Graphic: America’s economy and wages are cooling but not its female workforce

A female construction worker stands outside a construction site in Manhattan, New York, U.S., October 3, 2018. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

By Jason Lange

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Data released on Friday showed a return to strong job growth in the United States, allaying some fears the U.S. economy is on a short path to recession. But the data also reinforced the view that economic growth is slowing.

Here are five take-aways from a report by the U.S. Labor Department on U.S. employment during June.

SLOWING GROWTH

Every month the Labor Department surveys payrolls in the private sector to calculate how many hours employees across the nation worked. Seen as a proxy for economic growth, this index of the national work effort grew 0.2% in June, a rate near the muted gains clocked in recent months. That suggests the U.S. economy, which grew at a 3.1% annual rate in the first quarter of this year, could be cooling.

COOLER WAGE GROWTH?

Growth in private sector average hourly earnings accelerated throughout 2018 and through February of this year, when year-over-year growth hit the strongest rate since 2009 at 3.4%. June’s growth rate, however, was a more modest 3.1%. It is probably too early to tell if there has been a break in the upward trend.

Average earnings graphic

WAGE LAGGARDS

The manufacturing sector added 17,000 jobs in June after several months of weak growth or outright decline. Wage growth in the factory sector, however, has underperformed the national average. Wage growth has also been lower in the education and health jobs category tracked by the Labor Department.

leaders_laggards: https://tmsnrt.rs/2FUH8hw

LABOR FORCE INCREASE

A bright spot for the U.S. economy over the last few years has been the increase in the share of the population that either has a job or is looking for one. This so-called labor force participation rate ticked slightly higher in June, both for a key demographic of people of prime working age and for the general population. But the rate for prime-age workers has been mostly falling since January. This suggests the economy might be running lower on its supply of people available to work, which could depress future job growth.

participation rate graphic

WOMEN LEAD

In June, the participation rate fell for men of prime working age, while it rose for women. This is in line with the trend over the last few years. Indeed, the share of men who have jobs or are looking for one was slightly lower in June than it was in January 2017.

Women lead graphic 

(Reporting by Jason Lange; Editing by Dan Grebler)

Fed policymakers promise response if U.S. economy slows

FILE PHOTO: Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell poses for photos with Fed Governor Lael Brainard (L) at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, in Chicago, Illinois, U.S., June 4, 2019. REUTERS/Ann Saphir

By Howard Schneider and Ann Saphir

CHICAGO (Reuters) – Signs that the economy is losing momentum hung over a Federal Reserve summit for a second straight day as policymakers hinted they would be ready to cut interest rates if the U.S. trade war threatens a decade-long expansion.

Investors added to bets that the Fed would have to lower borrowing costs multiple times by year-end on Wednesday after a report by a payrolls processor showed private employers added 27,000 jobs in May, well below economists’ expectations and the smallest monthly gain in more than nine years.

The U.S. economy will mark 10 years of expansion in July, the longest on record. Strong job gains have been a key feature. But rising trade tensions between the United States and China have led to tit-for-tat tariffs, put a chill on U.S. businesses’ spending and exacerbated a manufacturing slowdown.

Current and threatened U.S.-China tariffs could slash global economic output by 0.5% in 2020, the International Monetary Fund warned on Wednesday as world finance leaders prepare to meet in Japan this weekend.

“We’ll be prepared to adjust policy to sustain the expansion,” Fed Governor Lael Brainard said in an interview with Yahoo Finance on the sidelines of the Fed’s Chicago summit. “The U.S. economy, generally, is in the midst of a very lengthy expansion, the U.S. consumer remains confident, but trade policy is definitely a downside risk.”

Brainard’s remarks follow a pledge on Tuesday by Fed Chairman Jerome Powell to react “as appropriate” to trade-war fallout. Other Fed officials struck a similarly cautious tone.

