U.S. companies facing worker shortage race to automate

U.S. companies facing worker shortage race to automate
By David Randall

NEW YORK (Reuters) – U.S. companies are responding to the lowest unemployment rate in almost 50 years by increasing their focus on automation in order to maintain healthy margins as labor costs tick higher, a Reuters analysis of corporate earnings transcripts shows.

The attempt to save money through technology does not come down to just installing more robots in factories. Instead, companies appear to be confronting the lack of low-cost workers by investing in software and machines that can perform tasks ranging from human resources management to filling prescriptions.

Citigroup Inc, for instance, said that it is expanding its cloud infrastructure to replace routine tasks that used to require human labor. Health insurance company UnitedHealth Group told investors that its automation efforts should save the company over $1 billion next year. And Corona beer brewer Constellation Brands Inc said that its spending on automation should increase the efficiency in which it packs bottles in a variety pack, shaving costs.

Those investments are helping keep wage growth in line despite historically-low unemployment. Average hourly earnings were unchanged in October despite the unemployment rate falling to 3.5% from 3.7%, while the annual increase in wages fell slightly to 2.9%.

“I’m not at all worried about margin pressure from wages” because of increased productivity due to corporate spending on automation, said Jonathan Golub, chief U.S. equities strategist at Credit Suisse Securities.

Overall, companies have discussed automation on quarterly earnings calls more than 1,110 times since the beginning of the year, a 15% increase from this time last year and nearly double the mentions by this time in October, 2016, according to Refinitiv data. Corporate orders of robotics alone rose 7.2% over the first half of this year compared with 2018, totaling $869 million in spending, according to the Association for Advancing Automation.

Fund managers and analysts say that corporate spending on automation is contributing to positive earnings surprises. Nearly 83% of companies in the S&P 500 that have release third quarter earnings so far have reported earnings above expectations, compared with an average 65% beat rate since 1994, according to I/B/E/S data from Refinitiv.

“You’re seeing companies benefit in ways that aren’t easy to see when you look at the balance sheet, and all those investments start to add up and help protect margins,” said Matt Watson, a portfolio manager at James Investment Research.

Watson said that he is now buying companies that are benefiting from the use of automation because they trade at much more attractive valuations than the companies that provide it, which he is steering clear of.

FedEx Corp, for example, is investing in systems to both automate its shipping facilities and is testing robots that can handle some deliveries, he said. He is also buying shares of broker-dealer LPL Financial Holdings Inc, which is automating more of its client-relations platform to increase efficiency, he said.

“You don’t need to get into the nitty gritty when it’s back-of-the-napkin obvious that these companies are saving money” through increased productivity, Watson said.

The fastest-growing sectors of automation are in logistics and healthcare, said Jeremie Capron, head of research at ROBO Global, the company behind the $1.2-billion Robo Global Robotics & Automation ETF <ROBO.P>. The firm’s ETF is up nearly 20% for the year to date, in line with the performance of the benchmark S&P 500 index.

Capron sees the greatest opportunity in companies like Zebra Technologies Corp <ZBRA.O>, which makes radio-frequency identification device readers and real-time location systems that are used in hospitals and e-commerce fulfillment centers, he said. Shares of the company are up nearly 30% for the year to date.

Declining costs and a new generation of smaller systems should continue to push revenue growth in the sector, he said.

“We’ve hit the level where you don’t need great engineering skills to deploy automation because the software has made it so much easier to use,” he said. “You’re seeing not only large multi-national groups automate, but those technologies are increasingly available to smaller and mid-sized businesses.”

(Reporting by David Randall; Editing by Alden Bentley and Nick Zieminski)

U.S. unemployment rate falls to 3.5%; job growth steady

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON, (Reuters) – U.S. job growth increased moderately in September, with the unemployment rate dropping to near a 50-year low of 3.5%, assuaging financial market concerns that the slowing economy was on the brink of a recession amid lingering trade tensions.

The Labor Department’s closely watched monthly employment report on Friday, however, showed wage growth stagnating and manufacturing payrolls declining for the first time in six months. The retail sector also continued to shed jobs.

The report came on the heels of a string of weak economic reports, including a plunge in manufacturing activity to more than a 10-year low in September and a sharp slowdown in services industry growth to levels last seen in 2016, that heightened fears the economy was flirting with a recession.

With signs that the Trump administration’s 15-month trade war with China is spilling over to the broader economy, continued labor market strength is a critical buffer against an economic downturn. The trade war has eroded business confidence, sinking investment and manufacturing.

