The U.S. economy added 313,000 jobs in February, while the unemployment rate held at 4.1%, the Labor Department said on Friday.
Average hourly wages rose 4 cents to $26.75 an hour, up a tame 2.6% from a year earlier. That missed consensus expectations of 2.9% rise. January’s wage gain, originally reported as a 2.9% rise, was revised down to 2.8%.
Wall Street expected a gain of 205,000 jobs and 4.0% jobless rate.
December and January payrolls were revised up by a combined 54,000.
After the jobs report, the Dow Jones industrial average, S&P 500 index and Nasdaq 100 futures moved significantly higher on the stock market today. The S&P 500 index, which closed a point below its 50-day moving average on Thursday, reclaimed that key level at Friday’s open.
The 10-year Treasury yield rose a few basis points to 2.9% but the jobs and wage data didn’t substantially bolster the case for the Federal Reserve to add an extra interest-rate hike in 2018.
Despite the blowout jobs number, the data may give stocks a tad more running room before Fed hike expectations begin to bite, but investors shouldn’t take too much comfort.
While the data don’t show that Goldilocks-type wage gains are history, bigger pay gains are likely coming this spring, reflecting recently announced wage hikes from Walmart (WMT), Target (TGT), CVS Health (CVS) and Starbucks (SBUX), which don’t show up yet in the February jobs report.
And as those companies hike wages, their competitors are being pressured to do the same. This week, Kroger (KR), Dollar Tree (DLTR) and Ross Stores (ROST) all said they’re raising wages for employees, and their stocks sold off amid worries about profit margins.
The retail sector added 50,000 jobs, while construction employment surged 61,000 and manufacturers hired a net 31,000.
The likely combination of low and falling unemployment with accelerating wage gains would fit perfectly with the Phillips curve theory that has long guided Federal Reserve policy. As far as investors are concerned, the key point is that most Fed policymakers still seem pretty confident that inflation pressures won’t follow too far behind wage pressures, as businesses pass along a portion of their higher wage bills.
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That’s why an interest-rate scare is looking possible, even if a legitimate inflation scare doesn’t materialize.
The competitive environment facing Kroger from Walmart and Amazon.com (AMZN) via its Whole Foods division, among others, offers at least some reason to doubt whether wage pressure will feed through to higher prices. Kroger said on Thursday that it will use one-third of its tax cut to boost shareholder returns, but the other two-thirds will go to higher wages and lower prices.
Kroger gave weak profit guidance as it forecast smaller profit margins, sending shares crashing 12% on Thursday.
Walmart’s minimum-wage hike to $11 an hour was its first for new, entry-level workers since 2015, when it raised its minimum wage to $9 an hour. Then, in early 2016, Walmart hiked pay for all current associates to a minimum of $10 an hour, leading Target, Costco (COST) and others to raise their own wages. The point is that wage hikes can come in bunches. It didn’t really happen last year, when wage growth hit a bit of a lull. But it does appear to be happening in 2018.
If it does, Wall Street will continue to bump up odds for a fourth rate hike in 2018. Already those odds are about 1 in 3, up from about 20% a month ago, according to the CME Group’s FedWatch tool.
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