Air Pocket, by Tim Duy: The employment data hit an air pocket in March, in line with a variety of softer economic news in the first quarter. That said, it likely will have little near term impact on Fed policy; I anticipate they will tend to dismiss the number as expected volatility in the overall upward path of job growth.
Job growth was paltry 126k in March and, in what might be a greater indication that US labor markets are hitting an inflection point, the January and February numbers were revised downward. The three-month moving average dipped sharply, while the 12-month moving average is leveling out:
A clear slowdown in the good producing sector is contributing to the weaker numbers as the impact of lower oil prices works through mining. That factor, the stronger dollar, and the West coast port slowdown are also likely taking a toll on manufacturing. Flat construction numbers also contributed.
The unemployment rate was unchanged at 5.5% and wage growth remains tepid compared to last year. Payrolls in the context of indicators previously cited by Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen:
Broad yet still slow general improvement in underemployment indicators.
How does this impact the Fed's outlook? First, some recent quotes from policymakers, beginning with Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen:
...I anticipate that real gross domestic product is likely to expand somewhat faster than its potential in coming quarters, thereby promoting further gains in employment and declines in the unemployment rate.
...a significant pickup in incoming readings on core inflation will not be a precondition for me to judge that an initial increase in the federal funds rate would be warranted...
...That said, I would be uncomfortable raising the federal funds rate if readings on wage growth, core consumer prices, and other indicators of underlying inflation pressures were to weaken, if market-based measures of inflation compensation were to fall appreciably further, or if survey-based measures were to begin to decline noticeably...
San Francisco Federal Reserve President John Williams, via the Wall Street Journal:
“Things are looking better–in fact, they’re looking downright good,” the official said in a speech to be delivered to an audience in Sydney and Melbourne via video.
Given how much the economy has improved and is likely to continue to gain ground, “I think that by mid-year it will be the time to have a discussion about starting to raise rates,” Mr. Williams said.
The strength of the U.S. dollar against a “broad index” of currencies is not an impediment to the U.S. economy reaching real GDP growth of 2.5% this year, he said.
“The U.S. economy has good momentum…even with what is a rather large appreciation of the U.S. dollar,” Mr. Williams said.
Atlanta Federal Reserve President Dennis Lockhart, via the New York Times:
The slowness in the first quarter obviously raises concerns that we’re going to see a continuing or persistent slowdown, but that’s not my base case view. My base case view is that we’ll see a rebound in the second and third quarter and beyond and that we’ll stay on the basic track that has been our story, our narrative here, for the last year or more. And that is a 2.5 percent to 3 percent growth rate with continuing improvement on the employment front, and gradual rise in inflation toward the 2 percent target. So to some extent I’m taking on a Wilbur Mills position: That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
St. Louis Federal Reserve President James Bullard, via the Wall Street Journal:
Mr. Bullard said he expects the economy to recover in the second quarter following a soft start to the year as low gasoline prices fuel consumer spending. He added the European Central Bank’s decision to begin buying government bonds is driving down bond yields in the U.S., too, keeping a lid on corporate and household borrowing costs.
“These facts put us in a position for normalization of us monetary policy in 2015,” Mr. Bullard told the City Week conference.
You get the picture. Federal Reserve officials are clearly looking past the first quarter. Hence, while the number was clearly disappointing, I will stick with my thoughts from earlier this week:
Yellen intends to look through any first quarter weakness in GDP data, seeing it as largely an aberration (like arguably the first quarter of last year), as long as the employment data continues to hold up. And even there, I doubt any one weak report would do much to undermine her confidence in the recovery; we should be focusing on the story told by the next three employment reports in aggregate.
That said, I would also add that this strengthens the case that the Federal Reserve will need to move further in the direction of financial markets toward a slower and lower path of normalization than currently anticipated by the Summary of Economic Projections. It may be that if the March number was an outlier to the downside, the strong job growth in November and December of last year where outliers to the upside. On net, then job growth is solid, but still less robust than anticipated at the end of last year. Combined with lower estimates of the natural rate of unemployment, this would naturally push back and down the policy path.
Bottom Line: One jobs report is just that - one report. It needs to be placed in context of subsequent reports to confirm or deny the underlying trend, at least as far as policymakers are concerned. At the moment they seem content to believe the first quarter will be an aberration overall. If it looks like less of an aberration come June, they will be forced to push normalization plans back into the fourth quarter. This would make them less than happy.