Another Month, Another 160,000 to 180,000 New Jobs as Economy Simmers Along

A big week of economic data is coming, and it's expected to confirm that the economy, while not boiling hot, is simmering along nicely.

Economists surveyed by Econoday expect the economy to have added 170,000 new jobs in November, while a Dow Jones survey puts the number at 180,000. Both surveys expect the unemployment rate to remain at 4.9%. Before that happens, the Commerce Department will announce revised estimates for third-quarter economic growth. Economists in both surveys expect the initial estimate of 2.9% annualized growth to be revised upward to 3.1%

But the strength of October economic data that has been coming out all month has some economists thinking slightly bigger, especially on jobs -- the first big piece of November data to be released.

"Everything [announced] in November has been a surprise on the upside so why not jobs?," said Naroff Economic Advisors president Joel Naroff, who predicts 175,000 to 200,000 new jobs.

With the economy at or near full employment -- a conclusion bolstered by the move in core inflation to 1.7% over the last 12 months, closing in on the Federal Reserve's 2% target rate -- job creation has slowed this year from the pace the economy set in 2015. But its longest-ever streak of months of consecutive job creation is all but assured to continue, boosting employment for the 74th straight month. The economy has added an average of 181,000 jobs a month this year, the Labor Department says.

While consensus estimates say November's number will be in that range again, the case for it being higher turns on recent gains in retail sales and a weather-related glitch in October, Moody's Analytics economist Ryan Sweet said. Hurricane Matthew held down employment in October as an unusually high number of workers with jobs were temporarily idled, said Sweet, whose firm expects a 215,000-job November gain. Another key is whether seasonal hiring began in time to affect November's numbers, he said.

Another number to watch will be whether the economy keeps punching out wage gains like the 2.8% year-over-year gain workers received in October. Bank of America Merrill Lynch estimates that wages will rise more slowly this month, a gain of 0.2% vs. last month's 0.4%, but the 2.8% year-over-year gain will stay steady, if still below the 3% to 4% gains.

The challenge is matching October's wage spike at information-technology companies like Action Alerts PLUS holding Alphabet  (GOOGL) and Microsoft (MSFT) , utilities like Duke Energy (DUK) and Exelon (EXC) , and oil and mining companies like Exxon Mobil (XOM) .

The good news is likely to keep flowing as fourth-quarter data come in, according to the GDPNow forecast by the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, which has been closely watched since it predicted the first-quarter growth slowdown that was eluding many Wall Street tracking forecasts.

The Atlanta Fed says the economy will grow at a 3.6% annual rate during the fourth quarter, well above Blue Chip consensus forecasts earlier this month that had growth barely topping 2% annualized. The bank's numbers bumped up from its own 2.3% forecast on strong automotive sales for October, followed by the retail sales report and the last week's data on new home sales.

If that number holds up, U.S growth for the year could reach 2.2%, pulling close to the performance of 2014 and 2015. Already, recent data are enough to just about guarantee the Federal Reserve's Open Market Committee will boost the target range for the federal funds rate when it meets on Dec. 13 and 14. Futures markets have priced in a 98% chance of a December rate hike, CME FedWatch says.

"It's a lock," Naroff says. "Trump's tax cut and infrastructure bill gets a hike almost immediately and at least two during second half of next year."

The question becomes, can the president-elect do much to mess this up?

Stocks have rallied about 5% in the weeks since the election, but those gains have been concentrated in the defense and especially in financial sectors, which have gained more than 12% on expectations that interest rates will rise and bank regulation will be relaxed. The market has also seen gains in energy stocks that are now at risk as the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries struggles yet again to reach a deal on limiting production.

The new president is widely expected to stimulate the economy, beginning with a plan to spend as much as $1 trillion on infrastructure such as roads and bridges and a tax cut as large as $6 trillion. But liberal critics have pounced on a recent alteration to the infrastructure plan, which has shifted from direct government investment to a tax-credit plan that would effectively pay private companies to build infrastructure, which the private parties would continue to own.

The questions are about whether Trump's trade policies will do as much to dampen near-term growth as his tax plans do to goose it, and whether his tax-credit driven infrastructure plans are simply too much stimulus, too late in the economic cycle.

"It's riskier to put into effect stimulus that won't take effect for some time," with the economy already running at or near full employment, said Dean Maki, chief economist at Point 72 Asset Management. "If it generates additional inflation, it may cause the Fed to raise rates more.''

This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held no positions in the stocks mentioned.

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