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The U.S. economy gained 295,000 jobs in February, the 12th consecutive month employers added more than 200,000 to their payrolls. Meanwhile the unemployment rate dropped to 5.5%.
This is yet another sign of an improving — or what economists would call a “tightening” — labor market.
The rate at which workers are quitting their jobs has risen near levels not seen since before the 2007-2009 recession, implying that workers are feeling more secure that better opportunities lie ahead.
The number of unemployed workers who’ve been out of work 27 weeks or longer, while still high, is 31.1%, compared with 36.8% a year ago. Average hourly earnings grew by 0.1% last month, after rising 0.5% in January. Wages are up 2% over this time 12 months ago. That’s being be read by many analysts as a relatively sluggish number.
That last bit is important. While the labor market has been improving for more than a year, wage growth has disappointed. That in turn has kept a lid on inflation, which is one of the main reasons why interest rates have been next to nothing since the Great Recession and why the Fed, even now, will be “patient” in raising the cost of borrowing.
Even so “labor tightness is showing up in several high-profile labor disputes,” notes BMO chief investment officer Jack Ablin.
Recent anecdotal evidence points to workers having more power in their dealings with management — take striking port and refinery workers and pay raises for Wal-Mart and TJ Maxx employees. And the economy is still plugging along: an index that gauges non-manufacturing business rose a bit last month despite the headwinds from West Coast port strikes. “It was a miracle that the ISM non-manufacturing index managed to tick up for the second month in a row,” says Gluskin Sheff chief economist David Rosenberg.
Americans are feeling more confident about their finances, too. In the first three months of this year, the Wells Fargo/ Gallup Investor and Retirement Optimism Index jumped to its highest level since 2007. (Thank cheap gas prices.)
Wells Fargo Securities senior economist Sam Bullard believes the economy will continue to add workers this year at a clip of 224,000 per month.
“If realized, this strength in hiring would be enough to continue to pressure the unemployment rate lower and should result in a higher pace of wage growth–all supportive to a Fed tightening move in the coming months,” Bullard says.