U.S. labor market regaining footing as weekly jobless claims fall sharply

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The number of Americans filing new claims for jobless benefits dropped by the most in three months last week, suggesting the labor market recovery was regaining momentum after a recent slowdown, as the wave of COVID-19 infections began to subside.

The weekly unemployment claims report from the Labor Department on Thursday, the most timely data on the economy’s health, also showed the number of people on state unemployment rolls plunging to an 18-month low in late September.

Improving labor market conditions bode well for the government’s closely watched employment report for September and also provide ammunition for the Federal Reserve, which signaled last month it could begin reducing is monthly bond buying as soon as November.

“The labor market is back on track after a few weeks of rising claims threw a question mark into the markets’ understanding of just how solid the economic outlook really is,” said Christopher Rupkey, chief economist at FWDBONDS in New York. “The Fed has the evidence it needs to start paring back its emergency stimulus purchases when it meets next month.”

Initial claims for state unemployment benefits decreased 38,000 to a seasonally adjusted 326,000 for the week ended Oct. 2. That was the biggest drop since late June. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast 348,000 claims for the latest week.

Unadjusted claims, which economists say offer a better read of the labor market, tumbled 41,431 to 258,909 last week. California led the drop in claims last week. There were also decreases in Michigan, Ohio, Washington DC and Missouri. They offset notable increases in Pennsylvania and Virginia.

Claims had increased for three straight weeks as California moved people to another program following the expiration of federal government-funded aid on Sept. 6, to allow the recipients to collect one additional week of benefits.

There had also been increases in filings related to the idling of assembly plants in some states by automakers as they managed their supply of semiconductors amid a global shortage.

A resurgence in COVID-19 infections, driven by the Delta variant, also disrupted activity in the high-contact services sector. That suggested some moderation in labor market conditions in the prior weeks, which was confirmed by a separate report on Thursday from global outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas showing job cuts announced by U.S.-based employers increased 14% to 17,895 in September.

Still, layoffs were down 85% compared to September 2020.

In the third quarter, employers announced 52,560 job cuts, the fewest since the second quarter of 1997 and down 23% from the July-September period.

Stocks on Wall Street were trading higher. The dollar dipped against a basket of currencies. U.S. Treasury prices fell.

SUPPLY WOES

Layoffs last month were led by companies in the healthcare/products sector, with 2,673 announced cuts. Since the Pfizer vaccine received full-FDA approval, many healthcare facilities have implemented vaccine mandates, which have led to the firing of non-compliant workers.

Ongoing strains in the supply chain saw industrial goods manufacturers laying off 2,328 workers in September, while warehousing businesses reported 1,936 job cuts. There were 1,679 job cuts in the services sector.

But the rise in layoffs was dwarfed by an explosion in planned hiring, in part as retailers gear up for the holiday season. The Challenger report showed companies announced plans to hire 939,790 workers compared to only 94,004 in August.

With companies eager to hire, more people are coming off the state unemployment rolls. The claims report showed the number of people continuing to receive benefits after an initial week of aid tumbled 97,000 to 2.714 million in the week ended Sept. 25. That was the lowest level since mid-March 2020.

The total number of people collecting unemployment checks under all programs dropped to 4.172 million during the week ended Sept. 18 from 5.027 million in the prior week. That reflected the end of extended benefits last month, which economists hope will increase the labor pool.

The pandemic forced some people to drop out of work to become caregivers. Others are reluctant to return for fear of contracting the coronavirus, while some have either retired or are seeking career changes. That has left employers desperate to fill a record 10.9 million job openings as of the end of July.

The worker shortages have impacted job growth, though there is optimism that hiring picked up in September. According to a Reuters survey of economists, nonfarm payrolls likely increased by 500,000 jobs last month.

Estimates range from as high as 700,000 jobs to as low as 250,000, reflecting the mixed labor market indicators in September. A survey from the Conference Board last week showed consumers’ views of current labor market conditions softened.

While the Institute for Supply Management’s measure of manufacturing employment rebounded last month after contracting in August, its measure of services industry employment slipped.

The economy created 235,000 jobs in August, the fewest in seven months. The unemployment rate is forecast dipping to 5.1% in September from 5.2% in August.

“Going forward, the combination of easing labor supply constraints, strong labor demand and an improving COVID outlook should spur further labor market progress,” said Lydia Boussour, lead U.S. economist at Oxford Economics in New York.

(Reporting By Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Andrea Ricci)

U.S. job growth takes giant step back as Delta variant hits restaurants

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. economy created the fewest jobs in seven months in August as hiring in the leisure and hospitality sector stalled amid a resurgence in COVID-19 infections, which weighed on demand at restaurants and hotels.

But other details of the Labor Department’s closely watched employment report on Friday were fairly strong, with the unemployment rate falling to a 17-month low of 5.2% and July job growth revised sharply higher. Wages increased a solid 0.6% and fewer people were experiencing long spells of unemployment.

