WEST CHESTER, PA (TheStreet) -- The U.S. economy is off and running, finally breaking free of the Great Recession's dark pull. The clearest evidence of this is in the job market. More than three million jobs have been created over the past year, an extraordinary number and the strongest growth since the apex of the technology boom 15 years ago.
Recent job growth is even boom-like. Well more than one million jobs have been created during the past three months. For context, this is approximately three times the job growth necessary to absorb workers who enter the labor force in a typical year.
Although this pace of job growth is not sustainable for long, prospects are good that the economy will continue to create jobs at a prodigious pace. While the dramatic swings in oil prices, long-term interest rates, and the value of the dollar have been dizzying to watch, they should have only a modest impact on overall growth (Read more: Detailed analysis of the latest job numbers).
Prospects for a substantial increase in housing construction also augur well for job creation. The low and quickly falling number of vacant homes for rent and sale signals that the housing market will soon be undersupplied. More homebuilding will create more jobs in many parts of the country.
The remaining slack in the job market will thus be rapidly absorbed. The involuntary unemployed and underemployed still account for an estimated nearly 1.5% of the labor force, an uncomfortably large number, but they should be back on the job by next summer.
Wage growth, which has been slowly edging higher, should pick up more substantially as the economy approaches full employment. Wage gains to date have been somewhat more tepid than expected, even accounting for the remaining slack in the job market. But this is probably because of temporary factors such as the oil price decline induced weakness in inflation and inflation expectations, which won't keep wage growth down for long (Read more: Solving the U.S. wage puzzle).
It is hard to envisage what could short-circuit the U.S. job machine, although events overseas bear close watching. The Greek-German standoff is disconcerting, as is Russia's increased belligerence over Ukraine and the atrocities committed by ISIS. China's difficulty calibrating its reform efforts with economic growth is also a bit unnerving. Nonetheless, it would take a disastrous event overseas to derail the strong U.S. economy (Read more: Analysis on Greece and its implications.)
The headline job market statistics are strikingly upbeat, but a range of other less-watched data are as impressive. Most encouraging is the recent surge in job openings. More than five million positions, a record, are open nationwide, up from four million a year earlier, with nearly every industry adding to its open spots.
There are now more open positions than hires each month, a first in the Bureau of Labor Statistics data going back to 2001. Businesses are working hard to catch up. According to the Moody's Analytics weekly business survey, a record nearly one-half of survey respondents say they are hiring.
Layoffs also remain near record lows. Less than one-tenth of businesses responding to the Moody's Analytics survey are cutting staff. Though some increase in layoffs in coming months wouldn't be surprising because of the fallout from the decline in oil prices on the energy industry, any increase should be modest (Join the Moody's Analytics weekly business survey).
It is also a good sign that quits are on the rise. Workers won't leave their current job unless they feel good about finding another one. Quit rates are high in retail, leisure and hospitality, professional services, and healthcare. Workers in industries hammered by the financial crisis, including the construction trades, manufacturing and financial services, are understandably more reluctant to make such a bold move.
Oil, Long-Term Rates, and the Dollar
There has been much hand-wringing over what the wild swings in global commodity and financial markets mean for U.S. growth and jobs. They shouldn't mean much. The net of all the crosscurrents created by the plunge in oil prices, the decline in long-term interest rates, and the surge in the value of the dollar is a small positive for the U.S. economy.
By itself, the decline in oil prices will substantially boost growth and jobs. Based on a simulation of the U.S. macro model, if oil prices average $63 per barrel this year (our forecast), 2015 real GDP growth will receive a 0.5-percentage point boost. This will lift employment by 680,000 jobs a year from now when the impact is at its peak. Energy-related industries will shed more than 100,000 jobs, but this will be offset by many more jobs in other industries (Read more: Detailed forecast for the U.S. economy).
Lower long-term interest rates are a modest plus. Simulating the macro model with 10-year Treasury yields averaging 2.3% this year (our forecast), real GDP growth in 2015 is lifted by 10 basis points. The peak employment impact a year from now is 150,000 jobs.