Nonfarm payrolls increased by 136,000 jobs last month, the government said. August data was revised to show 168,000 jobs created instead of the previously reported 130,000 positions.

The initial August job count was probably held back by a seasonal quirk related to students leaving their summer jobs and returning to school. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast payrolls would increase by 145,000 jobs in September.

U.S. stock index futures pared losses after the release of the data and later moved into positive territory. U.S. Treasury yields jumped and the dollar trimmed losses against the yen and euro. (Full Story)

Regardless of the continued moderate employment growth and sharp drop in the jobless rate, economists expect the Federal Reserve to cut interest rates at least one more time this year, given the trade policy uncertainty.

Washington announced this week tariffs on aircraft, other industrial products and agricultural products from the European Union as part of a World Trade Organization penalty award in a long-running aircraft subsidy case. Trade experts expect the EU will impose tariffs on U.S. goods next year over state subsidies for Boeing BA.N.

The U.S. central bank cut rates last month after reducing borrowing costs in July for the first time since 2008, to keep the longest economic expansion in history, now in its 11th year, on track. Growth estimates for the third quarter range from as low as a 1.3% annualized rate to as high as a 1.9% pace. The economy grew at a 2.0% pace in the second quarter, slowing from a 3.1% rate in the January-March period.

STRONG GOVERNMENT HIRING

Steady job growth last month came despite the Institute for Supply Management’s (ISM) measure of manufacturing employment tumbling to more than a 3-1/2-year low. In September, the ISM’s gauge of services industry employment fell to its lowest reading since February 2014.

While September’s job gains were below the monthly average of 161,000 this year, they were still above the roughly 100,000 needed each month to keep up with growth in the working-age population. The two-tenths of a percentage point drop in the unemployment rate from 3.7% in August pushed it to its lowest level since December 1969.

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, declined to 6.9%, the lowest level since December 2000, from 7.2% in August.

Despite the tight labor market, average hourly earnings were unchanged last month after advancing 0.4% in August. That lowered the annual increase in wages to 2.9% from 3.2% in August. The average workweek was unchanged at 34.4 hours.

Hiring is slowing across all sectors, with the exception of government, which is being boosted by state and local government recruitment.

Private payrolls increased by 114,000 jobs in September after rising by 122,000 in August. Manufacturing shed 2,000 jobs last month, the first decline in factory payrolls since March, after hiring 2,000 workers in August.

Factory employment growth has slowed from last year’s brisk pace. Manufacturing has ironically borne the brunt of the Trump administration’s trade war, which the White House has argued is intended to boost the sector.

Last month’s decline in manufacturing payrolls was led by the automotive sector, which lost 4,100 jobs. There were also job losses in machinery, fabricated metals products and primary metal industries.

Construction employment increased by 7,000 jobs last month after rising by 4,000 in August. Retail payrolls dropped by 11,400 jobs, shedding employment for an eight straight month.

Government employment increased by 22,000 jobs in September after surging by 46,000 in August. Hiring was boosted by state and local governments. Only 1,000 workers were hired last month for the 2020 Census. Government payrolls have increased by 147,000 over the year, driven by local governments.

((Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Sandra Maler and Paul Simao))

U.S. weekly jobless claims fall; labor market strong

FILE PHOTO: People wait in line to attend TechFair LA, a technology job fair, in Los Angeles, California, U.S., January 26, 2017. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The number of Americans filing applications for unemployment benefits unexpectedly fell last week, suggesting the labor market remains strong even as the economy is slowing.

The jobless claims report from the Labor Department on Thursday, however, does not fully account for the impact of the recent escalation in the bitter trade war between the United States and China, which has led to an inversion of the U.S. Treasury yield curve and raised the risk of a recession.

Worries about the trade war’s impact on the U.S. economic expansion, the longest on record, prompted the Federal Reserve to cut interest rates last week for the first time since 2008. Financial markets have fully priced in another rate cut next month.

Expectations for a 50-basis-point cut at the Fed’s Sept. 17-18 policy meeting have also risen.

“Initial claims have been sending a reasonably upbeat message about conditions in the labor market,” said Daniel Silver, an economist at JPMorgan in New York. “Today’s report likely doesn’t contain much information about the period since the recent escalations in trade tensions.”