This points to underlying strength in the economy even as growth appears to be slowing significantly in the third quarter because of the soaring infections, driven by the Delta variant of the coronavirus, and relentless shortages of raw materials, which are depressing automobile sales and restocking.

“It is important to keep the right perspective,” said Brian Bethune, professor of practice at Boston College. “Given the supply chain constraints and the ongoing battle to lasso COVID-19 to the ground, the economy is performing exceptionally well.”

The survey of establishments showed nonfarm payrolls increased by 235,000 jobs last month, the smallest gain since January. Data for July was revised up to show a whopping 1.053 million jobs created instead of the previously reported 943,000.

Hiring in June was also stronger than initially estimated, leaving average monthly job growth over the past three months at a strong 750,000. Employment is 5.3 million jobs below its peak in February 2020. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast nonfarm payrolls increasing by 728,000 jobs in August.

Though the Delta variant was the biggest drag, fading fiscal stimulus was probably another factor. The response rate to the survey is lower in August and the pandemic has made it harder to adjust education employment for seasonal fluctuations.

The initial August payrolls print has undershot expectations over the last several years, including in 2020. Payrolls have been subsequently revised higher in 11 of the last 12 years.

“The August payroll figures have historically been revised higher in the years since the Great Recession, sometimes significantly, and there’s a good chance this effect will occur again this time,” said David Berson, chief economist at Nationwide in Ohio.

Employment in the leisure and hospitality sector was unchanged after gains averaging 377,000 per month over the prior three months. Restaurants and bars payrolls fell 42,000 and hiring at hotels and motels decreased 34,600, offsetting a 36,000 gain in arts, entertainment and recreation jobs. Retailers shed 29,000 jobs.

Construction lost 3,000 jobs. There were gains in mining, financial services, information and professional and business services as well as transportation and warehousing.

Manufacturing added 37,000 jobs, led by a 24,100 increase in the automobile industry. Factory hiring remains constrained by input shortages, especially semiconductors, which have depressed motor vehicle production and sales.

General Motors and Ford Motor Co announced production cuts this week.

Motor vehicle sales tumbled 10.7% in August.

That, together with raw materials shortages, which are making it harder for businesses to replenish inventories, prompted economists at Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan to slash third-quarter GDP growth estimates to as low as a 3.5% annualized rate from as high as a 8.25% pace. The economy grew at a 6.6% pace in the second quarter.

Government payrolls fell by 8,000 in August as state government education lost 21,000 jobs. August is the start of the back-to-school season, but the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which compiles the employment report cautioned that “pandemic-related staffing fluctuations in public and private education have distorted the normal seasonal hiring and layoff patterns.”

Stocks on Wall Street were mixed. The dollar slipped against a basket of currencies. U.S. Treasury prices fell.

SILVER LININGS

Details of the smaller household survey from which the unemployment rate is derived were fairly upbeat.

Household employment increased by 509,000 jobs, enough to push the unemployment rate to 5.2%, the lowest since March 2020 from 5.4% in July. The jobless rates, however, continued to be understated by people misclassifying themselves as being “employed but absent from work.” Without this problem, the jobless rate would have been 5.5%.

Even so, a broader measure of unemployment, which includes people who want to work but have given up searching and those working part-time because they cannot find full-time employment, dropped to a 17-month low of 8.8% from 9.2% in July.

Though the participation rate was steady at 61.7%, about 190,000 people entered the labor force last month. Even more encouraging, the number of permanent job losers declined 443,000 to 2.5 million. The number of long-term unemployed dropped to 3.2 million from 3.4 million in the prior month.

They accounted for 37.4% of the 8.4 million officially unemployed people, down from 39.3% in July. The duration of unemployment fell to 14.7 weeks from 15.2 weeks in July.

Economists did not believe the pullback in hiring was enough for the Federal Reserve to back away from its “this year” signal for the announcement of the scaling back of its massive monthly bond buying program, given strong wage growth.

“For the Fed a taper announcement is still likely coming in either November or December,” said Michael Feroli, chief U.S. economist at JPMorgan in New York.

The 0.6% jump in average hourly earnings after a 0.4% rise in July boosted annual wage growth to 4.3% in August from 4.0% in the prior month. The increase, led by lower-paying industries, is the result of worker shortages caused by the pandemic. There were a record 10.1 million job openings at the end of June.

There is cautious optimism that the labor pool will increase because of schools reopening and government-funded benefits expiring on Monday. But the Delta variant could delay the return to the labor force by some of the unemployed in the near term.

About 41,000 women, 20 years and older, dropped out the labor force. The number of number of people saying they were unable to work because of the pandemic increased 497,000 in August, the first rise since December. There was also a slight rise in the number of people working from home.