Since the Fed’s last rate-setting meeting, Trump slapped new 25% tariffs on $200 billion of Chinese imports and threatened new import taxes on Mexican goods unless immigration slows. Until recently officials had been largely signaling that they would keep rates at their 2.25-2.50% target range.

The trade war added urgency to what was intended to be a strategy session at the Chicago Fed focused on how the central bank can shore up its policies. Officials worry that economies risk getting stuck in a self-fulfilling cycle of low rates and low inflation that will make it harder to rebound from recessions and require increasingly forceful intervention.

To combat those risks, Fed officials are considering whether they want to temporarily welcome inflation a bit above their 2%-a-year target – and keep rates lower for longer – in the hopes that such a strategy will make attaining the central bank’s goals for maximum employment and price stability more likely.

Policymakers are also revisiting exactly what maximum employment means and whether they are doing a good enough job in how they speak to the public. No changes are expected until next year.

(Reporting by Howard Schneider and Ann Saphir; Writing and additional reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt; Editing by Andrea Ricci)

U.S. existing home sales surge, boosted by Fed’s signal on rates

FILE PHOTO: An existing home for sale is seen in Silver Spring, Maryland February 21, 2014. REUTERS/Gary Cameron

By Jason Lange

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. home sales surged in February to their highest level in 11 months, a sign that a pause in interest rate hikes by the Federal Reserve was starting to boost the U.S. economy.

The National Association of Realtors said on Friday existing home sales jumped 11.8 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.51 million units last month.

That was the highest since March 2018 and well above analysts’ expectations of a rate of 5.1 million units. The one-month percentage change was the largest since December 2015. January’s sales pace was revised slightly lower.

February’s surge came as mortgage rates fell following signals from the Federal Reserve that it was no longer eyeing rate hikes. Several years of rising rates had put a brake on parts of the U.S. housing market in 2018.

“(It’s) quite a powerful recovery that’s taking place,” said Lawrence Yun, chief economist with the National Association of Realtors.

Still, the number of sales in February was 1.8 percent lower than a year ago.

The U.S. housing market has also been held back by land and labor shortages, which have led to tight inventory and more expensive homes.

The PHLX Housing Index extended losses following the release of the figures although its decline was less steep than the broader stock market.

The median existing house price increased 3.6 percent from a year ago to $249,500 in February.

Existing home sales rose in three of the country’s four major regions and were unchanged in the Northeast.

There were 1.63 million previously owned homes on the market in February, up from 1.59 million in January.

At February’s sales pace, it would take 3.5 months to exhaust the current inventory, down from 3.9 months in January. A supply of six to seven months is viewed as a healthy balance between supply and demand.

(Reporting by Jason Lange; Editing by Andrea Ricci)

The Federal Reserve is prodding Americans to buy more on credit

FILE PHOTO: A sign advertises homes for sale in a new housing development in Dickinson, North Dakota January 21, 2016. REUTERS/Andrew Cullen

By Jason Lange

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Federal Reserve’s decisive statement this week that interest rates are unlikely to rise this year sends a signal to U.S. households: keep buying stuff.

The Fed tries to guide the U.S. economy by controlling the interest rate banks charge one another for overnight loans. Moving this rate up lifts other rates in the economy, making it costlier for people to use their credit cards or to buy homes and cars. Higher rates also make companies rethink investments.

A solid majority of Fed policymakers on Wednesday said higher rates are unlikely this year, leading investors to bet the economy might slowing enough for the Fed to actually cut rates.

The following are some possible consequences for American households:

EASY CREDIT

The Fed’s signal on its interest rate outlook led key market rates to fall, including the yield on 10-year Treasury bonds. That is a sign that rates are also falling for loans used to buy houses and cars. Interest rates for credit cards may also drift lower. Mortgage rates have been falling since November when Fed policymakers made clear they would be patient about rate decisions.

