January Payrolls: Wages! Growth! And Worries
Josh Wright, Chief Economist | Economist Corner
Friday, Feb 02, 2018

All anyone really was looking for in the January employment report was wage growth, and for once, we got it. The headline numbers were all very strong, and the details were too – with a few exceptions. The decline in the average workweek meant that average weekly take-home pay actually went down. Also, although job growth was pretty evenly spread across major industry groups, the diffusion index indicated that at a more granular level, job growth was a bit more concentrated in January than December. Nevertheless, the overwhelming impression of this report was of a job market that won’t slow down anytime soon. That may underline concerns about risks the economy will overheat, and lead to an interesting push-pull between the Fed and markets over the next two months.

The Highlights:

  • Nonfarm payrolls of rose by 200,000. Net downward revisions of 24,000 to the prior two months brought the 3-month average to 192,000 from a previously reported 204,000.
  • At 2.9%, growth in average hourly earnings was above expectations and hit a new post-recession high, after the December 2016 figure was revised down to 2.7% from 2.9%.
  • The “U3” unemployment rate held steady at 4.1%, its lowest level since December 2000.
  • The “U6” underemployment rate ticked up for the second straight month, to 8.2% from 8.1%, moving it still further away from the unemployment rate.
  • Caveats: average weekly hours declined from 34.5 to 34.3 and the employment diffusion index declined to 57.9 from 65.5.

The Rundown

The wage number is a bit of a head scratcher. Many analysts expected the recent tax reform to lead to increased bonuses in January, but for more of the raises to come in February or later (if at all). It’s true that several states increased their minimum wage, but such increases have occurred in each of the last several Januaries, so the seasonal adjustments should have at least mitigated that. Notably, the decline in the workweek more than offset the growth in average hourly earnings, suggesting a potential role for winter weather and seasonal adjustments here.

The upwardly revised 2.7% growth in earnings posted in December seems credible, but a third straight acceleration of 0.2 percentage points seems out of line with other labor market indicators. Sure, the labor market is tight, but we haven’t seen any other numbers break out like this – notably, not higher-quality indicators like the Employment Cost Index. Even if you believe wages will respond non-linearly to labor market tighness, the recent volatility looks fishy. It’s no fun to say, but that 2.9% is likely to get pared back in revisions. Not that the issue won’t get actively debated in markets and among policymakers. Moreover, the basic message of rising wages appears intact.

Turning to the larger “supersector” umbrella categories for industries, job growth appeared well diversified. Utilities and Information were the only supersectors to decline (-1.4k vs. 300 prior and 6k vs. -1k). However, a majority of the remainder saw job growth moderate very slightly; only 6 categories drove the rise in the headline. By far the most significant of these was retail trade, whose swing (15.4k vs. -25.6k) single-handedly accounted for the swing in the headline. Within retail trade, this was driven by clothing and accessories (15.1k vs. -9.9k), which might be related to cold winter weather, or just some fluke related to seasonal adjustments (which tend to be larger in January).

Whatever the case, there weren’t many other surprises in the overall industry composition. It was encouraging to see temporary work turn positive (1.8k vs. -1.5k), as well as government (4k vs. -6k), and manufacturing extend its recent gains (15k vs. 21k). Construction was one of the improvers (36k vs. 33k) which underlines concerns about labor shortages in that industry but perhaps cuts against the concern about weather effects. The biggest surprise was the decline in the diffusion index, but 57.9 is still a healthy level, even if it is the third-lowest of the last 12 months.

The household survey was similarly robust but with a caveat. The unemployment rate was unchanged after rounding: the ranks of the unemployed rose, but mostly because new entrants and reentrants to the labor force, leaving the overall participation rate unchanged. That suggests age-adjusted participation is rising, with boomer retirements offset by younger people drawn into the hot job market. Another good sign: long-term unemployment declined substantially (1.4 million vs. 1.5 million). The big caveat was that part-time work rose among those who preferred full-time work (5.0 million vs. 4.9 million), driving up the “U6” underemployment rate for the second straight month, to 8.2% from 8.1%. Increasingly, it looks like this is part of a structural shift in the U.S. labor market toward the so-called gig economy.

The Outlook

Everyone has been rooting for wage growth, but be careful what you wish for. The bond market was already selling off this week, and these numbers are more than enough to fuel a pile-on – especially after the Fed underlined its intentions on Wednesday by calling for “further” rate hikes. A report this strong this late in the expansion will also fuel incipient concerns about the risk of overheating. The interesting thing is that the bond market may start front-running the Fed now, and for the first time since the taper tantrum of 2013, policymakers may be in the position of having to talk down rate expectations in a significant way. For incoming Fed Chairman Jay Powell, the hot seat just got a little hotter.

about the author

As chief economist at iCIMS, an industry-leading provider of talent acquisition software, Josh Wright leads a team of data scientists in analyzing emerging trends in the U.S. labor market