Solid Employment Report, by Tim Duy: Labor markets were generally solid in March, with nothing by itself to dissuade the Fed from its current path. We should be watching for the Fed reaction to the decline in the unemployment rate, assuming it persists in the coming months. Could be dovish if the Fed lowers its estimate of the natural rate. Could be hawkish if they see a higher risk of undershooting the natural rate.
Nonfarm payroll growth slowed to 98k:
While this was below expectations, it wasn't a surprise. My interpretation is that most analysts expected downside risk to the estimates based on cold weather in March. No reason to think the basic underlying trend of solid but slowing declining job growth.
The unemployment rate dipped to a cycle low of 4.5% and stands below the Federal Reserve's longer run unemployment projection:
This will raise some eyebrows at the Federal Reserve. The median FOMC participant forecast 4.5% for December. So we are a little ahead of schedule on that. Does this mean the economy is poised to overheat? The wage numbers do not support that hypothesis:
Wage growth flattened out in recent months, suggesting the economy is not yet in danger of overheating. Policymakers will be closely watching this dynamic and, more importantly, the path of inflation, between now and the next meeting. If inflation looks to be overshooting the forecast, the Fed may conclude that weak wage growth reflects low productivity rather than slack in the economy. That would be hawkish. Keep an eye on this space.
While the headline jobs growth numbers disappointed, note that the forward looking indicator temporary help payrolls remains on an uptrend:
In some ways this feels like 1995-96, with a temporary slowdown followed by a sustained period of solid growth.
The back-to-back declines in retail trade reflected the ongoing stress in that sector:
Note too slowing wage growth in retail trade:
As of the last JOLTS report, the dynamics in retail trade employment are not driven by layoffs, but by a hiring slowdown:
Looks like both quits and hirings rolled over in recent months. What is interesting is that the due to the labor churn in the sector, a slowdown in hiring alone can have significant impact on the net job growth without relying on mass layoffs - at least not yet. Notice that discharges and layoffs in the sector are down from 2015. Still, the decline in the level of quits reflects employee worries about the state of the industry - they don't see it quite as easy to find a new job as they did in 2015.
One data point that doesn't seem to fit with the story of an industry in decline is the level of job openings:
If the sector is experiencing a truly apocalyptic event, we would expect job openings to roll over. How will the Fed view this story? Most likely as industry specific and not indicative of the broader economy but they will attempting to gauge the resulting slack, if any, in labor markets.
Bottom Line: Employment report was in line with (diminished) expectations. Most important for monetary policy was the decline in the unemployment rate. But absent more data, the exact implication could be either dovish or hawkish. Until the fog on that issues clears, expect the Fed to stick to its story: More tightening is coming, but at a gradual pace.