In February, the job market soared higher than Donald Trump’s poll numbers.
The U.S. economy added a whopping 242,000 jobs in February, well above the 195,000 economists were predicting, according to the Labor Department’s monthly survey of American businesses, while the unemployment rate held steady at the historically low rate of 4.9%.
Stock markets were up slightly in early trading, but don’t expect the stock market to take these numbers kindly in the coming weeks. That’s because it almost certainly sets up the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates again in 2016, if not at the next FOMC meeting, which happens later this month, than surely by summer.
Just a couple months ago, a soaring dollar and stagnant corporate earnings had traders doubting the Fed’s ability to raise rates to 1% by year’s end—the central bank’s apparent goal. Heck, recently, the chatter in the econo-sphere a year ago, and recently again, was all about whether the Fed might have to lower interest rates.
But after the S&P 500 fell more than 10% from the summer through the middle of February, markets stopped the bleeding in recent weeks. The recent ISM survey of non-manufacturing companies showed that for the time being the service sector remains untouched by troubles seen by manufacturing firms. And Friday’s jobs report not only showed strong job growth, but the survey of households reported that the labor force grew by more than 500,000 workers for the second month in a row. That sent the closely-watched labor force participation rate higher again to 62.9%, 0.5 percentage points higher than September.
“If the tightening in financial conditions in markets in January and February combined with the slowdown in growth in China and EM and Europe is not enough to slow down the US economy, what is?” writes Torsten Sløk, chief international economist at Deutsche Bank in a research note Friday morning.
The only statistic that might be cause for concern—for the economy—is the fact that average hourly earnings fell 0.1% month-over-month. That might get you to think that the Fed may decided to stand still. Wages are one of the major contributors to inflation, which the Fed is charged with keeping in check. But this month’s weak wage growth was after several months in which the average workers pay had accelerated, and year-over-year wage growth remains steady at 2.2%. What’s more, though the Fed is hoping to see wage growth accelerate, it’s clear from their last rate hike that employment growth and the unemployment rate matters more. And the U.S. economy is adding jobs at roughly twice the pace needed to keep the unemployment rate falling, according Jim O’Sullivan of High Frequency Economics.
In December, the Fed said that it expected inflation to come in at 1.6% in 2016, while most FOMC members see interest rates at 1.25% at the end of 2016, 1 percentage point higher than today. The markets, on the other hand, see year-end interest rates most likely at 0.75% or lower, according to Fed Funds futures.
All of this sets up the market to possibly be surprised by an aggressive Fed that wants to head off the possibility of a strengthening labor market sparking inflation.