Federal Reserve policymakers are keenly focused on the strength of the labor market as they debate how much further the economy needs to cool to ensure that quick inflation fades back to a normal pace. Fresh labor market data released on Friday probably offered little to dissuade them from raising interest rates at their meeting this month.
The June data is the last payrolls report that officials will receive before the central bank’s July 25-26 meeting. It underscored many of the labor market themes that have been present for months: Although job growth is gradually slowing, wage growth remains abnormally quick and the unemployment rate is very low at 3.6 percent.
Investors widely expected the Fed to raise rates at their July meeting even before the report, and the June data reinforced that prediction. Many paid especially close attention to the pay data: Average hourly earnings climbed 4.4 percent over the year through June, versus an expectation for 4.2 percent, and wage gains for May were revised higher. After months of slowing, those earnings figures have held roughly steady since March.
“On balance, it’s strong enough for the Fed to think they still have some more work to do,” said Michael Gapen, chief U.S. economist at Bank of America, explaining that the report contained both signs of early weakness and signs of sustained strength. “Hiring is cooling, but the labor market is still hot.”
Fed officials are closely watching wage data, because they worry that if pay growth remains unusually rapid, it could make it difficult to bring elevated inflation fully back to their 2 percent goal. The logic? When companies compensate their workers better, they might also raise their prices to cover their higher wage bills. At the same time, families earning more will be more capable of shouldering higher prices.
Fed officials have been surprised by the economy’s staying power 16 months into their push to slow it down by raising interest rates, which makes borrowing money more expensive and is meant to cool consumer and business demand. Growth is slower, but the housing market has begun to stabilize and the job market has remained abnormally strong with plentiful opportunities and at least some bargaining power for many workers.
That resilience — along with the stubbornness of quick inflation, particularly for services — is why policymakers expect to continue raising interest rates, which they have already lifted above 5 percent for the first time in about 15 years. Officials have ratcheted up rates in smaller increments this year than last year, and they skipped a rate move at their June meeting for the first time in 11 gatherings. But several policymakers have been clear that even as the pace moderates, they still expect to raise interest rates further.
“It can make sense to skip a meeting and move more gradually,” Lorie K. Logan, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, said during a speech this week, while noting that it is important for officials to follow up by continuing to lift rates.
She added that “inflation and the labor market evolving more or less as expected wouldn’t really change the outlook.”
Fed officials predicted in June that they would raise interest rates twice more this year — assuming they move in quarter-point increments — and that the labor market would soften, but only slightly. They saw the unemployment rate rising to 4.1 percent by the end of the year.
Policymakers will not release new economic projections until September, but Wall Street will monitor how policymakers are reacting to economic developments to gauge whether another move this year is likely.
“Jobs growth has slowed but remains too strong to justify an extended Fed pause,” said Seema Shah, chief global strategist at Principal Asset Management, explaining that the fresh data gave the Fed “little reason” to hold off on a July increase. The question is what happens after that.
For now, investors see another rate increase after July as possible but not guaranteed, and the June jobs report did little to change that.
The yield on the two-year Treasury bond, which is sensitive to changes in investors’ expectations for interest rates going forward, eased to around 4.9 percent, from over 5 percent. The move reflected in part investors’ relief that the jobs numbers had not followed a series of other data points this week that exceeded expectations.
Some on Wall Street expect the economy to soften more substantially in the coming months, which could prod the Fed to hold off on future rate moves. It often takes months or years for higher borrowing costs to have their full economic effect, so more slowing could be in the pipeline already.
This month, one of Wall Street’s widely watched recession indicators, which compares yields on short- and long-dated government bonds, sent its strongest signal since the early 1980s that a downturn is coming.
But Fed officials aren’t so sure. Austan Goolsbee, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, said on Friday on CNBC that getting inflation down without a recession would be a “triumph.”
“That’s the golden path — and I feel like we’re on that golden path,” Mr. Goolsbee said.