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Andrea Ricci)

U.S. labor market powers ahead with strong job gains, lower unemployment rate

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. employers hired the most workers in nearly a year in July and continued to raise wages, giving the economy a powerful boost as it started the second half of what many economists believe will be the best year for growth in almost four decades.

The Labor Department’s closely watched employment report on Friday also showed the unemployment rate dropped to a 16-month low of 5.4% and more people waded back into the labor force. The report followed on the heels of news last week that the economy fully recovered in the second quarter the sharp loss in output suffered during the very brief pandemic recession.

“We are charting new economic expansion territory in the third quarter,” said Brian Bethune, professor of practice at Boston College in Boston. “The overall momentum of the recovery continues to build.”

Nonfarm payrolls increased by 943,000 jobs last month, the largest gain since August 2020, the survey of establishments showed. Data for May and June were revised to show 119,000 more jobs created than previously reported. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast payrolls would increase by 870,000 jobs.

The economy has created 4.3 million jobs this year, leaving employment 5.7 million jobs below its peak in February 2020.

President Joe Biden cheered the strong employment report. “More than 4 million jobs created since we took office,” Biden wrote on Twitter. “It’s historic – and proof our economic plan is working.”

Hiring is being fueled by pent-up demand for workers in the labor-intensive services sector. Nearly $6 trillion in pandemic relief money from the government and COVID-19 vaccinations are driving domestic demand.

But a resurgence in infections, driven by the Delta variant of the coronavirus, could discourage some unemployed people from returning to the labor force.

July’s employment report could bring the Federal Reserve a step closer to announcing plans to start scaling back its monthly bond-buying program. The U.S. central bank last year slashed its benchmark overnight interest rate to near zero and is pumping money into the economy through the bond purchases.

“This is the last employment report Chair (Jerome) Powell sees before Jackson Hole, and we have to imagine that he lays the groundwork for a potential September tapering announcement,” said Conrad DeQuadros, senior economic advisor at Brean Capital in New York. “We think the odds continue to rise that tapering begins before the end of 2021.”

Stocks on Wall Street rose, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average and the S&P 500 index hitting record highs. The dollar jumped against a basket of currencies. U.S. Treasury prices fell.

BROAD EMPLOYMENT GAINS

Employment in the leisure and hospitality sector increased by 380,000 jobs, accounting for 40% of the job gains, with payrolls at restaurants and bars advancing by 253,000.

Government payrolls increased by a whopping 240,000 jobs as employment in local government education rose by 221,000. Education jobs were flattered by a seasonal quirk.

Hiring was also strong in the professional and business services, transportation and warehousing, and healthcare industries. Manufacturing payrolls increased by 27,000 jobs, while construction employment rebounded by 11,000 jobs. Retail trade and utilities were the only sectors to shed jobs.

Details of the smaller household survey from which the unemployment rate is derived were also upbeat. Household employment shot up by 1.043 million jobs, leading the unemployment rate to decline half a percentage point to its lowest level since March 2020.

The jobless rate, however, continued to be understated by people misclassifying themselves as being “employed but absent from work.” Without this misclassification, the unemployment rate would have been 5.7% in July.

About 261,000 people entered the labor force, lifting the participation rate to 61.7% from 61.6% in June. The employment-to-population ratio, viewed as a measure of an economy’s ability to create employment, rose to 58.4% from 58% in June.

Even more encouraging, the number of long-term unemployed dropped to 3.4 million from 4 million in the prior month. They accounted for 39.3% of the 8.7 million officially unemployed people, down from 42.1% in June. The duration of unemployment fell to 15.2 weeks from 19.8 weeks in June.

There was also an improvement in the number of people who have permanently lost their jobs. With economic growth this year expected to be around 7%, which would be the fastest since 1984, further recovery is expected.

Faced with a record 9.2 million job openings, employers continued to raise wages to attract workers. Average hourly earnings increased 0.4% last month, with sharp gains in the hospitality industry. That followed a similar rise in June and lifted the year-on-year increase in wages to 4.0% from 3.7%.

Lack of affordable child care and fears of contracting the coronavirus have been blamed for keeping workers, mostly women, at home. There also have been pandemic-related retirements as well as career changes. Republicans and business groups have blamed enhanced unemployment benefits, including a $300 weekly payment from the federal government, for the labor crunch.

Half of the nation’s states led by Republican governors have ended these federal benefits before their Sept. 6 expiration. Economists are cautiously optimistic that the worker shortage will ease in the fall when schools reopen for in-person learning and sustain the strong pace of hiring.

“August should be another big month, and September as well, as there are still millions who need to find work quickly,” said Chris Low, chief economist at FHN Financial in New York.

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Dan Burns and Paul Simao)

U.S. jobless claims unexpectedly rise, data remains volatile

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment benefits rose unexpectedly last week, an indication that the labor market recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic continues to be choppy.

