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Jobs report shows improvement, but not enough to get Fed talking about tapering

A help wanted sign is posted at a taco stand in Solana Beach, California.

Mike Blake | Reuters

Hiring improved in May, but 559,000 new jobs aren’t enough to spur the Federal Reserve to begin to talk about tapering back its bond purchases.

Friday’s Labor Department report on new payrolls was below the 671,000 expected but also was not weak enough to cast serious doubts on the economic recovery though it does reveal the underlying issues of a worker shortage and jobs mismatch.

The moderately strong data helped push stocks slightly higher, and Treasury yields flip flopped before edging lower. The benchmark 10-year yield fell to 1.58%. Yields moves opposite price.

John Briggs, NatWest Markets’ global head of desk strategy, said the report was “Goldilocks” for risk assets, and “not too hot to bring in the Fed and not too cold to worry about the economy.”

“You’re in a zone where it’s OK. It’s better than last month,” Briggs said. “It’s not like it’s 1.2 million, and it’s not going to scare us for the Fed. The next event is next week’s CPI, and people are going to worry about that being strong.”

Hotter-than-expected inflation data like April’s consumer price index has helped feed speculation that the Fed could begin talking about tapering its bond purchases. May CPI, to be reported Thursday, follows the sharp 4.2% headline pace for April.

Some strategists expect that the central bank may be ready to talk about trimming bond purchases by the time it meets for the Fed’s Jackson Hole Economic Symposium in late August, but some market pros said a very strong jobs report could have put the issue on the table when the Fed meets June 15-16.

The Fed’s intention is to first discuss paring its $120 million a month bond buying months before taking action. It would then spend many more months whittling back the size of its purchases. At the end of that period, the Fed may be on track to consider raising interest rates, which is not expected by the market until 2023.

In the May report, the unemployment rate fell to 5.8% from 6.1% as the participation rate fell slightly to 61.6%. April jobs growth was revised higher Friday to 278,000 from 266,000 but was still about a quarter of what had been expected for that month.

“Certainly, this is not the ‘million jobs per month’ that looked like the base case expectation for the late spring ahead of the April payrolls data, but it isn’t a disaster either,” said Jefferies economist Thomas Simons. “The data is consistent with other indicators of a labor shortage that was already previously well understood and that should abate somewhat as the enhanced unemployment benefits programs continue to expire throughout the summer.”

Michael Gapen, chief U.S. economist at Barclays, said the May report was close to what he had expected, and he sees a steady pace of hiring over coming months. “If I had a concern, that was in the participation rate ticked lower again. There’s still a lot of distortions and mismatches in the labor force. That to me is a crucial long-term question,” he said. “Can we get people back in? Are we underestimating the friction in the labor market right now? I think it will work itself out. It may take two or three months. It’s just going to take time for the matching process to occur.”

Gapen said he does not expect to see blowout million numbers for jobs creation in coming months, and he does not expect the Fed to focus on tapering its asset purchases yet.

“I don’t think the discussion on tapering in June will be all that spirited,” he said. “I think this number tells them the hiring rate is solid but not spectacular. It’s going to continue to make progress, and they should sit tight right now.”

Gapen also does not think the CPI report will spur the Fed to act sooner than expected. “I think it will be strong. It will reflect some normalization in services prices that had been depressed in the pandemic,” he said.

The Fed has said it expects a period of higher inflation that will prove to be transient. April and May readings should be higher than normal, in part due to comparisons to weak levels last year.

Economists have been watching wage data for signs of inflation. Average hourly wages grew 2% year over year.

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