Jobs report weighs on Fed

Federal Reserve chair Janet Yellen just gave a speech in Philadelphia that acknowledges a weak jobs report last Friday. She rightly cautions us not to place too much weight on any single month’s numbers. Overall, her talk seems to have raised confidence in the financial markets about where the economy is heading, based on a wider range of recent indicators besides the numbers reported in the jobs report, for example, on consumer spending and home construction. These suggest areas of continued strength in the economy.

Still, the report last Friday was really lousy, and not really a one-off event (and not just due to the Verizon strike). Since the end of 2015, the job growth numbers have been on a pretty steady downward trend, with growth above 200,000 in only one month (February). A few other indicators in the report were also quite disappointing: the numbers of workers in part-time jobs because they can’t find full-time work bounced back up; and labor force participation dropped considerably. Indeed, about 800,000 workers have left the labor force in the last 2 months, including many who are well below retirement age. Their exit reverses some of the progress in labor force participation we had seen late last year and early this year.

On the other hand, not all numbers in the report were terrible. Wage growth held up reasonably well. Over the past 2 months, wages have risen by over 3 percent (on an annualized basis), suggesting a labor market that is tight enough to finally generate some earnings improvements for workers who already have jobs.

Overall, the different indicators highlight two sets of forces driving the labor market: Demand-side problems, suggesting employers still need too few workers to generate full employment; and supply-side problems, where worker availability and skills are starting to constrain the amount of hiring going on.

Indeed, the latter problems might explain the peculiar combination of weak and strong indicators we see in the report. For instance, if the drop in labor force participation is permanent, then the 4.7 percent unemployment rate accurately suggests that the amount of slack in the labor market is lower than we thought. Employers are likely finding it a bit harder to hire the workers with the skills and experience they really want. Consequently, our long economic expansion is finally translating into higher wage growth for those already employed or about to be.

Another possibility, perhaps, is that productivity growth is finally rebounding a bit, after the dismal numbers we’ve observed in the past few years, where GDP growth has been modest but employment growth has been strong. Indeed, some recovery in productivity is a precondition for real wage growth to last, even in a tighter labor market. In this scenario, output growth would now be more robust than employment growth, reversing some of the striking declines we’ve observed in the productivity numbers.

Of course, what might be most convincing is a combination of the labor demand- and supply-side stories, along the following lines: the labor market is gradually approaching capacity, though it is not there yet. I don’t think it will get there until we are closer to 4 percent unemployment. But employer difficulties finding skilled workers matter more in this type of market than in the earlier years of recovery after the Great Recession. Such pressure raises wages for employed workers and those with appropriate skill levels. On the other hand, workers with weaker skills still face dismal prospects, and their exit from the labor force reflects their bleak prospects. The growth of labor demand might really be shrinking, as productivity rebounds a bit and as weakness in business investment and export demand are felt in the job market.

We won’t know for sure how much of this story is accurate until we get more jobs and productivity reports over the next few months. But, in the meantime, my bet is on just such a mixed reading, which suggests that a very gradual lifting of economic stimulus is appropriate, without, however, moving too quickly in the opposite direction.