Initial claims for state unemployment benefits declined 8,000 to a seasonally adjusted 209,000 for the week ended Aug. 3, the Labor Department said. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast claims would be unchanged at 215,000 in the latest week.

“The message of the unemployment claims data into early August is that layoff activity remained subdued and the labor market is still tight,” said John Ryding, chief economist at RDQ Economics in New York. “Though equity market volatility and low bond yields are driving pessimism about the economic outlook … we would have to see initial claims sustain a rise to the 250,000 level to become concerned about recession.”

U.S. stocks were trading higher as unexpectedly better Chinese data and a steadying of the yuan provided some comfort to investors rattled by the rise in U.S.-China trade tensions. Prices of U.S. Treasuries fell while the dollar <.DXY> was slightly stronger against a basket of currencies.

INVENTORY ACCUMULATION SLOWING Last week’s drop in claims pushed them to the lower end of their 193,000-244,000 range for this year. The four-week moving average of initial claims, considered a better measure of labor market trends as it irons out week-to-week volatility, edged up 250 to 212,250 last week.

While hiring has slowed, the pace of job gains remains well above the roughly 100,000 needed per month to keep up with growth in the working-age population.

Nonfarm payrolls increased by 164,000 jobs in July, down from 193,000 in June. Job growth over the last three months averaged 140,000 per month, the lowest in nearly two years, compared to 223,000 in 2018. The moderation in employment growth partly reflects a shortage of workers.

“While net employment growth depends on gross hiring as well as the pace of layoffs, and the trend in payrolls gains may have moderated a bit, major weakening in employment growth is invariably associated with an uptrend in claims,” said Jim O’Sullivan, chief U.S. economist at High Frequency Economics in White Plains, New York.

The economy grew at a 2.1% annualized rate in the second quarter, slowing from the first quarter’s brisk 3.1% pace. Growth is seen below a 2.0% rate in the July-September quarter.

Slower economic growth was also underscored by a separate report from the Commerce Department on Thursday showing wholesale inventories unchanged in June instead of rising 0.2% as estimated last month.

The component of wholesale inventories that goes into the calculation of gross domestic product edged up 0.1% in June.

While inventories increased further in the second quarter, the pace of accumulation was slower than early in the year. Some of that slowdown reflects a surge in consumer spending in the second quarter.

Businesses are also carefully managing stock levels as the economy’s outlook continues to darken amid the escalation in trade tensions between the United States and China, which has roiled financial markets.

Inventories subtracted 0.86 percentage point from GDP growth in the second quarter.

Sales at wholesalers dropped 0.3% in June after falling 0.6% in May. At June’s sales pace it would take wholesalers 1.36 months to clear shelves, unchanged from May.

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Paul Simao)

U.S. weekly jobless claims retreat from one-and-a-half-year high

Job seekers and recruiters gather at TechFair in Los Angeles, California, U.S. March 8, 2018. REUTERS/Monica Almeida

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The number of Americans filing applications for unemployment benefits dropped from near a 1-1/2-year high last week, but the decline was less than expected, suggesting some moderation in the pace of job growth.

Still, the Labor Department’s report on Thursday continued to point to strong job market conditions, which should underpin the economy amid rising headwinds, including a fading fiscal stimulus boost and a trade war between Washington and Beijing, as well as slowing growth in China and Europe.

The Federal Reserve last week kept interest rates steady but said it would be patient in lifting borrowing costs further this year in a nod to growing uncertainty over the economy’s outlook. The U.S. central bank removed language from its December policy statement that risks to the outlook were “roughly balanced.”

“Labor market conditions remain quite positive, good news for workers, for the consumer sector and the economy more broadly,” said Jim Baird, chief investment officer at Plante Moran Financial Advisors in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

Initial claims for state unemployment benefits tumbled 19,000 to a seasonally adjusted 234,000 for the week ended Feb. 2, the Labor Department said on Thursday. The drop partially unwound the prior week’s jump, which lifted claims to 253,000, the highest reading since September 2017.

Claims that week were boosted by layoffs in the service industry in California, most likely striking teachers in Los Angeles.

A 35-day partial shutdown of the federal government as well as difficulties adjusting the data around moving holidays like Martin Luther King Jr. day, which occurred later this year than in recent years, also probably contributed to the spike in filings.

The longest shutdown in history likely forced workers employed by government contractors to file claims for unemployment benefits.

The shutdown ended on Jan. 25 after President Donald Trump and Congress agreed to temporary government funding, without money for his U.S.-Mexico border wall.

