U.S. job creation slowed in December, with a net gain of 156,000 positions missing economists forecasts and weakening President-elect Donald Trump's argument that his election has brought new hopes to U.S. businesses and workers.
The expansion detailed in the Labor Department's monthly report, while steady, didn't live up to economists' estimates that 180,000 jobs would be added. It was an improvement, however, from the revised 135,000 jobs added last month.
"Though job growth came in a touch weaker than expected, weather likely played a role," Moody's Analytics economist Ryan Sweet said in an e-mail. "Full employment is approaching but we are not there yet."
The labor trends show the market isn't running too hot, Sweet said, which allows the Federal Reserve to remain patient with interest-rate hikes. So far, the central bank has raised short-term rates only twice, to a range of 0.5% to 0.75%, since they were cut to nearly zero during the 2008 financial crisis.
"We look for the next interest rate hike in June," Sweet said. The bank's monetary policy indicated last month that as many as three increases are possible this year.
The unemployment rate rose 0.1 percentage point to 4.7% after a 0.3 point decline in November, and average hourly earnings rose 10 cents, bringing the closely watched year-over-year gain to 2.9%, the best since May 2009. The report follows a run of mostly weak data for November that have pushed many forecasts for fourth-quarter growth to less than a 2% annual rate.
Friday's labor report is the last reading on employment that will be issued during Barack Obama's presidency, but it isn't the final word on job creation during his two terms in office. The survey on which January's jobs report will be based will be conducted next week, before the inauguration, and released on Feb. 3. Then, the January report will be revised when February and March data are released.
For now, the record shows the economy has added 11.2 million jobs since January 2009, after losing 400,000 private-sector jobs under President George W. Bush. U.S. employers have boosted payrolls by 15.5 million since February 2010, when employment reached its low point after the 2008 financial crisis. Median household incomes, which dropped 8.4% between 2007 and 2011, have climbed 10.1% since, adjusted for inflation, according to Sentier Research.
December's gains were strongest in the health-care sector, where employers like HCA (HCA) and Tenet Healthcare (THC) added 43,000 jobs, with nearly 11,000 in hospitals, whose stocks have been sinking as Republicans prepare to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
Bars and restaurants hired 29,600 workers, and manufacturers like Boeing (BA) and General Electric (GE) added 17,000 jobs, in perhaps the biggest surprise in the report. Employment rose sharply in both auto manufacturing and retailing, reflecting strong December sales by carmakers including General Motors (GM) and Ford (F) . Employment fell by 3,000 in construction and by 2,000 in mining, the latter reflecting still-weak oil-drilling activity.
The report is likely to be revised higher in coming months, Sweet said.
The response rate to the December surveys from the Labor Department was low, at 67.6%, compared with more than 80% in each of the prior three Decembers, he noted.
"This suggests that job growth could be revised higher, something that has been normal in December," Sweet said. "Employment between the first and third estimates has been revised higher every December since 2010 except for one."
The so-called underemployment rate, which includes both out-of-work people and those who settle for part-time jobs but want full-time employment, dipped by a tenth of a point to 9.2%. That's 0.2 points higher than what Moody's chief economist Mark Zandi says would reflect full employment.
But the wage gains are the biggest deal in the report, suggesting that consumers will have enough money for their spending to bolster growth, one money manager said.
"Job growth was decent and wage growth is picking up nicely," Aberdeen Investment Management portfolio manager Luke Bartholomew said. "But the only real show in town is Donald Trump's inauguration. The economy is doing well and doesn't obviously need the shot in the arm that Trump is planning on providing. The interaction between the Fed and Trump, and the resulting policy mix, is likely to be the defining theme for investors this year."
A more skeptical view on wages came from Regions Financial chief economist Richard Moody.
"The gain in hourly earnings is nothing more than the calendar effect at work, and holiday hiring amongst brick-and-mortar retailers was fairly weak this year," Moody said. "The trends are still the same, job growth settling in to a slower pace with plenty of slack remaining. The labor market may or may not be made great again, but it is clearly not there yet."