SAVING DISCOURAGED

Lower rates also encourage spending by taking the shine off some common ways to save money. Low yields reduce the return on money in savings accounts as well as in funds made up of safe-haven government bonds. This poses a problem for retirees who depend more on their income from savings and who take a hit from lower rates on Treasury bonds. The Fed has argued that retirees benefit from actions taken to support the broader economy.

RETIREMENT BOOST

Rising stock prices comprise the flip side of lower bond yields. That boosts the value of private retirement accounts, such as 401(k)s, particularly those of young people whose accounts tend to be weighted toward stocks.

The benchmark S&P 500 stock index surged after the Fed’s decision, reflecting the view that cheaper borrowing costs would help company profits. It is possible that stock market gains could boost consumer spending because people sometimes loosen their purse strings after a rise in perceived wealth.

BUOYANT LABOR MARKET

The U.S. jobless rate is near its lowest level in 50 years although lately there have been signs of softening in the labor market. Hiring slowed sharply in February and the number of new jobless claims every week has also been ticking higher. The Fed’s action aims to keep the labor market solid. That could help encourage more people to rekindle job searches they had given up when the economy was still weak following the 2007-09 financial crisis.

 

(Reporting by Jason Lange, editing by G Crosse)

Fed says U.S. economy ended 2018 with solid but weakening growth

FILE PHOTO: Flags fly over the Federal Reserve Headquarters on a windy day in Washington, U.S., May 26, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/File Photo/File Photo

By Howard Schneider and Pete Schroeder

WASHINGTON, Feb 22 (Reuters) – The U.S. economy maintained “solid” growth through the second half of 2018, likely expanding “just under” 3 percent for the year, though consumer and business spending had begun to weaken, the Federal Reserve said on Friday in its semi-annual monetary policy report to Congress.

In a document that balanced its mostly positive outlook for a still growing economy against an array of emerging domestic and global risks, the U.S. central bank laid out why it had put further interest rate hikes on hold last month.

From a “deteriorated” appetite for risk among investors to a slowdown in China, the outlook for policy is “more uncertain than earlier,” the Fed said, noting “softer global and economic conditions.”

That may spill into the start of 2019, the Fed said, noting that the recent 35-day partial shutdown of the U.S. government “likely held down GDP growth in the first quarter of this year.”

For 2018, the Fed said: “Consumer spending expanded at a strong rate for most of the second half … though spending appears to have weakened toward year-end.”

“Business investment grew as well, though growth seems to have slowed somewhat,” it added.

Consumer and business confidence remains “favorable,” but “some measures have softened since the fall,” the Fed reported. “Domestic financial conditions for businesses and households have become less supportive of economic growth.”

The Fed noted to Congress that it would continue to reduce the size of its balance sheet, which had declined by about $260 billion since its last report to lawmakers, ending the year at close to $4 trillion. But the central bank also repeated its new openness to adjusting “any of the details” of its balance sheet plan if economic and financial conditions warrant.

POWELL HEADS TO CONGRESS

Fed Chairman Jerome Powell will testify before lawmakers in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives on Tuesday and Wednesday to elaborate on the report in what could prove to be an important week for economic data and the central bank’s sense of where the economy is heading.

The report indicated some underlying economic strength, with “ongoing improvements in the labor market,” and solid growth in disposable income, fueled by the Trump administration’s tax cuts, boosting household consumption.

Inflation last year remained close to the Fed’s 2 percent target.

But the Fed noted headwinds, including those tied to the ongoing debate over global trade policy. Overall, net exports “likely subtracted a little from real GDP growth” over 2018, despite the administration’s efforts to improve the U.S. trade position.

At a policy meeting late last month, Fed officials put their three-year push for higher interest rates on hold amid a broad recognition that inflation and global growth had weakened, and that the U.S. outlook was less certain than just a few weeks earlier.

Since then, economic data has been mixed, with weaker retail sales and manufacturing reports balanced by continued strong job growth.

But some important pieces of the puzzle have been missing altogether. Most notably, the report on gross domestic product for the last quarter of 2018 was delayed by the recent government shutdown.