Economists polled by Reuters had forecast claims falling to 221,000 in the latest week.

U.S. stocks were trading lower on renewed fears of a global slowdown after the European Union cut its economic growth forecasts and White House adviser Larry Kudlow warned there was still a sizable distance to go on U.S.-China trade talks. The dollar was little changed against a basket of currencies, while U.S. Treasury prices rose.

MOMENTUM SLOWING

The Labor Department said no states were estimated last week. The four-week moving average of initial claims, considered a better measure of labor market trends as it irons out week-to-week volatility, rose 4,500 to 224,750 last week. Claims by federal government workers, which are filed separately and with a one-week lag fell 8,070 to 6,669 in the week ended Jan. 26.

“Claims remain important to watch in the weeks ahead,” said Jim O’Sullivan, chief U.S. economist at High Frequency Economics in White Plains, New York. “The data are suggesting at least some slowing in employment growth.”

The government reported last Friday that non-farm payrolls increased by 304,000 jobs in January, the largest gain since February 2018. Thursday’s claims report showed the number of people receiving benefits after an initial week of aid fell 42,000 to 1.74 million for the week ended Jan. 26.

These so-called continuing claims had raced to a nine-month high in the prior week. The four-week moving average of continuing claims rose 4,250 to 1.74 million.

(Reporting By Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Andrea Ricci)

U.S. labor market hot, jobs hard to fill: Fed’s Harker

FILE PHOTO: People wait in line to attend TechFair LA, a technology job fair, in Los Angeles, California, U.S., January 26, 2017. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson - RC1458E83C90

(Reuters) – U.S. employers are struggling to fill jobs and that is unlikely to change any time soon given the labor market is getting quite tight, Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia President Patrick Harker said on Tuesday.

“We have a labor market with very little slack left, and the most common refrain I hear from employers is that they can’t fill the jobs they have,” Harker said in prepared remarks to a conference on higher education. “Those demographic and technological pressures are unlikely to recede.”

The unemployment rate fell to near a 49-year low of 3.7 percent last month.

(Reporting by Jonathan Spicer; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)

U.S. job growth cools; unemployment rate falls to 3.7 percent

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 slowed sharply in September likely as Hurricane Florence depressed restaurant and retail payrolls, but the unemployment rate fell to near a 49-year low of 3.7 percent, pointing to a further tightening in labor market conditions.

The Labor Department’s closely watched monthly employment report on Friday also showed a steady rise in wages, suggesting moderate inflation pressures, which could ease concerns about the economy overheating and keep the Federal Reserve on a path of gradual interest rate increases.

Nonfarm payrolls increased by 134,000 jobs last month, the fewest in a year, as the retail and leisure and hospitality sectors shed employment. Data for July and August were revised to show 87,000 more jobs added than previously reported.

The economy needs to create roughly 120,000 jobs per month to keep up with growth in the working-age population.

“The weaker gain in payrolls in September may partly reflect some hit from Hurricane Florence,” said Michael Pearce, senior U.S. economist at Capital Economics in New York. “There is little in this report to stop the Fed continuing to raise interest rates gradually.”

Economists polled by Reuters had forecast payrolls increasing by 185,000 jobs in September and the unemployment rate falling one-tenth of a percentage point to 3.8 percent.

Fed Chairman Jerome Powell said on Tuesday that the economy’s outlook was “remarkably positive” and he believed it was on the cusp of a “historically rare” era of ultra-low unemployment and tame inflation.

The U.S. central bank raised rates last week for the third time this year and removed the reference in its post-meeting statement to monetary policy remaining “accommodative.”

The Labor Department said it was possible that Hurricane Florence, which lashed South and North Carolina in mid-September, could have affected employment in some industries. It said it was impossible to quantify the net effect on employment.

Payrolls are calculated from a survey of employers, which treats any worker who was not paid for any part of the pay period that includes the 12th of the month as unemployed. The average workweek was unchanged at 34.5 hours in September.

The smaller survey of households from which the jobless rate is derived regards persons as employed regardless of whether they missed work during the reference week and were unpaid as result. It showed 299,000 people reported staying at home in September because of bad weather. About 1.5 million employees worked part-time because of the weather last month.

U.S. stock index futures briefly turned positive after the data before reversing course. The dollar &lt;.DXY&gt; was trading lower against a basket of currencies while U.S. Treasury yields were higher.

