Business World

Sunday 18 March 2018

Fed bond sell-off on horizon as strong US job figures beat forecast

Job-seekers at an Amazon recruitment event held in New Jersey last week Photo: Getty
Job-seekers at an Amazon recruitment event held in New Jersey last week Photo: Getty

Lucia Mutikani

US employers hired more workers than expected in July and raised their wages, signs of labour market tightness that likely clears the way for the Federal Reserve to announce a plan to start shrinking its massive bond portfolio.

The Labour Department said that non-farm payrolls increased by 209,000 jobs last month amid broad-based gains. June's employment gain was revised up to 231,000 from the previously reported 222,000.

Average hourly earnings increased nine cents, or 0.3pc, in July after rising 0.2pc in June. That was the biggest rise in five months. On a year-on-year basis, wages increased 2.5pc for the fourth straight month.

"The Fed set a low bar for balance sheet normalisation to begin in September, and today's number cleared that bar with elan," said Michael Feroli, economist at JPMorgan in New York.

Although the economy is near full employment, wage growth has not been strong in part because many of the jobs being created are in low-wage sectors. Last month, restaurants and bars added 53,100 jobs. July's monthly increase in earnings could, however, offer Fed policymakers some assurance that inflation will gradually rise to the US central bank's 2pc target.

Economists expect the Fed will announce a plan to start reducing its $4.2trn portfolio of Treasury bonds and mortgage-backed securities at its next policy meeting in September. The Fed bought these securities to lower interest rates in the wake of the 2007-2009 financial crisis.

Sluggish wage growth and the accompanying benign inflation, however, suggest the Fed will delay raising interest rates again until December. It has increased borrowing costs twice this year and its benchmark overnight interest rate is in a range of 1pc to 1.25pc. The dollar rallied against a basket of currencies on the jobs report, while prices for US Treasuries fell. Stocks on Wall Street were trading slightly higher.

Economists had forecast payrolls increasing by 183,000 jobs and wages rising 0.3pc in July.

President Donald Trump, who inherited a strong job market from the Obama administration, cheered Friday's employment data. "Excellent Jobs Numbers just released - and I have only just begun," Trump said on Twitter. "Many job stifling regulations continue to fall. Movement back to USA!" Trump has pledged to boost economic growth and further strengthen the labour market by slashing taxes, cutting regulation and boosting infrastructure spending.

But after six months in office the Trump administration has failed to pass any economic legislation and has yet to articulate a plan for much of its economic agenda.

Wage growth is crucial to sustaining the US economic expansion after output increased at a 2.6pc annual rate in the second quarter, an acceleration from the January-March 1.2pc pace.

The economy also got a boost from another report on Friday showing a sharp drop in the trade deficit in June.

The unemployment rate dropped one-tenth of a percentage point to 4.3pc in July, matching a 16-year low touched in May. It has declined five-tenths of a percentage point this year and is now at the most recent Fed median forecast for 2017.

"Stable year-on-year wage growth should decrease the perceived risk of further slowing in wages and prices," said Andrew Hollenhorst, an economist at Citigroup in New York. "Strong payroll gains that place downward pressure on the post-crisis low unemployment rate will keep the centre of the Fed comfortable with increasing policy rates in December." July's decline in the jobless rate came even as more people entered the labour force, underscoring job market strength.

The labour force participation rate, or the share of working-age Americans who are employed or at least looking for a job, rose one-tenth of a percentage point to 62.9pc. The share of the population that is employed climbed to 60.2pc, matching an eight-year high touched in April.

A broad measure of unemployment, which includes people who want to work but have given up searching and those working part-time because they cannot find full-time employment, was unchanged at 8.6pc last month. This alternative gauge of unemployment hit a 9.5-year low in May. Monthly job growth this year has averaged 184,000, close to the 2016 average of 186,000. The economy needs to create 75,000 to 100,000 jobs per month to keep up with growth in the working-age population.

Manufacturing payrolls advanced by 16,000 jobs in July, the largest gain since February. Employment in the car sector rose by 1,600 despite slowing sales and bloated inventories that have forced manufacturers to cut back on production.

Construction payrolls rose 6,000 last month as hiring at homebuilding sites increased 5,100. The professional and business services sector added 49,000 workers last month. Retail employment rose by 900 as hiring at motor vehicle and parts dealerships as well as online retailers offset a drop of 10,000 in employment at clothing stores.

Companies like major online retailer Amazon are creating jobs at warehouses and distribution centres. Amazon this week held a series of job fairs to hire about 50,000 workers. Government payrolls rose by 4,000 in July.


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