That report is due to be released on Thursday, and will be followed on Friday by the jobs report for February.

(Reporting by Howard Schneider and Pete Schroeder Editing by Paul Simao) ((howard.schneider@thomsonreuters.com; +1 202 789 8010;))

Shutdown costs pegged at $3 billion as U.S. government reopens

Commuters walk from the Federal Triangle Metro station after the U.S. government reopened with about 800,000 federal workers returning after a 35-day shutdown in Washington, U.S., January 28, 2019. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

By David Morgan and Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. economy was expected to lose $3 billion from the partial federal government shutdown over President Donald Trump’s demand for border wall funding, congressional researchers said on Monday as 800,000 federal employees returned to work after a 35-day unpaid furlough.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) said the cost of the shutdown will make the U.S. economy 0.02 percent smaller than expected in 2019. More significant effects will be felt by individual businesses and workers, particularly those who went without pay.

Overall, the U.S. economy lost about $11 billion during the five-week period, CBO said. However, CBO expects $8 billion to be recovered as the government reopens and employees receive back pay.

The longest shutdown in U.S. history ended on Friday when Trump and Congress agreed to temporary government funding – without money for his wall – as the effects of the shutdown intensified across the country.

Republican Trump had demanded that legislation to fund the government contain $5.7 billion for his long-promised wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. He says it is necessary to stop illegal immigration, human trafficking and drug smuggling, while Democrats call it costly, inefficient and immoral.

A committee of lawmakers from both major parties holds their first open meeting on Wednesday as they try to negotiate a compromise on border security before the Feb. 15 deadline.

The CBO estimated the shutdown reduced gross domestic product in the last quarter of 2018 by $3 billion.

It said that in the first quarter of 2019, the level of real GDP is estimated to be $8 billion lower than it would have been, citing “an effect reflecting both the five-week partial shutdown and the resumption in economic activity once funding resumed.”

Trump said he would be willing to shut down the government again if lawmakers do not reach a deal he finds acceptable on border security. On Sunday, he expressed skepticism such a deal could be made, putting the odds at 50-50.

Trump has also said he might declare a national emergency to get money for the border wall. Democrats would likely challenge that in court.

The CBO report serves as a stark warning to Trump against another shutdown, said U.S. Representative John Yarmuth, the Democratic chairman of the House Budget Committee.

“The CBO confirms that the Trump shutdown had a debilitating effect on our entire economy, and if it were to resume in three weeks, millions of Americans would again share the pain of the 800,000 workers who spent the past month without a paycheck,” he said.

Most employees should be paid by Thursday for back pay, which one study estimated at $6 billion for all those furloughed. Contractors and businesses that relied on federal workers’ business, however, face huge losses, although some lawmakers are pushing legislation to pay contractors back as well.

Federal workers poured off of commuter buses and subway escalators on a block of downtown Washington on Monday. Federal Communications Commission chairman Ajit Pai greeted employees in the lobby, while the Securities and Exchange Commission offered doughnuts, fruit and coffee.

“I’m ready to go. I’m rested and I’m ready. I’m energized,” Gary Hardy, a manager in the Employee Assistance Program at the Department of Homeland Security.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration was reviewing five weeks of auto safety recalls that had been submitted by automakers but has not yet begun posting them publicly. The Federal Aviation Administration said it would assess and prioritize immediate post-shutdown needs.

(Reporting by David Morgan and Richard Cowan; Additional reporting by David Shepardson, Mana Rabiee and Susan Heavey; Writing by Doina Chiacu; Editing by Grant McCool)

Trump-Xi trade armistice clears way for more market gains

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump and China's President Xi Jinping shake hands after making joint statements at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, November 9, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj/File Photo

By Jonathan Spicer and Lewis Krauskopf

NEW YORK (Reuters) – One of the darkest clouds hanging over Wall Street somewhat dissipated on the weekend when China and the United States agreed to shelve any new tariffs and reset discussions, at least temporarily halting an increase in their tensions over trade.