Businesses have reopened at a rapid clip, boosted by a rollback in restrictions now that more than 155 million Americans have been fully vaccinated against the coronavirus. Still, the job market rebound has been anything but steady despite recent employment gains.

Initial claims for state unemployment benefits rose 2,000 to a seasonally adjusted 373,000 for the week ended July 3, the Labor Department said on Thursday. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast 350,000 applications for the latest week.

Lack of affordable child care and fears of contracting the coronavirus have been cited for keeping workers, mostly women, at home. There were a record 9.2 million job openings at the end of May and 9.5 million people were officially unemployed in June.

The data comes on the heels of an encouraging monthly jobs report from the Labor Department last Friday, which showed U.S. companies hired the most workers in 10 months in June.

Claims have dropped from a record 6.149 million in early April 2020 but remain above the 200,000-250,000 range that is seen as consistent with a healthy labor market.

The four-week moving average of claims, considered a better measure of labor market trends as it smooths out week-to-week volatility, fell 250 to 394,750.

The claims data may remain volatile in the coming weeks as 25 states with mostly Republican governors pull out of federal government-funded unemployment programs. These included a $300 weekly check, which businesses complained were encouraging the jobless to stay at home.

The early termination began on June 5 and will run through July 31, when Louisiana, the only one of those states with a Democratic governor, ends the weekly check.

For the rest of the country, these benefits will lapse on Sept. 6.

The claims report also showed the number of people continuing to receive benefits after an initial week of aid declined 145,000 to 3.339 million during the week ended June 26. There were 14.2 million people receiving benefits under all programs in late June, a fall from 14.7 million earlier in the month.

(Reporting by Lindsay Dunsmuir; Editing by Andrea Ricci)

U.S. labor market healing despite unexpected rise in weekly jobless claims

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment benefits increased last week for the first time in 1-1/2 months, but layoffs are easing amid a reopening economy and a shortage of people willing to work.

While other data on Thursday showed factory activity in the mid-Atlantic region continuing to grow at a steady pace in June, a measure of future production surged to its highest level in nearly 30 years. Factories in the region that covers eastern Pennsylvania, southern New Jersey and Delaware also reported stepping up hiring, which bodes well for job growth this month.

The scarcity of labor is a hurdle to faster employment growth. The Federal Reserve on Wednesday held its benchmark short-term interest rate near zero and said it would continue to inject money into the economy through monthly bond purchases. The U.S. central bank brought forward its projections for the first post-pandemic interest rate hikes into 2023 from 2024.

“We continue to see labor market progress, but as has been the case through the pandemic, the situation remains fluid,” said AnnElizabeth Konkel, an economist at Indeed Hiring Lab. “We are in a wildly different place than we were in June 2020, but we have not crossed the finish line just yet.”

Initial claims for state unemployment benefits rose 37,000 to a seasonally adjusted 412,000 for the week ended June 12, the Labor Department said. That was the first increase since late April. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast 359,000 applications for the latest week.

The increase in claims was led by California, Kentucky and Pennsylvania. The four-week moving average of claims, considered a better measure of labor market trends as it irons out week-to-week volatility, fell 8,000 to 395,000.

The economy, ironically, is facing a labor crunch despite employment remaining 7.6 million jobs below its peak in February 2020. A shortage of childcare facilities is keeping some parents, mostly women, at home.

Generous government-funded unemployment benefits, including a $300 weekly check, have also been blamed, as well as a reluctance by some to return to work out of fear of contracting COVID-19 even though vaccines are widely accessible.

Pandemic-related retirements and transitions into new careers are also factors.

Fed Chair Jerome Powell told reporters on Wednesday he was “confident that we are on a path to a very strong labor market, a labor market that shows low unemployment, high participation, rising wages for people across the spectrum.”

The White House also struck an optimistic note on the labor market, with senior economic adviser Jared Bernstein saying: “I saw a labor market that continues to improve, continues to grow as shots in arms and checks in pockets have helped pull this recovery forward.”

Iowa, Mississippi and Missouri terminated all federal government-funded emergency benefits last Saturday, while Alaska ended only the $300 supplement. Twenty-one other states also led by Republican governors, including Texas and Florida, will end these benefits for residents between June 19 and July 10.

Louisiana is ending the weekly supplementary check on July 31, the only state with a Democratic governor to terminate the federal benefits. For the rest of the country, they will lapse on Sept. 6.

Iowa reported an increase in claims for the regular state unemployment insurance program last week, while Alaska, Mississippi and Missouri saw declines. Only Alaska reported a decrease in claims for the government-funded Pandemic Unemployment Assistance.

Economists are watching the 26 states to see if their actions will boost employment or labor force participation over the summer, which could offer clues on labor market trends for the rest of the year when all government aid lapses.

There are a record 9.3 million job openings, while 9.3 million people are officially unemployed.