DIMINISHING SLACK

The drop of two-tenths of a percentage point in the unemployment rate from 3.9 percent in August pushed it to levels last seen in December 1969 and matched the Fed’s forecast of 3.7 percent by the end of this year.

Average hourly earnings increased 0.3 percent in September after a similar rise in August.

With September’s increase below the 0.5 percent gain notched during the same period last year, the annual rise in wages fell to 2.8 percent from 2.9 percent in August, which was the biggest advance in more than nine years.

Wage growth remains sufficient to keep inflation around the Fed’s 2 percent target. As more slack is squeezed out of the labor market, economists expect annual wage growth to hit 3 percent.

Last month, employment in the leisure and hospitality sector fell by 17,000 jobs, the first drop since September 2017. Retail payrolls dropped by 20,000 jobs in September.

Manufacturing payrolls increased by 18,000 in September after rising by 5,000 in August.

Construction companies hired 23,000 more workers last month after increasing payrolls by 26,000 jobs in August. Professional and business services employment increased by 54,000 jobs last month and government payrolls rose 13,000.

While surveys have shown manufacturers growing more concerned about an escalating trade war between the United States and China, it does not appear to have affected hiring. In fact, the Fed’s latest survey of national business conditions reflected concerns about labor shortages that are extending into non-skilled occupations as much as about tariffs.

Washington last month slapped tariffs on $200 billion worth of Chinese goods, with Beijing retaliating with duties on $60 billion worth of U.S. products. The United States and China had already imposed tariffs on $50 billion worth of each other’s goods. The trilateral trade agreement between the United States, Canada and Mexico was salvaged in an 11th-hour deal on Sunday.

Despite the Trump administration’s protectionist trade policy, the trade deficit continues to deteriorate. The trade gap increased 6.4 percent to a six-month high of $53.2 billion in August, the Commerce Department reported on Friday.

The politically sensitive goods trade deficit with China surged 4.7 percent to a record high of $38.6 billion.

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Leslie Adler and Paul Simao)

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

A man holds his briefcase while waiting in line during a job fair in Melville, New York July 19, 2012. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. job growth accelerated in August and wages notched their largest annual increase in more than nine years, strengthening views that the economy was so far weathering the Trump administration’s escalating trade war with China.

The Labor Department’s closely watched employment report published on Friday also showed slack in the jobs market was rapidly diminishing, with a broader measure of unemployment falling to a level not seen since 2001. The report cemented expectations for a third interest rate increase from the Federal Reserve this year when policymakers meet on Sept. 25-26.

“The economy is on an adrenalin rush,” said Ryan Sweet, senior economist at Moody’s Analytics in West Chester, Pennsylvania. “Given the amount of fiscal stimulus that the economy is benefiting from, it’s going to take a lot to get it off that high.”

Nonfarm payrolls surged by 201,000 jobs last month, boosted by hiring at construction sites, wholesalers and professional and business services, the Labor Department said. There were also gains in transportation and healthcare employment.

Job growth averaged 185,000 per month in the past three months. The economy needs to create 120,000 jobs per month to keep up with growth in the working-age population.

Average hourly earnings increased 0.4 percent, or 10 cents in August after rising 0.3 percent in July. That raised the annual increase in wages to 2.9 percent in August, the largest gain since June 2009, from 2.7 percent in July.

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 one-tenth of a percentage point to 7.4 percent, the lowest level since April 2001. The unemployment rate was unchanged at 3.9 percent.

Economists polled by Reuters had forecast nonfarm payrolls increasing by 191,000 jobs last month and the unemployment rate falling to 3.8 percent. The economy created 50,000 fewer jobs in June and July than previously reported.

The dollar firmed against a basket of currencies after the report, while U.S. Treasury yields rose. U.S. stock index futures extended losses.

Analysts say the administration’s $1.5 trillion tax cut package and increased government spending were shielding the economy from the trade tensions, which have also seen Washington engaged in tit-for-tat tariffs with other trade partners, including the European Union, Canada and Mexico.

They also note that the import duties implemented so far have affected only a small portion of the American economy, but warned this could change if President Donald Trump pressed ahead with additional tariffs on Chinese imports.

The United States and China have slapped retaliatory tariffs on a combined $100 billion of products since early July.

LIMITED IMPACT FROM TARIFFS

Americans had until Thursday to comment on a list of $200 billion worth of Chinese goods widely expected to be hit with tariffs soon. The government imposed import duties on goods including steel, aluminum, washing machines, lumber and solar panels early this year to protect American industries from what Trump says is unfair foreign competition.

