KEY DATA: Payrolls: +200,000; Private: +196,000; Revisions: -24,000; Unemployment Rate: 4.1% (Unchanged)
IN A NUTSHELL: “If the labor market is this strong and the tax cuts have yet to kick in, what will it look like when households and businesses actually start spending the money?”
WHAT IT MEANS: I know it was called the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, but why we needed more jobs is a mystery to me. Payroll gains were strong in January and the increases were pretty much spread across the entire economy. Construction hiring was robust and manufacturers continued to add workers at a solid pace. Retail employment rebounded after a down month in December and the warehousing industry just keeps expanding to meet the needs of the delivery economy. The improving real estate sector is also hiring heavily, as did health care and restaurants. Even federal and local governments padded their payrolls, and it wasn’t even in education. In other words, this was a really broad based employment increase. Over the past three months, an average of 192,000 new positions were added. That exceeds the 181,000 monthly average posted in 2017. Keep in mind, that lower pace of job gains was still robust enough to drop the rate from 4.7% in December 2016 to 4.1% in December 2017.
On the unemployment front, the rate held steady for the fourth consecutive month. The annual revisions to the data makes it not possible to directly compare December 2017 with January 2018 on some of the figures, but suffice it to say that there really wasn’t a softening in the unemployment and labor force numbers. Indeed, there may be a tightening in labor markets. Wage gains accelerated and the increase over the year hit 2.9%, the highest since the end of the Great Recession.
MARKETS AND FED POLICY IMPLICATIONS: The tax cuts should slowly start kicking in as we move through the first half of the year. We really have no idea how much of a boost to growth will occur. On the business side, it isn’t clear how much of the surge in after-tax profits will go toward new capital spending and higher wages rather being used to increase dividends, buy-back stock and/or increase management compensation. On the household side, with the savings rate low, it is also uncertain how much of the tax cuts and bonuses/wage increases will go to new spending rather than repairing deteriorating balance sheets. All that said, there will be growing household demand for goods and services and additional investment on the part of businesses. That faster growth will require more workers. So far, and despite their claims that they cannot find qualified workers, firms seem to be doing just that: They are hiring robustly. Is that pace sustainable? If the unemployment rate declined by 0.6 percentage point last year, what will it fall to this year? Even if you don’t like the unemployment measure, it is hard to see that the current hiring pace can be sustained. Massive fiscal policy piled on top of an economy that was growing solidly and has limited labor availability has not been tried before. How this “Grand Fiscal Experiment” affects wage and price inflation is something Fed has to be worried about. The rise in the 10-year Treasury note to its highest level in four years indicates the markets are getting worried about it as well. As I like to say, “no good economy goes unpunished” and the punishment may already be starting to be meted out.