Much of the benefit of lower oil prices and long-term rates will be washed out by the surging dollar and the resulting increase in the trade deficit and weaker profit margins and business investment. Assuming the nominal broad trade-weighted dollar appreciates 12.5% this year (our forecast), real GDP growth is reduced by close to 0.5 percentage point in 2015, according to our macro model. This will cost as many as 600,000 jobs by mid-2016 (Read more: Oil prices in 2015).
Altogether, GDP and jobs receive a boost, but a modest one. Indeed, the early net impact on jobs is negative, as the energy industry is already shedding jobs. It will take longer for the lower oil prices and interest rates to prompt more hiring in other industries.
More Homebuilding, More Jobs
Housing will be one of these industries. While home construction has doubled since its recession lows, it is set to increase substantially. Just over one million single-family, multifamily and manufactured homes were put up last year. This isn't enough to meet demand.
Low and falling vacancy rates are testimony to this. The rental vacancy rate is as low as it has been in a quarter century and is declining. Rent growth is solidly more than 3% and slowly but steadily accelerating. The homeowner vacancy rate is also back close to pre-recession lows. The total number of vacant homes for rent, for sale, and held off market is now no more than what would be expected in a well-functioning economy.
Moreover, demand for new homes is sure to improve. In a typical economy, demand for new homes is an estimated 1.7 million units per year, driven by forming households, homes lost to disasters and normal wear-and-tear, and second and vacation homes. Demand could be even greater for a time given how depressed household formations have been since the recession. A large number of pent-up households will eventually form, including at least some of the more than 3 million more millennials living with their parents today than before the downturn.
More homebuilding will create more jobs. Every single-family home that goes up creates more than three jobs in one year. The construction of a multifamily unit creates more than one job in a year. Under the simplifying assumption that the increase in homebuilding from its current one million units per year to 1.7 million units is half single-family units and half multifamily, more than 1.4 million jobs will be created (350,000 units multiplied by three jobs, plus 350,000 units multiplied by one job). This is nearly 1% of the labor force.
Full Employment Within Reach
With the volatility in oil and financial markets not expected to have much of a net impact on jobs, and housing likely to add more, it seems reasonable to assume that job growth will remain near the current three million annual pace for the foreseeable future. At this rate of job creation, the economy will return to full employment by mid-2016.
That is, the 4.5 million jobs created over this period will be sufficient to reduce unemployment to its full employment rate of near 5%, put back to work the outsized number of workers who are marginally attached to the labor force, and absorb the surfeit of part-timers who want a full-time jobs.
It is hard to fathom, but it will have been about a decade since the last time the economy was operating at full employment. Of course, job growth won't immediately throttle back once the economy reaches full employment. Thus, odds are good that the economy's biggest problem by 2017 will be a lack of qualified labor.
If this script holds roughly true, wage growth should soon accelerate. Wage growth is up from its recession lows, but barely. The plethora of wage and labor compensation measures all point to growth of about 2%, close to the rate of inflation expectations.
Given the still-considerable slack in the labor market, it is understandable that wage growth is subdued. But it is even weaker than would be expected given historical experience. The employment cost index equations in the macro model, which are based on a Phillips curve specification in which compensation is driven by inflation expectations, underlying productivity growth, and labor market slack, suggest labor compensation growth is nearly 0.5 percentage point below what is expected.
The shortfall in compensation growth is also evident graphically.
Since the early 2000s, the relationship between real ECI growth and another measure of labor market slack-the ratio of U6 to job openings-has been strong. Based on this relationship, current real ECI compensation growth is more than 0.5 percentage point below what would be expected.
It is unclear what is behind the lagging wage growth. The decline in inflation expectations due primarily to the reduction in oil prices could be a factor. Or perhaps the lag between changing labor market conditions and wage growth is longer given that businesses have been conditioned by years of not having to pay their workers more. However, more likely than not, history will continue to be a reliable guide, and wage growth will soon accelerate.
Risks, But Less Risky
There are risks to this outlook, but they appear to be less risky than they have in years. Certainly, the global economy is shaky and geopolitical threats abound. If wage growth revives as anticipated, the Federal Reserve will soon begin to raise short-term interest rates. This could create more volatility in financial markets than anticipated, hurting investment and other risk-taking. Though things could go wrong, they would have to go very wrong to derail the U.S. economy.
This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held no positions in the stocks mentioned.