- The jobs report was strong, but the US economy has a long way to go to bounce back from the COVID crisis.
- This means the Federal Reserve isn’t going to ease up on its crisis measures anytime soon, and it certainly won’t raise interest rates.
- Just listen to Fed Chairman Jerome Powell, he’s going to let the job market run hot.
- George Pearkes is the global macro strategist for Bespoke Investment Group.
- This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
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Today’s jobs report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics was good news for the US economy, with businesses reporting 349,000 jobs added in February. But that good news, while welcome, is unlikely to mean anything for Federal Reserve policymakers, who have bigger plans for the labor market than a few strong jobs report numbers.
In a Q&A with the Wall Street Journal yesterday, Fed Chair Jerome Powell outlined the central bank’s areas of focus for the economy. In keeping with the changes to their long-term goals updated last year, the Fed’s labor market target is now “maximum employment”, which officials admit is “a broad-based and inclusive goal that is not directly measurable.”
Instead of focusing on a single number like the unemployment rate or attempting to keep employment at a level that doesn’t create a risk of inflation, this approach admits that the relationship between inflation and labor markets has broken down in recent decades. So instead of obsessing over inflation and individual labor market numbers, the Fed now hopes to create conditions where jobs are plentiful for all who want them.
Recent experience suggests this is the correct approach. In the pre-COVID economic peak, 80.5% of Americans in their prime working years (25 to 54) had jobs, the highest since 2001 but well short of the record 81.9% from April of 2000. Despite that very broad labor market success, core inflation only rose 1.6% in 2019, illustrating that running labor markets hot was not causing inflation to soar.
This experience – a strong labor market with little inflation – should influence the Fed’s thinking going forward, especially when it comes to the emergency measures put in place to deal with the COVID crisis.
As the economy continues to recover from COVID, markets have begun to assume that the Fed is going to start to roll back some of these crisis measures over the next year or so. Some investors and Fed watchers believe quantitative easing (purchases of Treasury debt and mortgage-backed securities guaranteed by the federal government) may be “tapered” this year or early in 2022. Interest rate hikes are also, in the view of these market participants, likely to follow. Markets point to investors assuming rates will not be raised this year but some pricing of potential hikes is creeping into the 2022 calendar year and multiple interest rate hikes are fully priced in 2023.
This speculation – both about QE easing and the potential for rate hikes in the next couple of years – is inconsistent with the guidance the Federal Reserve has offered.
In yesterday’s Q&A, Powell said it was “highly unlikely” that maximum employment would be achieved this year, even though there is “good reason to expect job creation to pick up.” To illustrate why strong jobs growth doesn’t mean the Fed needs to tighten, the chart below shows the prime-age employment/population ratio. As it stands, in order to achieve the same level of employment as pre-pandemic, prime age workers economy would need another 5.04 million jobs.
Maximum employment likely means a prime-age employment-population ratio well above the prior cycle highs, so the shortfall is even more than that 5.04 million jobs. For context, the solid February jobs report would need to be repeated every month for 14 months to get this ratio at or above its old peak, assuming every new job went just to this category. At the 154,000 pace of job creation for 25-54 year olds only, maximum employment is 33 months away.
This is just one example of how long the hole US labor markets are in will take to climb out of, but interest rate markets are pricing almost four 25 basis point hikes by the Federal Reserve by the end of 2023…which is 33 months away.
Only one thing can be true: either the interest rate markets are wrong, or the Fed is wrong in its commitment to returning the US to maximum employment. If you take the FOMC at its word, job creation numbers this year are almost irrelevant, even if they follow the solid pace set by February’s numbers. What’s really important is the distance to maximum employment, and that remains huge, leaving interest rate speculators only one out if they’re to be proven correct about the path of Federal Reserve policy.