JOLTS Report Shows Ongoing Labor Market Tightness

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The latest Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey (JOLTS) report released Tuesday by the Bureau of Labor Statistics showed job openings rose to 9.02 million in December, up from a revised 8.92 million in November. This was higher than economist forecasts of 8.75 million openings.

The December JOLTS report indicates ongoing tightness in the US labor market, as job openings remain stubbornly high even as the Federal Reserve has aggressively raised interest rates over the past year to cool demand and curb inflationary pressures.

On the surface, the rise in openings appears a negative sign for monetary policy aimed at loosening the jobs market. However, the increase was small, and openings remain well below the March 2023 peak of 11.9 million. The quits rate, which measures voluntary departures and is an indicator of workers’ confidence in ability to find new jobs, also edged down to 2.1% in December, though it remains elevated historically.

This suggests the Fed’s policy actions may be having a gradual effect, but the labor market remains tight overall. Layoffs also stayed low in December, with just 1.6 million separations due to layoffs or discharges during the month. The labor force participation rate ticked up to 62.3% in December, so labor supply is expanding somewhat, though participation remains below pre-pandemic levels.

For the Fed, the report provides ammunition on both sides of the debate as to whether a pause in rate hikes is warranted or further increases are needed to achieve a soft landing. Markets see a mixed bag, with the US dollar index largely unchanged on the day and Treasury yields seeing only slight moves following the release.

Impact on Economic Outlook

The bigger picture is that while job openings are declining, they remain unusually high, indicative of continued broad demand for workers across sectors like healthcare, manufacturing, and hospitality. Businesses appear eager to hire even amidst an economic slowdown and uncertainty about the outlook.

This need for workers will support consumer spending, the primary engine of US GDP growth, as long as hiring remains robust and layoffs low. But it also means upward pressure on wages as employers compete for talent, which could fuel inflation. Herein lies the conundrum for monetary policy.

The strength of the labor market is a double-edged sword – positive for growth in the near term, but concerning for the Fed’s inflation fight if it necessitates further large wage increases.

Chair Powell has been adamant the Fed’s priority is reducing inflation, even at the risk of economic pain. With the jobs market still hot in late 2023, further rate hikes seem likely at upcoming policy meetings absent a substantial cooling in inflation or rise in unemployment.

Payroll growth could slow in 2024 from levels above 400,000 per month in 2023, but demand remains too high relative to labor supply. The Fed wants meaningful softening in job openings and wage growth, which has yet to fully materialize. Unemployment would likely need to rise to the high 3% range or beyond to reduce wage pressures.

The JOLTS report provides important context on the state of the labor market amid crosscurrents in other economic data. Manufacturing has slowed and housing has declined, but consumers keep spending and job switching remains high. The Fed is unlikely to declare victory or shift to rate cuts with this conflicting mix of weak and resilient activity.

The path for monetary policy and markets will depend on which direction the trends in openings, wages, inflation and jobs growth tilt in coming months. For now, the JOLTS report gives the sense of an economy and labor market that are cooling gradually under the weight of higher rates rather than slowing precipitously.


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