“We also could see added noise in the claims report if people end up trying to shuffle between programs or re-determine eligibility,” said Daniel Silver, an economist at JPMorgan in New York.

Stocks on Wall Street were mixed while the dollar rose against a basket of currencies. Longer-dated U.S. Treasury prices were trading higher.

STRONG FACTORY HIRING

In a separate report on Thursday, the Philadelphia Fed said its business conditions index dipped to a reading of 30.7 this month from 31.5 in May. But its measure of activity over the next six months surged to 69.2, the highest level since 1991, from 52.7 last month.

The survey’s gauge of factory employment in the mid-Atlantic region surged to 30.7 from a reading of 19.3 May. Factories also anticipated hiring more workers over the next six months, which offers further support to the labor market. Many, however, reported that labor shortages and supply chain bottlenecks were constraining their ability to fully use their resources.

Though layoffs are easing, initial claims remain well above the 200,000-250,000 range that is viewed as consistent with healthy labor market conditions. Claims have, however, dropped from a record 6.149 million in early April 2020.

Last week’s claims data included the period during which the government surveyed business establishments for the nonfarm payrolls component of June’s employment report. The economy created 559,000 jobs in May after adding 278,000 in April.

To get a better picture of how hiring fared in June, economists will await data next week on the number of people continuing to receive benefits after an initial week of aid.

The so-called continuing claims, which are reported with a one-week lag, edged up 1,000 to 3.518 million in the week ended June 5. There were 14.8 million people collecting unemployment checks under all programs at the end of May.

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Additional reporting by Evan Sully and Trevor Hunnicutt; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama, Andrea Ricci and Paul Simao)

U.S. job growth improves; desperate employers raise wages to attract workers

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. employers increased hiring in May and raised wages as they competed for workers, with millions of unemployed Americans still at home because of childcare issues, generous unemployment checks and lingering fears over COVID-19.

Though the pickup in job growth shown in the Labor Department’s closely watched employment report on Friday missed economists’ forecasts, it offered some assurance that the recovery from the pandemic recession remained on track.

Growth is being supported by vaccinations against COVID-19, massive fiscal stimulus and the Federal Reserve’s ultra-easy monetary policy stance. April’s nonfarm payrolls count, which delivered about a quarter of the new jobs economists had forecast, caused handwringing among some analysts and investors that growth was stagnating at a time when inflation was rising.

“There are still a lot of people unemployed, but there does not seem to be a lot of eagerness to work,” said Chris Low, chief economist at FHN Financial in New York. “There would have been many more hires if employers could find more people.”

Nonfarm payrolls increased by 559,000 jobs last month. Data for April was revised higher to show payrolls rising by 278,000 jobs instead of 266,000 as previously reported.

That left employment about 7.6 million jobs below its peak in February 2020. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast 650,000 jobs created in May. About 9.3 million people were classified as officially unemployed last month. There are a record 8.1 million unfilled jobs.

At least half of the American population has been fully vaccinated against the virus, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

That has allowed authorities across the country to lift virus-related restrictions on businesses, which nearly paralyzed the economy early in the pandemic. But the reopening of the economy is straining the supply chain.

Millions of workers, mostly women, remain at home as most school districts have not moved to full-time in-person learning. Despite vaccines being widely accessible, some segments of the population are reluctant to get inoculated, which labor market experts say is discouraging some people from returning to work.

Government-funded benefits, including a $300 weekly unemployment subsidy, are also constraining hiring. Republican governors in 25 states are terminating this benefit and other unemployment programs funded by the federal government starting next Saturday.

These states account for more than 40% of the workforce. The expanded benefits end in early September across the country. That, together with more people vaccinated and schools fully reopening in the fall, is expected to ease the worker crunch.

Labor Secretary Marty Walsh said the argument that enhanced benefits were discouraging job seeking was not supported by what workers were telling him.

“Working people across America are eager to work,” said Walsh in a statement. “But workers also told me about the challenges they and their families face, finding affordable childcare, caring for elderly parents and grandparents”

Stocks on Wall Street were trading higher. The dollar fell against a basket of currencies. U.S. Treasury prices rose.

WILLING WORKERS IN SHORT SUPPLY

Average hourly earnings rose a solid 0.5% after shooting up 0.7% in April. That raised the year-on-year increase in wages to 2.0% from 0.4% in April. Wages in the leisure and hospitality sector jumped 1.3%, the third straight month of gains above 1%.

Postings on Poachedjobs.com, a national job board for the restaurant/hospitality industry, are showing restaurants offering as much as $30-$35 per hour for lead line cooks.

Sustained wage growth could strengthen the argument among some economists that higher inflation could last longer rather than being transitory as currently envisioned by Fed Chair Jerome Powell. A measure of underlying inflation tracked by the Fed for its 2% target accelerated 3.1% on a year-on-year basis in April, the largest increase since July 1992.