Investors said the agreement, lasting 90 days, between Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Donald Trump at the G20 summit, spelled a reprieve for stocks and could pave the way for a positive bookend to a volatile trading year.

U.S. stock index futures jumped as trading for the week began late on Sunday, with benchmark S&P 500 e-mini futures up 1.55 percent. Treasury futures were soft, suggesting an appetite for risk-taking could extend last week’s gains in the stock market.

The trade tension between Washington and Beijing, along with an uncertain outlook for U.S. rate hikes, have for months dogged prospects for equities. The U.S. pledge not to boost tariffs on $200 billion of Chinese goods could mark the most important deal in years between the world’s top two economies.

“It sets a pretty positive tone (and) stocks should have a decent rally into December,” said Nathan Thooft, Boston-based global head of asset allocation for Manulife Asset Management.

Thooft said he believed the Trump administration was using a threat to raise tariffs to 25 percent on Jan. 1, from 10 percent now as a negotiating tactic. “So when you start to see evidence that there is the ability to come to some type of agreement, that has to be viewed as a positive,” he said.

The stock market logged an official correction after a selloff in October and continued volatility in November that, just over a week ago, had left the benchmark S&P 500  stock index down 10 percent from its all-time high.

Markets rebounded last week on comments perceived as dovish from Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell, though the S&P was up only 2.4 percent in 2018.

The latest trade standoff began in September when the United States imposed the 10-percent tariffs, prompting China to respond with its own. Ahead of the leaders’ dinner in Argentina, investors had been bracing for a range of outcomes including a worse-case end to talks and more tit-for-tat measures that would have continued to crimp economic and corporate profit growth.

Instead, the Americans and Chinese officially lauded the result.

Beijing agreed to buy what the White House called a “very substantial” amount of agriculture, energy, industrial and other products. While the clock ticks on the 90-day tariff reprieve, the two sides will try to work out thorny issues including technology transfer, intellectual property and cyber theft.

“It’s not solved by any stretch of the imagination,” said Thooft. But risk assets and cyclical U.S. sectors like materials and industrials should benefit, he said on Sunday.

An initial jump late on Sunday of nearly 2 percent in Nasdaq 100 e-mini futures suggested that technology companies, many of which were hardest hit in the selloff, could rebound.

Gary Shapiro, CEO of the Consumer Technology Association, said he was encouraged by the trade talks and warned that raising tariffs to 25 percent as the White House had threatened “would likely hurt consumers, put several American companies out of business and displace thousands of American workers.”

POWELL TESTIMONY

Energy prices could also rebound on Monday since cooling trade tensions could boost the world economy and spur demand.

Oil prices had dropped from a four-year high of about $76 per barrel in early October to just above $50 on Friday. But U.S. crude oil was up 2.7 percent to $52.37 a barrel as of 6:07 p.m. EST (2307 GMT) on Sunday.

Aside from trade policy, Wall Street’s attention has also been trained on Fed policy.

Powell was scheduled to testify on Wednesday to a congressional Joint Economic Committee. But the hearing is expected to be postponed to Thursday because major exchanges will be closed on Wednesday in honor of former U.S. President George H.W. Bush, who died on Friday at the age of 94.

Last week, Powell backed the Fed’s gradual tightening but said its policy rate was “just below” a range of estimates of the so-called neutral level that neither stimulates nor cools growth. In response, stocks shot up and largely recovered November’s earlier losses.

In the wake of Powell’s speech, Nicholas Colas, co-founder of DataTrek Research, said: “what happens in Buenos Aires will determine if stocks post a positive 2018.”

The specter of a global trade war has hovered over the market since March when Trump announced tariffs on imported steel and aluminum. He also recently said the United States was studying auto tariffs, which could ripple through Europe and Japan, while a pact with Canada and Mexico left some investors heartened about potential progress with China.

