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U.S. jobs data has potential to push Fed toward third jumbo hike

An employee assists customers sitting in the outdoor dining area of a restaurant in the West Village Neighborhood of New York, on April 28, 2021.  (Amir Hamja/Bloomberg)
By Reade Pickert and Jonnelle Marte Bloomberg

The hotly anticipated U.S. jobs report has the potential to tip the scales toward a third jumbo-sized hike in interest rates later this month after a wave of data that point to a resilient consumer and high labor demand.

Friday’s report is one of the last marquee releases Fed officials will have in hand before the mid-September policy meeting to help them decipher a complex economic and inflationary puzzle.

Forecasts call for a healthy, yet more moderate 298,000 gain in August payrolls and for the unemployment rate to hold steady at 3.5%, matching the lowest in five decades. Solid wage growth is also expected amid a persistent mismatch between labor demand and supply.

Such figures, in conjunction with a blowout July employment print, improving consumer sentiment figures and a surprise pickup in job openings, could be enough to push the Fed to raise borrowing costs by 75 basis points, extending the steepest interest-rate hikes in a generation to curb an inflation surge.

“In the context of all those data, this report becomes very important,” said Anna Wong, chief U.S. economist at Bloomberg Economics. It could “put a stamp of confirmation” on the trend the other data have been showing – that the economy is very resilient.

Conversely, any indication of much softer employment growth combined with a bigger slowdown in the Labor Department’s average hourly earnings figures may help shift expectations toward a half-point rate hike. Still, Fed officials will need to see results of the consumer price index later this month to crystallize their views on the appropriate policy response.

Fed Chair Jerome Powell said last week the central bank’s decision later this month “will depend on the totality of the incoming data and the evolving outlook.”

One important component of the jobs report will be the pay metrics. Economists expect the report will show a 0.4% increase in average hourly earnings from a month earlier and a 5.3% rise from August 2021. The annual increase would represent a slight acceleration from the previous two months.

A slowdown in wage growth could give Fed officials some comfort by suggesting a softening in inflationary pressures, though that is not always the case, said Claudia Sahm, founder of Stay-At-Home Macro Consulting and a former Fed economist.

“Everything should be viewed through the lens of ‘what could this mean for inflation?’ ” Sahm said.

Companies have been raising pay across industries and income brackets to attract and retain workers. That’s underpinning consumer spending as Americans weather rising prices for essentials like food and rents. It also makes the Fed’s challenge of slowing down the economy to stem price gains that much more difficult.

New data from ADP Research Institute on Wednesday showed the median annual pay for those who stayed in their jobs rose 7.6% in August from a year earlier. Job switchers saw more than twice that.

Still, U.S. companies increased headcount at a relatively sluggish pace in August with ADP reporting a 132,000 gain that was the smallest since the start of last year.

The employment report is where policy makers “probably place the highest signal value about where underlying momentum is,” said Michael Gapen, head of U.S. economics at Bank of America Corp.

And while Friday’s report could be instrumental in pushing policymakers toward another 75 basis point hike at the conclusion of their two-day meeting on Sept. 21, there’s another big report on the horizon that the central bank will consider: the closely-watched CPI.

Minneapolis Fed President Neel Kashkari said in an interview with Bloomberg’s Odd Lots podcast that he will be watching the jobs report for signs of what is happening with wage growth but emphasized his focus on inflation data when thinking about the September rate move.

“Ultimately, I’m very focused more than anything on the inflation data and the inflation expectation data,” Kashkari said in a Monday interview that aired on Thursday. “For me individually, I don’t think the labor market itself is going to be determinative of 50 versus 75.”

That sentiment was echoed by Atlanta Fed chief Raphael Bostic.

“Incoming data – if they clearly show that inflation has begun slowing – might give us reason to dial back from the hikes of 75 basis points,” Bostic said in an essay posted on his bank’s website Tuesday.