KEY DATA: Openings: +61,000; Hires: +11,000; Quits: +80,000/ NFIB Confidence: -0.2 point; Business Expectations: -8 points
IN A NUTSHELL: “The labor market is slowly tightening, yet even small businesses are managing to find workers to hire, though with great difficulty.”
WHAT IT MEANS: We hear lots of stories about how hard it is to find workers. Nevertheless, firms are still hiring. Job gains so far this year have been solid and all the measures of unemployment are at levels consistent with full employment. Today’s numbers support that view. The closely followed JOLTS report, produced by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, pointed to further hiring and some growing turnover in the labor market. The number of job openings was up in March, signaling that firms are still trying to add their workforces. That they are having problems finding the ones they want is clear in the somewhat limited increase in hiring. But the most interesting number in the report was the level of quits. The number of people willingly leaving their jobs continues to rise (though in a saw-tooth manner). Since September 2009, the level has nearly doubled. That shows that people have pretty much overcome their fear of making a move.
The problems that businesses are facing finding people was highlighted in the National Federation of Independent Business’ monthly survey. The optimism index eased a little in April, though it remains near record highs. But confidence about the future took a major hit. Political reality is colliding with hopes that regulations and taxes will be cut. That said, firms hired quite heavily and hiring plans remained strong. Still, this segment of the economy is saying that qualified workers are extremely difficult to find. The report noted that “87 percent of those hiring or trying to hire reported few or no qualified applicants for their open positions”. When it comes to problems facing small businesses, quality of labor now ranks just below regulations and red tape and is rapidly closing in on taxes.
MARKETS AND FED POLICY IMPLICATIONS: There is a debate over which measure of unemployment is the best measure of unemployment. The reality is that it doesn’t matter. The two measures commonly used are both at levels consistent with full employment. Yes, one is higher than the other. But level doesn’t matter, only what the level should be at full employment and we are there. In addition, people are quitting more often, while business people running firms of all sizes are saying they are having massive problems filling jobs with qualified workers. Those are indicators of a tight market. Yesterday, the Conference Board reported that its Employment Trends Index jumped in April, another sign that firms are hiring. But that doesn’t mean we are going to see job gains above or maybe even near 200,000 per month. Without the workers to hire, firms are doing the next best thing: They are moving part-timers into full time jobs. That solves the qualified worker problem without actually adding any workers. So going forward, it may be the hours worked number that really counts, as payroll gains should remain in the 150,000 to 175,000 range. Since that should be enough to keep the unemployment rate trending downward, look for the Fed to tighten again soon. If we get a tax cut bill by the end of the year and the economy accelerates even a modest amount, the Fed may be forced to move more quickly than anticipated. Timing is everything in life and while tax reform (not just tax cuts) is critical, when it occurs is important. The labor markets have limited slack now and will have even less at the end of the year. Hyping the economy with tax cuts and spending increases will come with a cost, which is likely to be higher wages, inflation and interest rates.