The May jobs report will command the markets' attention all this week, and only one thing is for sure -- the number of new jobs the economy needs is lower than it has been for a long time.
Economists expect about 158,000 new jobs to have been created, according to a survey by Dow Jones. That's almost exactly the same as the 160,000 new jobs in April, when the more sluggish growth of the first quarter pulled job creation down from the 242,500-job average of the prior six months.
But the market quickly recovered from a selloff after April's report, as traders realized details like better-than-expected wage growth weren't bad after all. And that's the lesson for this month, economists say. This week, the number in the jobs report that matters the most is how much wages are rising. Nearly everyone is already working -- the question now is whether people can make enough so their spending can bolster home builders like D.R. Horton (DHI - Get Report) or Toll Bros. (TOL - Get Report) , retailers like Wal-Mart (WMT - Get Report) and Amazon.com (AMZN - Get Report) , and airlines like Delta Air Lines (DAL - Get Report) or American Airlines (AAL - Get Report) .
"We've had 200,000 jobs a month for so long people have gotten used to it, but 160,000 will still make the labor market tighter," said John Canally, chief economic strategist at LPL Financial.
That small piece of math helps explain why Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen and other members of the Fed's Open Market Committee are sending hawkish signals that rates will rise soon, either at June's Open Market Committee meeting or in July, after British voters settle whether the U.K. will leave the Eurozone. The U.S. economy is virtually at full employment, and the workforce is growing slowly, so the only major gap left in the case for rate hikes is the need for higher wages.
Last month, sentiment shifted as investors focused on wages rather than the raw number of new jobs. And the case that wages are finally moving was bolstered by this Tuesday's report on personal income from the Commerce Department, which showed a 0.5% increase in wages for April alone.
The focus is likely to stay on wages in Friday's jobs report -- especially since the raw new-jobs number will be held down by a strike at Verizon Communications (VZ - Get Report) . The strikers' 35,000 jobs are expected to be temporarily counted as lost. (The strike was tentatively settled on May 27, after the survey the jobs report is based upon was completed).
The Labor Department said the average hourly income for all workers rose by eight cents to $25.53 in April, putting wages 2.5% above where they were a year before. That is a modest acceleration from earlier in the year.
The Fed knows all of this too, so job growth anywhere under 200,000, with pay 2.5% higher than a year ago, will show little acceleration and likely mean no interest-rate hike until July, Canally said. The Fed could move at its meeting June 16 and 17, if the report showed 3% wage gains and 220,000 to 230,000 new jobs, he said.
The economy needs no more than 125,000 new jobs each month to offset population growth and keep the unemployment rate falling from its current 5% level, Canally said. Point 72 Asset Management chief economist Dean Maki said it could take as few as 75,000, since Baby Boomers who have reached retirement age now make up a bigger slice of the population, making the labor force grow more slowly than the country as a whole.
Either way, 160,000 jobs each month is a recipe to further reduce the jobless rate, which Joel Naroff of Naroff Economic Advisors thinks could reach 4.5% by the end of the year. Unemployment peaked at 10% in late 2009.
"Any number above 175,000, adjusted for Verizon, would be a solid number," Maki said.
If the report looks like the consensus estimate, the Fed would probably raise rates either in July or September -- waiting mostly because there's no scheduled press conference after July's meeting of the bank's Open Market Committee. Fed officials typically make major moves when they have an immediate opportunity to explain them to the public, though Yellen and others have said they don't want markets to think this will always be true.
The wild card is inflation: Workers may demand better raises by later this year to keep up with the partial reversal in 2015's price declines for gasoline. If higher pay and more expensive oil make inflation pick up, the Fed could get more aggressive. The median household had regained virtually all the purchasing power it lost in the last 15 years by March, but rising gas prices actually forced inflation-adjusted median income to dip in April, according to Gordon Green, a partner in Maryland-based Sentier Research.
And that's what you need to know -- until next month, when the market goes through this routine all over again.