Still, most economists do not expect the U.S. central bank to start withdrawing its massive economic support anytime soon.

“The data will likely reinforce the view of most Fed officials that progress has not been ‘substantial’ enough for them to start signaling tapering,” said Jim O’Sullivan, chief U.S. macro strategist at TD Securities in New York.

The average workweek held steady at 34.9 hours. That together with strong wage gains lifted an income proxy 0.9%, matching April’s gain. This bodes well for consumer spending, which could also get a powerful tailwind from the more than $2.3 trillion in excess savings amassed during the pandemic.

Economists are sticking to their forecasts for double-digit growth this quarter.

Last month’s increase in hiring was led by the leisure and hospitality industry, which added 292,000 jobs, with restaurants and bars accounting for 186,000 of those positions. Local government education employment rose by 53,000 jobs as the resumption of in-person learning and other school-related activities in some parts of the country continued.

Manufacturing payrolls increased by 23,000 jobs. But construction employment decreased by 20,000 jobs.

The unemployment rate fell to 5.8% from 6.1% in April. The drop was in part due to more jobs created and 53,000 people dropping out of the labor force. The jobless rate has been understated by people misclassifying themselves as being “employed but absent from work.” Without this problem, the unemployment rate would have been 6.1%.

The labor force participation rate, or the proportion of working-age Americans who have a job or are looking for one, fell to 61.6% from 61.7% in April.

“It appears like employers may need to offer up more incentives to entice workers to fill the record number of job openings that are out there,” said Charlie Ripley, senior investment strategist at Allianz Investment Management.

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Andrea Ricci)

U.S. consumer prices post biggest gain in nearly 12 years as inflation pressures build

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -U.S. consumer prices increased by the most in nearly 12 years in April as booming demand amid a reopening economy pushed against supply constraints, which could fuel financial market fears of a lengthy period of higher inflation.

The report from the Labor Department on Wednesday also showed a strong building up of underlying price pressures. Demand is being driven by nearly $6 trillion in government relief since the COVID-19 pandemic started in the United States in March 2020 and the vaccination of more than a third of the population.

Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell and many economists largely view higher inflation as transitory, with supply chains expected to adapt and become more efficient. But there are concerns that inflation could linger amid reports that companies are raising wages as they compete for scarce workers.

Though job openings are at a record 8.1 million and nearly 10 million people are officially unemployed, companies are scrambling for labor. Generous unemployment benefits, fears of contracting COVID-19, parents still at home caring for children and pandemic-related retirements have been blamed for the disconnect. Average hourly earnings jumped in April.

The consumer price index jumped 0.8% last month, the largest gain since June 2009. The CPI rose 0.6% in March. Food prices increased 0.4%. The cost of food consumed at home also gained 0.4%. The cost of food consumed away from home rose 0.3%. Gasoline prices fell 1.4% after accelerating 9.1% in March.

Economists polled by Reuters had forecast the CPI climbing 0.2% in April.

In the 12 months through April, the CPI shot up 4.2%. That was the largest gain since September 2008 and followed a 2.6% increase in March. The jump mostly reflected the dropping of last spring’s weak readings from the calculation.

Those so-called base effects are expected to push annual inflation even higher in the months ahead.

U.S. stock index futures extended losses on the data, which investors feared could force the Fed to raise interest rates sooner than expected. The dollar rose against a basket of currencies. U.S. Treasury prices were lower.

The Fed slashed its benchmark overnight interest rate to near zero and is pumping money into the economy through monthly bond purchases. The U.S. central bank has signaled it could tolerate higher inflation after years of lower inflation.

Excluding the volatile food and energy components, the CPI soared 0.9%, the largest gain since April 1982. The so-called core CPI rose 0.3% in March. There were increases in prices for used cars and trucks, shelter, airline fares, recreation, motor vehicle insurance as well as household furnishings.

In the 12 months through April, the core CPI jumped 3.0% after increasing 1.6% in March.

The Fed tracks the core personal consumption expenditures (PCE) price index for its 2% inflation target, a flexible average. The core PCE price index is at 1.8%.

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Andrew Heavens and Andrea Ricci)

U.S. job growth far below expectations in April amid labor shortages

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. employers hired far fewer workers than expected in April, likely frustrated by labor shortages, leaving them scrambling to meet booming demand as the economy reopens amid rapidly improving public health and massive financial help from the government.

Nonfarm payrolls increased by only 266,000 jobs last month after rising by 770,000 in March, the Labor Department said in its closely watched employment report on Friday.

Economists polled by Reuters had forecast payrolls advancing by 978,000 jobs.

The jobs report, the first since the White House’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 pandemic rescue package was approved in March, will probably do little to change expectations that the economy entered the second quarter with strong momentum and was on track for its best performance this year in almost four decades.

