As Unemployment Falls, Interest Rate Increases Creep Nearer

on Jan8
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New data showing that the unemployment rate is falling and wages are rising is expected to cement — and maybe even hasten — the Federal Reserve’s plan to begin raising interest rates this year as it tries to put a lid on high inflation.

The jobless rate fell to 3.9 percent in December, based on data collected during a period that largely predated the worst of the Omicron-driven virus surge.

Unemployment peaked at 14.8 percent in April 2020, and had hovered around 3.5 percent for months before the onset of the pandemic. The fact that it is returning so rapidly to near-normal levels has caused many central bankers to determine that the United States is nearing what they estimate to be “full employment,” even though millions of former employees have yet to return to the job market.

“This affirms the Fed’s conclusion,” Diane Swonk, chief economist at Grant Thornton, said after the report. “This is a hot labor market.”

Signs abound that jobs are plentiful but that workers are hard to find: Job openings are at elevated levels, and the share of people quitting their jobs just touched a record. Employers complain they are struggling to hire, and a shortfall of workers has caused many businesses to curtail hours or services.

As a result, employers have begun to pay more to retain their employees and lure in new applicants. Average hourly earnings climbed 4.7 percent in the year through December, faster than economists in a Bloomberg survey had expected and much more quickly than the typical pace of progress before the pandemic, which oscillated around 3 percent.

Those quick pay gains are a signal to Fed officials that people who want jobs and are available to work are generally able to find it — that the job market is what economists call “tight” and would-be workers are relatively scarce — and that wages might begin to feed into prices. When companies pay more, they may also charge their customers more to cover their costs.

Some Fed officials are worried that rising wages and limited production could help sustain elevated inflation — now at nearly a 40-year high. The combination of a healing job market and the threat that price increases will jump out of control has prompted central bankers to speed up their plans to withdraw policy help from the economy.

Fed officials are already slowing the big bond purchases they had been using to support the economy. In addition to that, they could raise rates three times in 2022, based on their estimates, and economists think those increases could begin as soon as March. That would make borrowing for cars, houses and business expansions more expensive, slowing spending, hiring and growth.

“It makes sense to get going sooner rather than later,” James Bullard, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, said during a call with reporters on Thursday, suggesting that the moves could come very soon. “I think March would be a definite possibility.”

And officials have signaled that once rate increases start, they could promptly begin to shrink their balance sheet — where they hold the bonds they have purchased to stoke growth throughout the pandemic downturn. Doing that would help to lift longer-term interest rates, reinforcing rate increases and helping to further slow lending and spending.

Economists speculated after the jobs report that the new figures made an imminent rate increase even more likely, and that the central bank might even be prodded to remove its economic support more quickly as wages take off.

“We think that today’s report adds to the case for the Fed to kick off its hiking cycle in March,” researchers at Bank of America wrote. “The economy appears to be operating below maximum employment and inflation remains sticky-high.”

Krishna Guha, an economist at Evercore ISI, argued that the combination of rapidly declining unemployment and heady wages might even prompt central bankers to increase interest rates faster than once every three months — the fastest pace in their last set of interest rate increases, which took place from 2015 to 2018.

“The Fed might end up having to hike at a pace faster than the baseline one hike per quarter,” Mr. Guha wrote.

Fresh data out next week could further intensify that pressure: The Consumer Price Index is expected to surge to 7 percent in the year through December, based on a Bloomberg survey of economists, which would be the fastest pace of increase since June 1982.

The White House is doing what it can to promote competition, disentangle supply chains and lower prices at the margin, but controlling inflation falls mainly to the Fed, a fact President Biden underlined at a news conference on Friday.

“I’m confident the Federal Reserve will act to achieve their dual goals of full employment and stable prices, and make sure the price increases do not become entrenched over the long term,” Mr. Biden said.

Investors will get a chance to hear from key Fed officials themselves next week. Jerome H. Powell, whom Mr. Biden has renominated as Fed chair, has a confirmation hearing on Tuesday before the Senate Banking Committee. Lael Brainard, now a Fed governor and Mr. Biden’s pick to be vice chair, has a hearing on Thursday.

Both are likely to emphasize the unevenness of the recovery and acknowledge that millions of workers remain out of the job market thanks to caregiving responsibilities, virus fears and other pandemic barriers, as they have throughout the downturn.

They will probably also note that overall hiring slowed in December: Employers added 199,000 jobs, the weakest performance all year, as they struggled to find workers. And Omicron poses a risk of further retrenchment, because the November data came before the recent surge in virus cases that has kept restaurant diners at bay and shut down live performances.

But at the end of the day, it is the falling jobless rate that is likely to remain in focus for the Fed as it contemplates its next steps, economists think.

“A March rate hike seems pretty likely at this stage,” said Julia Coronado, founder of the research firm MacroPolicy Perspectives. Asked if there was one overarching takeaway from the new data, she said: “It’s just a tightening labor market. That’s it.”

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