New Data for the Fed to Chew On

Economists had expected that the economy would produce 235,000 jobs in January, so at first blush, it was hard to see why markets were excited by the actual number, which was 257,000.

The good news came on two fronts. First, the previous two months were revised higher by a combined 147,000 jobs, which amounts to another month of job creation (a weak month, to be sure, but we’ve had plenty in the past five years).

The average number of jobs created in the last three months is now 336,000, which amounts to an annualized rate of more than one million new jobs, the highest level since the internet boom of the late 1990s.

The second piece of good news is that average hourly earnings increased by 0.50 percent, which is a big improvement from last month’s decline of -0.20 percent. The higher wage growth is no doubt partly the result of higher minimum wage laws in a number of states.

Despite the good news, the actual unemployment rate actually increased to 5.7 percent from 5.6 percent last month.

Although that sounds negative, it’s actually good news because the reason that the rate dropped is that the labor force actually grew and more workers left their jobs voluntarily, which are both signs of increased confidence in the labor market.

All of this means that the Wall Street parlor game regarding exactly when the Federal Reserve will begin raising interest rates, just got a little more interesting.

While it was still the minority view, there was a growing chorus of investors who thought that the Fed might have to wait until next year to raise short-term interest rates. With this employment report, expectations have jumped back into this year and June now seems to be the favored time period.

We’ll get some more clues about the actual timing later this month when the Fed┬áChair Janet Yellen delivers her semi-annual testimony to Congress. In March, Fed-watchers will be looking to see whether the Fed cuts the word ‘patient’ from their forward guidance.

In any case, we don’t think that it matters too much whether they raise rates in June, July or next year – the point is that they are on track to get back to something that more resembles normal in the relative short term, which is a good thing in our view.