Twelve months ago, the economy purged a record 20.679 million jobs as it reeled from mandatory closures of nonessential businesses to slow the first wave of COVID-19 infections. New claims for unemployment benefits have dropped below 500,000 for the first-time since the pandemic started.

Americans over the age of 16 are now eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, leading states like New York, New Jersey and Connecticut to lift most of their coronavirus capacity restrictions on businesses.

But the resulting burst in demand, which contributed to the economy’s 6.4% annualized growth pace in the first quarter, the second-fastest since the third quarter of 2003, has triggered shortages of labor and raw materials.

From manufacturing to restaurants, employers are scrambling for workers. A range of factors, including parents still at home caring for children, coronavirus-related retirements and generous unemployment checks, are blamed for the labor shortages. The moderate pace of hiring could last at least until September when the enhanced unemployment benefits run out.

The labor market remains supported by very accommodative fiscal and monetary policy. President Joe Biden plans to spend another $4 trillion on education and childcare, middle- and low-income families, infrastructure and jobs. The Federal Reserve has signaled it intends to leave its benchmark interest rate near zero and continue to pump money into the economy through bond purchases for a while.

The unemployment rate rose to 6.1% in April from 6.0% in March. The jobless rate has been understated by people misclassifying themselves as being “employed but absent from work.” Millions of Americans remain out of work and many have permanently lost jobs because of the pandemic.

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)

U.S. consumer prices post biggest gain in 8-1/2 years as economy reopens

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -U.S. consumer prices rose by the most in more than 8-1/2 years in March as increased vaccinations and massive fiscal stimulus unleashed pent-up demand, kicking off what most economists expect will be a brief period of higher inflation.

The report from the Labor Department on Tuesday also showed a firming in underlying prices last month as the broader reopening of the economy bumps against bottlenecks in the supply chain, capacity constraints and higher commodity prices.

Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell and many economists view higher inflation as transitory, with supply chains expected to adapt and become more efficient. The supply constraints mostly reflect a shift in demand towards goods and away from services during the pandemic, now in its second year.

“Inflation is a process and not a one-time event,” said Chris Low, chief economist at FHN Financial in New York. “These bottlenecks are one offs. The Fed will not consider action until it views price levels changes as permanent rather than temporary, something it does not consider possible until the economy is at full employment.”

The consumer price index jumped 0.6% last month, the largest gain since August 2012, after rising 0.4% in February. A 9.1% surge in gasoline prices accounted for nearly half of the increase in the CPI. Gasoline prices rose 6.4% in February.

Food prices edged up 0.1%. The cost of food consumed at and away from home also rose 0.1%.

Economists polled by Reuters had forecast the CPI advancing 0.5%. In the 12 months through March, the CPI surged 2.6%. That was the largest gain since August 2018 and followed a 1.7% increase in February.

The jump mostly reflected the dropping of last spring’s weak readings from the calculation. Those so-called base effects are expected to push up annual inflation even higher in the coming months before subsiding later this year.

Stocks on Wall Street were mostly higher. The dollar slipped against a basket of currencies. U.S. Treasury prices rose slightly.

UNDERLYING INFLATION FIRMING

Excluding the volatile food and energy components, the CPI increased 0.3% after nudging up 0.1% in February. The largest gain in seven months in the so-called core CPI was driven by a rise in rents as well as hotel and motel accommodation prices, which rebounded 4.4% after falling 2.7% in February.

The cost of hospital services increased 0.6%. But prescription medication prices were unchanged leading to overall healthcare costs edging up 0.1%. Used cars and trucks prices increased a solid 0.5%, but the cost new cars was unchanged for a second straight month. Motor vehicle production has been hampered by a global shortage of semiconductors.

Consumers also paid more for motor vehicle insurance as well as recreation and household furnishings. But apparel prices fell as did costs related to education.

The core CPI increased 1.6% on a year-on-year basis after rising 1.3% in February. The Fed tracks the core personal consumption expenditures (PCE) price index for its 2% inflation target, a flexible average. The core PCE price index is at 1.5%.

The cost of services advanced 0.4% after rising 0.3% in February. The government reported last week that producer prices surged in March. With the CPI and PPI data in hand, economists at JPMorgan forecast the core PCE price index gained 0.4% in March after nudging up 0.1% in February. That would lift the year-on-year increase to 1.9% from 1.4% in February.

March’s strong inflation readings are in sync with several business surveys showing an acceleration in cost pressures.

Manufacturers are grappling with acute shortages of basic materials, rising commodities prices and difficulties in transporting finished goods.

Some economists argue the fractured supply chains, together with nearly $6 trillion in government relief since the COVID-19 pandemic barreled through the United States in March 2020 could fan inflation for a sustained period. The Fed has also slashed its benchmark overnight interest rate to near zero and is pumping money into the economy through monthly bond purchases.

