U.S. job growth accelerates in January, but wages lag

Non-farm payrolls increased 227,000 last month
By Lucia Mutikani
|hrreporter.com|Last Updated: 02/07/2017
Numbers suggest U.S. President Donald Trump's tenure has gotten off to a a strong start in terms of the economy and employment. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

WASHINGTON (Reuters) — U.S. job growth surged more than expected in January as construction firms and retailers ramped up hiring, which likely gives the Trump administration a head start as it seeks to boost the economy and employment.

Non-farm payrolls increased by 227,000 jobs last month, the largest gain in four months, the Labor Department said on Friday. But the unemployment rate rose one-tenth of a percentage point to 4.8 per cent and wages rose marginally, suggesting that there was still some slack in the labour market.

Revisions to November and December showed the economy created 39,000 fewer jobs than previously reported. Still, the labour market continues to tighten, which could soon spur a faster pace of wage growth. Federal Reserve officials view the labour market as being at or near full employment.

"Continued strong job creation is tempered by the renewed sluggishness in wage growth, raising questions once again about the extent to which the functioning of the labour market has evolved," said Mohamed El-Erian, chief economic adviser at Allianz in Newport Beach, Calif.

Economists polled by Reuters had forecast payrolls rising 175,000 last month and the unemployment rate unchanged at 4.7 per cent. Prices for U.S. government bonds rose as traders focused on the disappointing wage growth. The dollar was little changed against a basket of currencies. U.S. stock futures extended gains on the report.

President Donald Trump vowed during last year's election campaign to deliver four per cent annual gross domestic product growth, largely on the back of a plan to cut taxes, reduce regulations, increase infrastructure spending and renegotiate trade deals in the United States' favor.

Although details on the policy proposals remain sketchy, consumer and business confidence have surged in the wake of Trump's election victory last November. But with the economy near full employment, some economists are skeptical of the four per cent growth pledge. Annual GDP growth has not exceeded 2.6 per cent since the 2007-08 recession.

DISAPPOINTING WAGE GROWTH

Average hourly earnings increased three cents or 0.1 per cent last month. December's wage gain was revised down to 0.2 per cent from the previously reported 0.4 per cent increase.

January's marginal rise in average hourly earnings is a surprise given that the minimum wage took effect in at least 19 states last month. The small gain lowered the year-on-year increase in earnings to 2.5 per cent from 2.8 percent in December.

Sluggish wage growth, if it persists, would suggest only a gradual pace of rate increases by the Fed. The U.S. central bank, which hiked rates in December, has forecast three rate increases this year.

On Wednesday, the Fed kept its benchmark overnight interest rate unchanged in a range of 0.50 per cent to 0.75 per cent. It said it expected labour market conditions would strengthen "somewhat further."

With its January employment report, the government published its annual "benchmark" revisions and updated the formulas it uses to smooth the data for regular seasonal fluctuations. It also incorporated new population estimates.

The government said the level of employment in March of last year was 60,000 lower than it had reported. As the labour market nears full employment, the pool of workers is shrinking, which is slowing job growth.

The shift in population controls mean figures on the labour force or number of employed or unemployed in January are not directly comparable with December.

The labour force participation rate, or the share of working-age Americans who are employed or at least looking for a job, was at 62.9 per cent in January, the highest level since September. The employment-to-population ratio was at 59.9 per cent last month, the highest level since March 2016.

A broad measure of unemployment that includes people who want to work but have given up searching and those working part-time because they cannot find full-time employment rose two-tenths of a percentage point to 9.4 per cent last month.

Nearly all sectors of the economy added jobs in January. Manufacturing payrolls increased by 5,000 jobs, rising for a second straight month as the oil-related drag on the sector eases.

"Plenty to build on here for Donald Trump who has tended to put a premium on manufacturing jobs," said Alan Ruskin, global head of G10 FX strategy at Deutsche Bank in New York.

Construction employment jumped 36,000, the largest increase since March, likely boosted by warm weather, after December's paltry 2,000 gain.

Retail payrolls, surprisingly surged 45,900, the biggest rise since February. Retailers, including Macy's, Sears , American Apparel and Abercrombie & Fitch announced job cuts in January amid store closures. Department store sales are being undercut by online retailers, led by Amazon.com.

Temporary-help jobs, a harbinger of future hiring, increased 14,800 after shedding 12,800 positions in December. Employment in the financial sector increased by 32,000 jobs last month, an acceleration from December's 23,000 gain.

Healthcare and social assistance payrolls increased 32,100.

Government employment fell for a fourth straight month in January. Further declines are likely after the Trump administration enforced a hiring freeze on civilian federal government workers on Jan. 22.

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