US economy posts solid jobs growth despite tight labour market

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The US economy registered another month of solid jobs growth in May, despite employers grappling with a historically tight labour market.

Employers in the world’s largest economy added 390,000 jobs during the month, less than the upwardly revised 436,000 positions created during the previous period but more than economists had expected.

The jobless rate steadied at 3.6 per cent, just 0.1 percentage point above the level it stood at in February 2020 before the coronavirus pandemic spread globally.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, leisure and hospitality was among the sectors to see “notable” gains. More than 80,000 positions were added in May, with an additional 75,000 professional and business services jobs created as well. Transportation and warehousing employment rose by 47,000. The only sector to see losses was retail, with the number of jobs declining by 61,000.

Line chart of US unemployment rate, % showing More strong gains for US labour market

Despite these gains, the rapid recovery of the US labour market — which has far outpaced the sluggish bounceback that characterised the post-global financial crisis period — has been overshadowed in large part by the highest inflation in four decades.

With roughly 1.9 vacant positions for every unemployed worker, there are also broad concerns that a prolonged shortfall of people willing to join the labour force will keep upward pressure on prices as employers are forced to continue raising wages and improving benefits in order to attract new hires and keep those already on payroll.

The data, which was released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics on Friday, did not show a significant improvement in the share of Americans either employed or looking for work — otherwise known as the labour-force participation rate — but featured another pick-up in monthly wage growth.

Average hourly earnings in May rose 0.3 per cent, in line with last month’s increase. On an annual basis, that translates to 5.2 per cent, slightly slower than the 5.5 per cent pace registered in April.

President Joe Biden has said tackling high inflation is his administration’s top priority, a message he has sought to fortify in recent days. Earlier this week, he met with Jay Powell, chair of the Federal Reserve, and reiterated his support for the US central bank to do what it takes to contain inflation.

The Fed has already raised interest rates by 0.75 percentage points since March from the near-zero levels that had been in place since the start of the pandemic. That included the first half-point rate rise since May 2000, a tool top officials have indicated will be used repeatedly in quick succession until there is “clear and convincing” evidence that inflation is coming down.

Powell and other policymakers have surmised the Fed will be able to tame price pressures without causing a sharp recession, especially given the strength of the labour market and the sheer magnitude of the demand for workers.

As the Fed lifts borrowing costs by raising rates and shrinking its $9tn balance sheet, the hope is that the number of vacancies falls rather than outright job losses mount.

According to an analysis by the Financial Times, the variation in labour market tightness between states and across industries is substantial, however, potentially complicating the Fed’s efforts to pull off a “soft landing”.

US government bonds sold off after the report, with the benchmark 10-year note trading 0.06 percentage points higher at 2.97 per cent. Two-year Treasury yields, which are most sensitive to changes in monetary policy, rose by a smaller amount, up 0.03 percentage points to 2.66 per cent.

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