T. Rowe Price. “They will have to weigh how much the recent rise in yields and tightening in financial conditions has done the job for them.”

Ms. Mester had previously said that she was in favor of a rate move at the Fed’s upcoming meeting if economic data held up, but added a caveat to that expectation on Friday, in light of the market moves.

She said she would make the rate decision “once I get in the room in November — at our next meeting — about whether that’s still true, because there’s other things happening in financial markets.”

The jobs report initially made Wall Street wary that the Fed might raise interest rates further, something that would weigh on corporate profits and stock valuations. The S&P 500 slipped just after the report. But stocks rebounded throughout the day — suggesting that investors became less worried as they digested the data, and determined that it suggested economic resilience but not necessarily overheating.

Some of that comfort could have come from the news on wages. Average hourly earnings were up 4.2 percent from a year earlier, the mildest increase since June 2021.

Unemployment was also in line with what the Fed has been expecting. Officials have continued to predict that unemployment would probably rise slightly as the economy slowed, to about 4.1 percent, which would still be low by historical standards. The rate stood at 3.8 percent as of September, up slightly from 3.4 percent earlier this year.

And although September hiring was strong, speed bumps lay ahead for the economy. The recent increase in mortgage rates and other borrowing costs is likely to squeeze growth just as the economy faces other challenges — including the resumption of student loan payments, strikes at car manufacturers and in other industries and dwindling consumer savings piles.

“The auto union workers strike will weigh on job growth in October while easing consumer spending and more cautious business activity will lead to slower labor demand,” Gregory Daco, the chief economist at EY-Parthenon, wrote in a note following the report.

If officials decide to leave interest rates unchanged at the upcoming meeting, they will have one final opportunity to adjust them this year when they meet on Dec. 12-13.

Joe Rennison contributed reporting.