It's the working man who is the happy man, Benjamin Franklin observed some 200 years ago.
It's an assessment that applies equally well to large groups and systems, such as the U.S. economy. And the latest employment data, slated to be published by the U.S. Labor Department on Friday, July 7, will show how content one of America's founders might consider the country to be today.
Employers probably added 179,000 positions during June, the consensus of economists surveyed by FactSet, with unemployment remaining at 4.3%, the lowest in 16 years. Both figures are widely watched gauges of U.S. health, informing the Federal Reserve's efforts to roll back some of the stimulus measures put in place after the 2008 financial crisis slashed about half the value of U.S. stock markets and pushed the jobless rate to a peak of 10%.
Should the numbers trail expectations, members of the central bank's monetary policy committee may be inclined to slow the pace of interest-rate hikes, which have climbed from nearly zero to a range of 1% to 1.25% in the past year and a half -- especially since inflation remains stubbornly shy of their 2% target.
"Payrolls have been trending positive month-to-month, but the underlying momentum in hiring has slowed markedly over the past few years," Lindsey Piegza, chief economist at Stifel Fixed Income, said in a note to clients on Thursday. Indeed, private employment numbers from payroll processor ADP for June were 15% lower than economists had projected, and the government's numbers for May missed by an even wider mark.
The pivotal point in Friday's jobs report will be what it shows about the trajectory of employment, whether growth in the U.S. is slowing or holding steady, Mark Hamrick, senior economic analyst at Bankrate.com (RATE) , said in a telephone interview.
"Obviously, with the previous report, we had some weakening," he added. "We had a reading that told us the previous two months were weaker than initially expected, so we'll try to figure out what the momentum story is."
Here are three other points in the report to monitor closely:
- How the total number of new jobs compares to previous months. The U.S. economy added 138,000 positions in May, 174,000 in April and just 50,000 in March, dragging the three-month average to the 120,000 range from the 150,000 range, Bank of America (BAC) has said. Still, Fed Chair Janet Yellen has said the economy only needs about 100,000 new jobs each month to keep up with workforce growth.
- The unemployment rate. The most commonly used measure of joblessness fell to 4.3% in May, the lowest since 2001. Whether it sinks further is difficult to predict, Hamrick noted, especially since it's already below 5%, a level many economists view as full employment. "If you look at history as a guide, we could go lower," he said, "but it's a little like losing weight. The first 100 pounds are the easiest to get rid of."
- Average hourly earnings, which rose 2.5% to $26.22 in May. "We've been praying that average hourly earnings would get to 3% or better," Hamrick noted. "Some other metrics of income might look a little better than that, but I think ultimately they're all pointing to same story: that wage gains are muted."
Franklin, who also said money could never make people happy, might have cared less about that than employment. A signer of both the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, he had no shortage of jobs himself before his death at 84, working as a printer and a scientist and serving as the nation's first postmaster and ambassador to France.
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