Monday 19 February 2018

Hurricane Harvey set to disrupt US jobs data as Texas cleanup escalates

A boy hugs his grandmothers’ dog after being rescued from rising floodwaters due to Hurricane Harvey in Spring, Texas. Photo: Bloomberg
A boy hugs his grandmothers’ dog after being rescued from rising floodwaters due to Hurricane Harvey in Spring, Texas. Photo: Bloomberg

Patricia Laya

The US August employment report may have been almost predictably disappointing, though it wasn't weak enough to call into question the underlying strength of the US labour market.

The data marked the seventh straight August that the government's initial take on payrolls fell short of the median estimate of economists, with 156,000 jobs added compared to a projection of 180,000 in a Bloomberg survey.

Yet the bigger picture shows a still-healthy labour market in a mature expansion. One bright spot in the report was a surge in manufacturing and construction employment.

Economists were also quick to point out the difficulty adjusting the August data because of differing start times of the new school year and swings in summer employment. What's more, the monthly figures have been revised higher in five of the past six years.

"There's a lot of statistical quirks embedded in here - nothing fundamental," said James Smith, a developed markets economist at ING Bank NV. "It's a slow-moving ship and we're still optimistic that wage growth will pick up in the coming months given the strength in the labour market."

Even so, August's report will probably be the most reliable picture of underlying employment trends for several months, as Hurricane Harvey's fallout in the Houston region begins to affect the data. While the storm may depress payrolls at first, jobs will probably get a subsequent boost as construction and utility workers help rebuild housing and infrastructure.

The Labour Department said in its release that Harvey "had no discernable effect" on the August report. Gary Cohn, President Donald Trump's top economic adviser, said Harvey would affect economic data for several months and make it much harder for officials to get the "bigger picture" of what's going on in the economy.

"The economic data that we've just gotten - this unemployment data - is probably the last set of clean unemployment data we're going to have for many, many months as we go through the recovery process," he said in an interview on Bloomberg Television.

Other data on Friday were more encouraging for the economy. The University of Michigan's consumer sentiment survey showed Americans in the first eight months of this year have been more upbeat than at any comparable period since 2000. Households are growing increasingly optimistic about employment and the economic outlook, a positive sign for spending.

"Despite an underwhelming jobs report, the bigger picture is that the US labour market remains quite healthy at this late stage of the cycle, with little sign of generating the kind of wage pressures that would risk derailing the expansion," Sal Guatieri, a senior economist at BMO Capital Markets in Toronto, said in a note.

In turn, the steady increases in demand are powering growth in manufacturing. US factories ramped up in August at the fastest pace in six years, driven by employment gains, figures from the Institute for Supply Management showed. The ISM's data were corroborated by the Labour Department's figures on manufacturing payrolls, which increased 36,000 last month, matching the largest advance since March 2012.

Yet the tightening of the labour market still isn't leading to a build-up in wages. Average hourly earnings climbed less than forecast in August, rising 0.1pc on a monthly basis. The median projection was for a 0.2pc gain.

The nation's jobless rate climbed to 4.4pc last month from 4.3pc in July, while the labour-force participation rate held at 62.9pc.

The jobs numbers probably won't be enough to change the Federal Reserve's outlook for moderate economic growth and slowly increasing inflation because other data remain firm.

Investors expect this will encourage policymakers to announce the start of the gradual process of shrinking their $4.5trn balance sheet when they meet later this month, and to keep their options open for another interest-rate increase before the end of the year.

"We believe the data remain more than strong for Fed officials to announce the start of the balance sheet normalisation process at this month's meeting,"

High Frequency Economics chief US economist Jim O'Sullivan said in a note. "We still expect a rate hike in December as well, although that will depend on the inflation data showing more strength in the next few months than in the last few months."


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