US Hiring Rebounds In January But One-Year Trend Eases

Companies in the US added 196,000 workers in January, according to this morning’s report from the Labor Department. The gain beat expectations for a 172,000 increase, according to Econoday.com’s consensus forecast. The stronger print for the private sector isn’t really a surprise, considering the upbeat gain in the ADP Employment Report for January that was released earlier in the week. Today’s results reflect ongoing strength in the labor market, but the annual trend continues to signal that job growth, while still healthy, continues to decelerate.

Private-sector payrolls increased 1.70% for the year through last month, down slightly from 1.75% in the previous month. No big deal? Maybe, although the latest year-over-year advance marks the second-slowest annual rise in seven years. For context, the smallest annual increase since 2011 was posted last September, when private payrolls rose 1.62%.

Let’s be clear: there’s no immediate concern in today’s year-over-year results. A 1.70% increase is a solid pace that’s strong enough to keep the economy humming. But today’s numbers suggest that labor-market growth is facing headwinds at this late date in the business cycle. The expansion is currently the third-longest on record, according to NBER, and will move into second place this April. If the recovery endures through the summer of 2019 it will become the longest expansion on record, which dates to the mid-19th century.

There’s still no sign of recession risk on the immediate horizon, but it’s prudent to recognize that the recovery from the Great Recession is no spring chicken. It’s debatable if age alone is a risk factor – many economists have their doubts. But with the Federal Reserve on track to continue raising interest rates, combined with a flattish yield curve and faster wage growth (worker pay in January rose at the fastest rate in eight years), it’s reasonable to wonder if the macro headwinds are set to strengthen in the months ahead.

“The gain in wages will add to concerns that inflationary pressures are building in the economy,” says Michael Feroli, chief US Economist at JPMorgan Chase. “It solidifies expectations that the Fed will hike in March. The question is, what will they signal for hikes after that?”

Luke Bartholomew, an investment strategist at Aberdeen Standard Investments, tells Reuters that the pickup in wage growth “definitely makes it a bit more likely that the Fed will have to do more than the three hikes that they’re currently planning for this year.”

An optimistic view of the gentle-but-persistent slide in the job-growth trend is that it’s a byproduct of sustained growth in recent years rather than a cyclical warning sign. With unemployment holding in January at a low 4.1%, close to a 48-year low, the prospects for ramping up hiring are becoming tougher as the jobless pool shrinks.

Meantime, keep in mind that the ADP Employment Report for January signaled that year-over-year job growth has been accelerating for the past year – an acceleration that, for the moment, remains missing in the Labor Department’s numbers. The key question: Which data set is accurate? Unclear at the moment, although at this late date in the cycle it’s obvious that there’s a lot riding on the answer.