These economists also point to the business surveys, which have indicated that customer inventories are at record lows and order books are full. A survey from the NFIB on Tuesday showed just over a third of small businesses planned raising prices in March, noting that “low inventories and solid sales will create more opportunities to raise prices.”

“This suggests companies have strong pricing power that could allow them to expand profit margins after several years of margin compression, which could keep inflation higher for longer,” said James Knightley, chief international economist at ING in New York.

But labor market slack could make it harder for inflation to continue spiraling higher. Employment remains 8.4 million below its peak in February 2020. The extremely accommodative fiscal and monetary policy are also unlikely to keep inflation uncomfortably high, if history is a good predictor.

“Neither rapid money growth and record federal budget deficits have had any correlation with inflation over the past 40 years,” said David Berson, chief economist at Nationwide in Columbus, Ohio. “Additionally, the factors that have acted to keep inflation in check in recent decades – stable inflation expectations, increased use of technology, production movements to low-cost areas – all remain in place.”

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani, Editing by Andrea Ricci)

U.S. weekly jobless claims unexpectedly rise, but labor market improving

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment benefits unexpectedly rose last week, but the increase likely understated the rapidly improving labor market conditions as more parts of the economy reopen and fiscal stimulus kicks in.

The second straight weekly increase in claims reported by the Labor Department on Thursday was at odds with reports this month showing the economy created 916,000 jobs in March, the most in seven months, and job openings increased to a two-year high in February.

“Our belief is that continued moves to reopen the economy will result in a solid further advance in payrolls in the April jobs report and that the claims data are likely not capturing the pace of improvement in the labor market,” said Conrad DeQuadros, senior economic advisor at Brean Capital in New York.

Initial claims for state unemployment benefits increased 16,000 to a seasonally adjusted 744,000 for the week ended April 3 compared to 728,000 in the prior week. Data for the prior week was revised to show 9,000 more applications received than previously reported.

Economists polled by Reuters had forecast 680,000 applications for the latest week. Though claims have dropped from a record 6.149 million in early April of 2020, they remain more than double their pre-pandemic level. In a healthy labor market, claims are normally in a range of 200,000 to 250,000.

Part of the elevation in claims is because of fraud, multiple filings and backlogs following the enhancement of the unemployment benefit programs.

The government is paying a weekly $300 unemployment supplement, as well as funding benefits for the self-employed, gig workers and others who do not qualify for the regular state unemployment insurance programs.

The weekly subsidy and the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program will run through Sept. 6.

Including the PUA program, 892,539 people filed claims last week, remaining below one million for a third straight week.

The increase in applications was led by California and New York. There were big drops in Alabama and Texas, as well as Ohio, which has been beset by fraudulent applications.

“The total number of filings for all unemployment insurance programs has remained stubbornly steady over the last few months despite net re-hiring in monthly employment reports,” said Veronica Clark, an economist at Citigroup in New York.

“This could partly be a reflection of more workers wanting to stay on unemployment benefits even if some return to work part-time given the greater size of payments.”

U.S. stocks opened largely higher. The dollar fell against a basket of currencies. U.S. Treasury prices gained.

COMPANIES HIRING

The labor market has regained its footing after stumbling in December, thanks to the White House’s massive $1.9 trillion pandemic rescue package and an acceleration in the pace of COVID-19 vaccinations, which are allowing more services businesses to resume operations.

In the minutes of the Federal Reserve’s March 16-17 policy meeting released on Wednesday, U.S. central bank officials acknowledged the improvement in labor market conditions and “expected strong job gains to continue over coming months and into the medium term.”

Several Fed officials suggested the latest relief package “could hasten the recovery, which could help limit longer-term damage in labor markets caused by the pandemic.”

Anecdotal evidence suggests companies are recalling workers laid off during the pandemic and hiring new employees. An Institute for Supply Management survey on Monday showed services businesses reporting they “have recalled everyone put on waivers and made new hires” and had “additional employees added to service the needs of new customers at new locations.”

Still, the labor market recovery has a long way to go. Employment is 8.4 million jobs below its peak in February 2020.

The claims report also showed the number of people receiving benefits after an initial week of aid decreased 16,000 to 3.734 million in the week ended March 27. That was the lowest reading since March 2020 when mandatory closures of non-essential businesses were being enforced across many states to slow the first wave of COVID-19 infections.

The 12th straight weekly decline in the so-called continuing claims in likely due to people finding work and exhausting their eligibility for benefits, limited to 26 weeks in most states. About 5.634 million people were on extended benefits during the week ended March 20, up 117,108 from the prior week.

Another 786,962 were on a state program for those who have exhausted their initial six months of aid, down 230,780 from the week before. There were 18.2 million receiving benefits under all programs during the week ended March 20.

(Reporting by Lucia MutikaniEditing by Chizu Nomiyama and Paul Simao)