Global outplacement firm Challenger, Gray &amp; Christmas said on Thursday there were 521 tariff-related job cuts in August, but these were largely offset by the hiring of 359 workers by steel producers.

The employment report added to manufacturing and services industries surveys in suggesting the Trump administration’s protectionist trade policy was having a marginal impact on the economy for now. The economy grew at a 4.2 percent annualized rate in the second quarter, almost double the 2.2 percent pace set in the January-March period.

The labor force participation rate, or the proportion of working-age Americans who have a job or are looking for one, fell two-tenths of a percentage point to 62.7 percent last month, putting a wrinkle on an otherwise upbeat employment report.

Job gains in August were almost across all sectors, though manufacturing payrolls fell by 3,000. That was the first drop since July 2017 and followed an increase of 18,000 in July. Manufacturing employment was weighed down by declines in machinery, computer and electronic products and motor vehicle and parts industries.

Construction companies hired 23,000 more workers last month. They increased payrolls by 18,000 jobs in July. Wholesalers added 22,400 jobs last month. Payrolls in the professional and business services industries rose by 53,000 jobs in August.

Employment at sporting goods, hobby, book and music stores rebounded by 9,200 jobs in August after shedding 30,300 jobs in July related to the closing of all Toys-R-Us stores.

But retail payrolls fell 5,900 last month and government shed 3,000.

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Andrea Ricci)

U.S. job growth slows in July, unemployment rate dips

FILE PHOTO: People wait in line to attend TechFair LA, a technology job fair, in Los Angeles, California, U.S., January 26, 2017. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. job growth slowed more than expected in July as employment in the transportation and utilities sectors fell, but a drop in the unemployment rate suggested that the labor market was tightening.

Nonfarm payrolls increased by 157,000 jobs last month, the Labor Department said on Friday. The economy created 59,000 more jobs in May and June than previously reported and needs to generate about 120,000 jobs per month to keep up with growth in the working-age population.

The unemployment rate fell one-tenth of a percentage point to 3.9 percent in July, even as more people entered the labor force in a sign of confidence in their job prospects. The low unemployment rate could allow the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates again in September.

The jobless rate had risen in June from an 18-year low of 3.8 percent in May. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast nonfarm payrolls increasing by 190,000 jobs last month and the unemployment rate falling to 3.9 percent.

The slowdown in hiring last month likely is not the result of trade tensions, which have escalated in recent days, but rather because of a shortage of workers. There are about 6.6 million unfilled jobs in the nation. A survey of small businesses published on Thursday showed a record number in July of establishments reporting that they could not find workers.

According to the NFIB, the vacancies were concentrated in construction, manufacturing and wholesale trade industries. Small businesses said they were also struggling to fill positions that did not require skilled labor.

The Fed’s Beige Book report last month showed a scarcity of labor across a wide range of occupations, including highly skilled engineers, specialized construction and manufacturing workers, information technology professionals and truck drivers.

The shortage of workers is steadily pushing up wages.

Average hourly earnings increased seven cents, or 0.3 percent, in July after gaining 0.1 percent in June. The annual increase in wages was unchanged at 2.7 percent in July.

U.S. stock market futures dipped after the data while the dollar &lt;.DXY&gt; fell against a basket of currencies. Prices of U.S. Treasuries were slightly higher.

TRADE TENSIONS

President Donald Trump’s administration has imposed duties on steel and aluminum imports, provoking retaliation by the United States’ trade partners, including China, Canada, Mexico and the European Union. It has also slapped 25 percent tariffs on $34 billion worth of Chinese imports.

Beijing has fought back by slapping tariffs on U.S. exports to China. On Friday, China’s Commerce Ministry said a new set of proposed import tariffs on $60 billion worth of U.S. goods are rational and restrained and warned that it reserves the right of further countermeasures in the intensifying trade war.

On Wednesday, Trump proposed a higher 25 percent tariff on $200 billion worth of Chinese imports.

Economists have warned that the tit-for-tat import duties, which have unsettled financial markets, could undercut manufacturing through disruptions to the supply chain and put a brake on the strong economic growth.

There have also been concerns that the trade tensions could dampen business confidence and lead companies to shelve spending and hiring plans. But a $1.5 trillion fiscal stimulus, which helped to power the economy to a 4.1 percent annualized growth pace in the second quarter, is assisting the United States in navigating the stormy trade waters.