Nancy Lazar, economist at research firm Cornerstone Macro, said in a note that the 90-day tariff delay and China’s “incremental concessions” are good news.

“But given the stern U.S. stance, we’re certainly not raising our outlook,” she said of a 2.8-percent growth estimate for the fourth quarter, still comfortably above potential.

With U.S. corporate leaders increasingly voicing concerns over rising costs associated with tariffs, Wall Street appeared set on Monday to welcome any development that eases those pressures.

(Reporting by Jonathan Spicer and Lewis Krauskopf; Editing by Grant McCool and Sandra Maler)

U.S. job growth jumps; annual wage gain largest since 2009

People wait in line at a stand during the Executive Branch Job Fair hosted by the Conservative Partnership Institute at the Dirksen Senate Office Building in Washington, U.S., June 15, 2018. REUTERS/Toya Sarno Jordan

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. job growth rebounded sharply in October and wages recorded their largest annual gain in 9-1/2 years, pointing to further labor market tightening that could encourage the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates again in December.

The Labor Department’s closely watched monthly employment report on Friday also showed the unemployment rate steady at a 49-year low of 3.7 percent as 711,000 people entered the labor force, in a sign of confidence in the jobs market.

Sustained labor market strength could ease fears about the economy’s health following weak housing data and stalling business spending. President Donald Trump cheered the robust report, which came less than a week before the midterm elections that will decide who controls the U.S. Congress.

“These are incredible numbers,” Trump tweeted.

Nonfarm payrolls increased by 250,000 jobs last month as employment in the leisure and hospitality sector bounced back after being held down by Hurricane Florence, which drenched North and South Carolina in mid-September.

There were also big gains in manufacturing, construction and professional and business services payrolls. Data for September was revised to show 118,000 jobs added instead of the previously reported 134,000.

Economists polled by Reuters had forecast payrolls increasing by 190,000 jobs in October and the unemployment rate unchanged at 3.7 percent. The Labor Department said Hurricane Michael, which struck the Florida Panhandle in mid-October, “had no discernible effect on the national employment and unemployment estimates for October.”

Average hourly earnings rose five cents, or 0.2 percent, in October after advancing 0.3 percent in September. That boosted the annual increase in wages to 3.1 percent, the biggest gain since April 2009, from 2.8 percent in September.

Employers also increased hours for workers last month. The average workweek increased to 34.5 hours from 34.4 hours in September.

“The report shows a booming U.S. economy with a sufficient whiff of wage inflation to keep the Fed on track to raise rates in December and at least twice next year,” said David Kelly, chief global strategist at JPMorgan Funds in New York.

Strong annual wage growth mirrors other data published this week showing wages and salaries rising in the third quarter by the most since mid-2008. Hourly compensation also increased at a brisk pace in the third quarter.

Firming wages support views that inflation will hover around the Fed’s 2.0 percent target for a while. The personal consumption expenditures price index excluding the volatile food and energy components, which is the Fed’s preferred inflation measure, has increased by 2.0 percent for five straight months.

The Fed is not expected to raise rates at its policy meeting next week, but economists believe October’s strong labor market data could see the U.S. central bank signal an increase in December. The Fed raised borrowing costs in September for the third time this year.

U.S. stocks were trading mostly lower and the dollar was slightly weaker against a basket of currencies on Friday. Prices of U.S. Treasuries were lower.

WORKER SHORTAGE

Employers, scrambling to find qualified workers, are boosting wages. There are a record 7.14 million open jobs.

Online retail giant Amazon.com Inc announced last month that it would raise its minimum wage to $15 per hour for U.S. employees starting in November. Workers at United States Steel Corp are set to receive a hefty pay rise also.

Employment gains have averaged 218,000 jobs per month over the past three months, double the roughly 100,000 needed to keep up with growth in the working-age population.

That is seen supporting the economy through at least early 2019 when gross domestic product is expected to significantly slow as the stimulus from the White House’s $1.5 trillion tax cut package fades.

