For years now, most Americans have probably felt like onlookers to the economic recovery: Favorable jobs reports, improved housing data, and new stock market records keep coming, but that has translated little to improving the lot of much of the country since the recession. This week, there were the first hints in a while that Wall Street, which has reaped most of the recovery's benefits, may be growing antsy as well.
The US economy added 209,000 jobs in July, and the unemployment rate ticked up slightly, from 6.1 percent in June to 6.2 percent last month, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). At some level, the news was disappointing: Economists had expected 230,000 added jobs on average for June, along with an unchanged unemployment rate.
Overall, however, the report was cause for a reasonable amount of cheer. July marked the sixth month in a row of job gains topping 200,000. The already-rosy employment reports for May and June were revised upward, to the tune of about 15,000 each month. “Taken as a whole, the latest six monthly jobs reports are consistent with the view that the economy is well underpinned, at least for the time being, which is a message being flashed by a broad array of other indicators as well,” Joshua Shapiro, chief US economist for MFR, Inc. in New York, writes via e-mailed analysis.
The small bump in the unemployment rate, he notes, was mainly due to the increase in the labor participation rate – the percentage of Americans actively looking for work. It ticked up from 62.8 percent to 62.9 percent, its first gain in three months.
“The employment outlook…looks to be one of further robust job creation in coming months, but with some moderation in the rate of job creation compared to the first half of the year,” Chris Williamson, chief economist at Markit, a London-based financial information services company, writes via e-mail. “Job gains should nevertheless remain sufficiently strong to help bring the unemployment rate down further and remove excess slack in the labour market.”
The financial markets, however, could be done responding to great-but-not-fantastic economic reports. Earlier this week, the Commerce Department reported that the economy expanded a very strong 4 percent in the second quarter of the year, wiping away a GDP contraction in the first quarter. The Dow responded by plunging 273 points on Thursday. It was worst daily performance since February of this year, and it put the market on track for its first monthly loss since January. The slide was mostly attributed to disappointing corporate earnings reports, but the GDP result did little to slow it.
Stocks are responding more favorably so far this morning, perhaps because the jobs report didn’t really leave anyone breathless. Stock futures dropped in the early morning, but gained back most of its losses early. Some of the market skittishness this week may be due to the question of when the Federal Reserve will raise interest rates, a move Fed chief Janet Yellen has consistently linked to improvement in the job market. Economists are divided on what, exactly, this jobs report means on that front.
“These numbers mean discussions at the Fed about the timing of the first interest rate hike look set to intensify,” Williamson writes. “However, while the robust pace of economic growth means more dissenters in favour of tighter policy may start to appear, the majority look likely to focus on the signs of persistent slack in the labour market and meagre wage growth.”
“Nothing in this report is going to change the tone of the debate within the FOMC about the timing of its exit strategy after tapering/QE ends in October,” Mr. Shapiro says. “Those…focusing on growth have plenty to cite, while those more worried about an ‘underutilized’ labor market also continue to have much fodder for their arguments. And so it goes.”