The Fed left interest rates unchanged on Wednesday while painting an upbeat portrait of both the labor market and economy. The U.S. central bank said “the labor market has continued to strengthen and economic activity has been rising at a strong rate.” It increased borrowing costs in June for the second time this year.

The moderation in employment gains and steady wage growth could ease concerns about the economy overheating, and keep the Fed on a gradual path of monetary policy tightening.

The Fed’s preferred inflation measure, the personal consumption expenditures (PCE) price index excluding the volatile food and energy components, increased 1.9 percent in June. The core PCE hit the central bank’s 2 percent inflation target in March for the first time since December 2011.

Manufacturing payrolls rose by 37,000 jobs last month after increasing by 33,000 in June. Construction companies hired 19,000 more workers after increasing payrolls by 13,000 jobs in June. Retail payrolls rebounded by 7,100 jobs last month after losing 20,200 in June.

Education and health services added 22,000 jobs last month, the fewest since October 2017, after boosting payrolls by 69,000 jobs in June. July’s slowdown in hiring reflected a loss of 10,800 education services jobs.

Transportation payrolls dropped by 1,300 jobs last month, with transit and ground transportation employment declining by 14,800 jobs. Utilities employment fell for a third straight month and the finance and insurance industry shed 9,400 jobs last month.

Government employment fell by 13,000 jobs in July.

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Paul Simao)

U.S. weekly jobless claims hit more than 48-and-a-half-year low

FILE PHOTO: Job seekers and recruiters gather at TechFair in Los Angeles, California, U.S. March 8, 2018. REUTERS/Monica Almeida

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The number of Americans filing for unemployment benefits dropped to a more than 48-1/2-year low last week as the labor market strengthens further, but trade tensions are casting a shadow over the economy’s outlook.

Other data on Thursday showed manufacturing activity in the mid-Atlantic region accelerated in July amid a surge in orders received by factories. But the Philadelphia Federal Reserve survey also showed manufacturers paying more for inputs and less upbeat about business conditions over the next six months.

Fewer manufacturers planned to increase capital spending, suggesting trade tensions, marked by tit-for-tat import tariffs between the United States and its trade partners, including China, Canada, Mexico and the European Union, could be starting to hurt business sentiment.

The survey came on the heels of the Federal Reserve’s Beige Book report on Wednesday, showing manufacturers in all districts worried about the tariffs and reporting higher prices and supply disruptions, which they blamed on the new trade policies.

“Yesterday’s Beige Book and the recent decline in the investment intentions balance in the Philly Fed survey show that escalating trade tensions are starting to have a material impact on companies’ confidence about the future,” said Brian Coulton, chief economist at ratings agency Fitch.

Initial claims for state unemployment benefits dropped 8,000 to a seasonally adjusted 207,000 for the week ended July 14, the lowest reading since early December 1969, the Labor Department said. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast claims rising to 220,000 in the latest week.

The second straight weekly decline in claims, however, likely reflects difficulties adjusting the data for seasonal fluctuations around this time of the year when motor vehicle manufacturers shut assembly lines for annual retooling.

The four-week moving average of initial claims, considered a better measure of labor market trends as it irons out week-to-week volatility, fell 2,750 to 220,500 last week.

The dollar firmed against a basket of currencies. Stocks on Wall Street were lower, while prices for U.S. Treasuries rose.

WORKER SHORTAGE

The claims data covered the survey week for the nonfarm payrolls component of July’s employment report. The four-week average of claims dipped 500 between the June and July survey periods, suggesting solid job growth this month.

The economy created 213,000 jobs in June, with the unemployment rate rising two-tenths of a percentage point to 4.0 percent as more Americans entered the labor force, in a sign of confidence in their job prospects.

Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell told lawmakers this week that with appropriate monetary policy, the job market will remain strong “over the next several years.”

The labor market is viewed as being near or at full employment. There were 6.6 million unfilled jobs in May, an indication that companies cannot find qualified workers.

That was reinforced by the Beige Book, which showed worker shortages persisting in early July across a wide range of occupations, including highly skilled engineers, specialized construction and manufacturing workers, information technology professionals and truck drivers.

Thursday’s survey from the Philadelphia Fed showed its business conditions index jumped to a reading of 25.7 in July from 19.9 in June. The survey’s measure of new orders increased to 31.4 from a reading of 17.9 in June.