The labor force participation rate, or the proportion of working-age Americans who have a job or are looking for one, increased two-tenths of a percentage point to 62.9 percent last month.

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, fell to 7.4 percent last month from 7.5 percent in September. The employment-to-population ratio rose two-tenths of percentage point to 60.6 percent, the highest since January 2009.

Last month, employment in the leisure and hospitality sector increased by 42,000 jobs after being unchanged in September. Retail payrolls rose by only 2,400, likely restrained by layoffs related to Steinhoff’s Mattress Firm bankruptcy as well as some store closures by Sears Holdings Corp.

Construction companies hired 30,000 more workers in October. Jobs in the sector have been increasing despite weakness in the housing market. Government payrolls rose by 4,000 jobs in October.

Manufacturing employment increased by 32,000 jobs in October after adding 18,000 positions in September. Job gains in the sector, which accounts for about 12 percent of the U.S. economy, could slow after a survey on Thursday showed a measure of factory employment fell in October.

So far, manufacturing hiring does not appear to have been affected by the Trump administration’s protectionist trade policy, which has contributed to capacity constraints at factories. The United States is locked in a bitter trade war with China as well as tit-for-tat tariffs with other trade partners, including the European Union, Canada and Mexico.

Despite the protectionist measures, the trade deficit continues to deteriorate. In a separate report on Friday, the Commerce Department said the trade gap increased 1.3 percent to $54.0 billion in September, widening for a fourth straight month.

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Clive McKeef and Paul Simao)

U.S. regains crown as most competitive economy for first time since 2008

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump gestures as he delivers a speech during the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland January 26, 2018. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse/File Photo

By Katanga Johnson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. economy sits atop of the World Economic Forum’s annual global competitiveness survey for the first time since the 2007-2009 financial crisis, benefiting from a new ranking methodology this year, the Swiss body said on Tuesday.

In its closely-watched annual Global Competitiveness Report, the WEF said the U.S. is the country closest to the “frontier of competitiveness,” an indicator that ranks competitive productivity using a scale from zero to 100.

The U.S. beat off Singapore, Germany, Switzerland and Japan, the other top four markets, with a score of 85.6 out of 100, the report said, due to its “vibrant” entrepreneurial culture and “strong” labor market and financial system.

The World Economic Forum, the same organization that runs the Davos meeting of global powerbrokers each January, bases its rankings of 140 economies on a dozen drivers of competitiveness, including a country’s institutions and the policies that help drive productivity.

This year the WEF changed its methodology to better account for future readiness for competition, such as a country’s idea generation, entrepreneurial culture, and the number of businesses that disrupt existing markets.

The last time the U.S. topped the list was 2008.

The WEF said it was too early to factor in how the Trump administration’s recent trade policies would affect its ranking.

“While it is too early for the data to filter through in this year’s report, we would expect trade tensions with China and other trading partners to have a negative impact on the US’ competitiveness in the future, were they to continue,” Saadia Zahidi, the managing director at the World Economic Forum, said in an email.

“Open economies are more competitive.”

(Reporting by Katanga Johnson; Editing by Michelle Price)

A decade of U.S. economic sluggishness may have just snapped back to normal

FILE PHOTO: A U.S. five dollar note is seen in this illustration photo June 1, 2017. REUTERS/Thomas White/Illustration/File Photo

By Howard Schneider

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – For a solid decade after the collapse of Lehman Brothers touched off a global financial crisis, there was good reason to think the U.S. economy remained broken, from skepticism about the health of the labor market to tepid economic growth and the moribund rate of interest paid on U.S. Treasury bonds.

In a heartbeat, that seemed to change this week, adding facts on the ground to Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell’s glowing portrait of a historically rosy and extended period of super-low unemployment, modest inflation, and steady growth.