But its gauge of factory employment fell as did the average workweek. Manufacturers also continued to report higher prices for both purchased inputs and their own manufactured goods. The survey’s prices paid index soared to 62.9 this month, the highest level since June 2008, from 51.8 in June.

The index has risen 30 points since January. Sixty-three percent of manufacturers in the region reported paying more for inputs this month compared with 54 percent in June.

The price increases are likely related to tariffs on steel and aluminum imports, which were imposed by the Trump administration to protect domestic industries from what it says is unfair foreign competition.

Wednesday’s Beige Book mentioned a machinery manufacturer in the Philadelphia area who described the effects of the steel tariffs as “chaotic to its supply chain, disrupting planned orders, increasing prices, and prompting some panic buying.”

The Philadelphia survey’s index for future activity decreased for the fourth straight month. Capital spending plans over the next six months also fell as did intentions to hire more factory workers.

“Further escalation could create worse conditions and this remains a downside risk to the otherwise positive outlook over the next year,” said Adam Ozimek, a senior economist at Moody’s Analytics in West Chester, Pennsylvania.

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Andrea Ricci)

Protest camps quiet as Gazans fast and fill sandbags

A Palestinian man reads the Koran inside a tent during the holy month of Ramadan, at a protest camp near the Israel-Gaza border in the central Gaza Strip May 17, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

By Nidal al-Mughrabi

GAZA (Reuters) – Young men filled sandbags to prepare for future protests at encampments along Gaza’s Israeli border on Thursday, though tents were mostly empty as Palestinians joined Muslims around the world observing the daylight fast at the start of Ramadan.

After the bloodiest day for Palestinians in years on Monday, when 60 were killed by Israeli gunfire during mass demonstrations that Israel said included attempts to breach its frontier fence, calm and a heatwave descended on the area.

Organisers of the protests that began on March 30 set Friday as a day to honour the dead and urged Gazans to flock again to the tent cities. But Ramadan traditions – prayer, family visits and feasts – seemed to keep crowds away during the hot hours.

At one encampment, about 70 young men filled sandbags in anticipation of people returning to the protest sites.

“We are making a sand barrier so people can feel a bit safer,” one of the men said, declining to give his name.

Ramadan is usually a time of celebration, but after dozens of funerals during the week the mood was bleak in Gaza.

Israel’s intelligence minister, Israel Katz, said on Wednesday neighboring Egypt had put pressure on Hamas, the armed Islamist faction that controls the Gaza Strip, to scale back the protests.

Hamas denied it had come under Egyptian pressure to curb the protests, which provoked international condemnation of Israel’s deadly tactics in putting down the unrest. The organizing committee for the demonstrations said Muslims’ abstinence from food and drink during the hot mornings and afternoons of Ramadan would be taken into account in further protests.

The “March of Return” demonstrations advocate the return of Palestinians to lands lost to Israel during its founding in 1948, and are also intended to draw attention to harsh conditions in Gaza, where the economy has collapsed under an Israeli-Egyptian blockade since Hamas took power in 2007.

Israel, with U.S. backing, says Hamas is behind the protests, deliberately provoking violence for propaganda aims. Hamas says the demonstrations are a popular outpouring of anger, and Israel carried out a “massacre” in response.

ISRAELI AIR STRIKE

Dawoud Shehab, a member of the organizing committee, said activities at the encampments would get under way only in the late afternoon when temperatures drop. Late-night prayers will also be held there, he said.

“The marches are continuing and there are calls on people to gather in mass on Friday in a day we have dedicated to glorifying the martyrs,” Shehab told Reuters.

The message was echoed in appeals blared by loudspeakers on vehicles that drove into Gaza neighborhoods to urge people to turn out. Organisers said the protest would stretch into June.

Violence along the border has been comparatively limited over the past two days, with no casualties reported by either side since Tuesday, when two Palestinians were killed while dozens of others were buried.

Early on Thursday, Israeli aircraft hit four Hamas targets in the northern Gaza Strip in response to heavy machine gun fire that struck houses in the Israeli town of Sderot, the Israeli military said.

Israel and Hamas have fought three wars in the past decade since Gaza fell under control of the militant group that denies Israel’s right to exist. Israel and Egypt say their de facto blockade of the strip is necessary for security reasons.

The World Bank says it has driven Gaza to economic collapse, with one of the highest unemployment rates in the world. Eighty percent of Gaza’s 2 million people are now dependent on aid.

(Writing by Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem; Editing by Peter Graff)