It came through Amazon.com Inc’s move to a $15 minimum wage, possibly setting the bar for companies nationwide. It came through a jump in long-term bond yields that signaled faith the gears of growth will remain engaged for a record-long recovery.

On Friday, it came through the 3.7 percent unemployment rate, a 49-year low, continuing a run of employment growth that many analysts, including at the Fed, have long expected to slow.

“Wage inflation is creeping higher,” said Russell Price, senior economist at Ameriprise Financial Services Inc in Troy, Michigan.

“There’s no question the job market in the United States is possibly at its best in a generation. There’s no question or debate about that. The jobs report has become an inflation report.”

Treasury bond yields rose further on the payrolls report, with the benchmark 10-year note yield touching its highest level since 2011, and U.S. stocks slipped.

The week’s events were not just consistent with the good times scenario both Powell and U.S. President Donald Trump have laid out. They validated it, and in doing so pointed to a U.S. economy that may be starting to work more like it used to.

As an exercise in old-fashioned supply and demand, Amazon’s decision to raise starting wages across the board was perhaps the best example. Fed and other officials have been anticipating for a while, in fact, that the lack of available workers would prompt companies to raise wages.

“When productivity growth is faster, that is your opportunity to share some of your extra output with your workers. That’s what gets wages higher,” said Vincent Reinhart, Chief Economist at investment manager Standish, and former head of the Fed’s monetary affairs division.

Even former skeptics have become open to the idea that a recent rise in productivity may turn into a trend, drawing comparisons with the “Great Moderation” period of growth during the 1990s, which also featured low unemployment and solid wage growth

The rise in long-term bond rates also may herald a return to more normal conditions, giving cautious investors a reasonable return after years of lackluster outcomes, and easing concerns about a flat or “inverted” yield curve that would herald loss of faith in the future.

There is reason to think it may continue.

To pay for the Republican tax cuts and the bump in defense spending, the Treasury is flooding the market with bonds at a near-record pace, with gross issuance of bills, notes and bonds in August topping $1 trillion in a month for only the second time ever, according to federal SIFMA data.

To sell all those bonds, the Treasury may have to pay higher rates. Meanwhile, a major customer, the Fed, whose purchases of $3.5 trillion of assets during and after the crisis helped foster the recovery, has started shrinking its bond portfolio by $50 billion a month.

There are risks surrounding the week’s development, and a few anomalies.

The Fed, for example, is convinced that with its gradual continuing rate increases, inflation will remain controlled – even as unemployment dives for years to come below levels not seen since the 1960s. If inflation does kick in, as it might be expected to do with such a hot labor market and with Trump’s tariffs pushing up the cost of some imports, it would force the Fed to speed up rate hikes and possibly end the party.

Surging bond rates could also throw cold water on Powell’s positive thinking, and call the Fed’s whole strategy of gradual rate increases into question. High Treasury rates mean higher rates for mortgage lending, auto loans, and a host of other forms of credit that could slow the real economy more than the Fed would like.

“The tariffs, quotas, and trade threats are like shooting the starter’s pistol to say: let’s think about renegotiating” wages and salaries, said Reinhart. “It is possible that the limited influence of resource slack on wages and prices was because we were just stuck, (but) that could change.”

A “divergent” U.S. economy, as Cleveland Fed President Loretta Mester warned, could also mean a stronger dollar – and fewer exports and growth.

But as she noted, for a decade now the concern has been about persistent weakness – that the economy was stuck in a state of what prominent economists deemed “secular stagnation.”

The return of volatility, of reasonable returns for savers, of wage pressure benefiting workers, may all pose risks.

But they are the risks of a more normal world.

“The economy is performing extraordinarily well, at least relative to recent history,” said Joseph LaVorgna, chief Americas economics at Natixis. “It’s not the boom of the late ’90s, but it’s doing pretty well.”

(Reporting by Howard Schneider; additional reporting by Jonathan Spicer and Herbert Lash in New York; Editing by Dan Burns and Nick Zieminski)