The U.S. job market has almost fully healed from the deep wounds of the Great Recession, raising expectations that the Federal Reserve will begin withdrawing its support for the recovery by the end of the year.
Government data released Friday showed that the economy added a blockbuster 271,000 jobs in October – the highest amount this year and beyond analysts’ most optimistic forecasts. The unemployment rate dipped to 5 percent, and wages rose at the fastest pace since 2009.
The stellar performance provided reassurance that the U.S. economy can withstand powerful global headwinds, from the slowdown in China to the threat of deflation in Europe. A healthy labor market could also give policymakers at the central bank the confidence to raise its key interest rate target for the first time in nearly a decade.
“The economy’s course is steady and true,” said Chris Rupkey, chief financial economist at MUFG Union Bank. “The reasons for Fed caution and delay are falling to the wayside, as this economic expansion is the real deal.”
The probability that the Fed will make a move at its next meeting, in December, jumped to nearly 75 percent Friday, according to markets, up from roughly even odds a week ago. Barclays reined in its forecast from March 2016 to December. Famed investor Bill Gross of Janus Capital was unequivocal, telling Bloomberg TV he thinks the chances are “almost 100 percent that the yellow light changes in December to bright green.”
The move would mark the beginning of the end of an unprecedented era of easy money, which has cushioned the U.S. economy during the downturn but has not produced robust growth in the recovery.
In 2008, the central bank slashed its target for the federal funds rate – the rate that banks pay to borrow money overnight – to zero for the first time. It followed up by pumping trillions of dollars into the economy over the next six years in the hope of fostering a faster expansion.
Now, the crisis is long over. At 5 percent, the unemployment rate is half of the peak it reached in 2009 and close to what many economists think is its lowest sustainable level. Last month, the Fed explicitly set up its December meeting as the moment it may decide to begin unwinding the past seven years of stimulus.
“Bottom line, the economic indicators for October likely met or surpassed the Fed’s sniff test on the resilience of the U.S. expansion,” said Scott Anderson, chief economist at Bank of the West.
The central bank’s target interest rate helps determine the cost of borrowing money across the economy. That means a move by the Fed could also send mortgage rates rising. Jonathan Smoke, chief economist for Realtor.com, estimated that the cost of a home loan could increase by as much as three-quarters of a percentage point over the course of a year after the central bank begins raising rates.
Mortgage rates have been moving up on stronger expectations that the Fed will act. Higher borrowing costs could make it more difficult for potential buyers to qualify for a loan, Smoke said. A Realtor.com analysis found that a half-percentage-point increase in mortgage rates this year would have put 4 to 6 percent of buyers at risk.
“You’ve essentially been able to sit on the sidelines and wait for the perfect time,” Smoke said. “Once the market gets a clear message that rates are finally on an upward trajectory, you’ll get more of the fence-sitters more active.”
October’s job gains spanned a broad swath of industries. Administrative and support services added 46,000 workers, slightly topping the number of jobs added by the health-care industry. Retailers and restaurants added more than 40,000 positions each, while construction employment increased by 31,000 jobs.
Perhaps even more encouraging was the jump in wages last month. Wage growth has been stagnant for years even as momentum in the job market picked up, puzzling many economists and frustrating workers who thought that the recovery had yet to reach their pocketbooks. The data released Friday showed that average hourly earnings rose 9 cents in October, to $25.20, up a solid 2.5 percent over the past year.
Still, the number of people working part time who would prefer full-time positions remains unusually high. The mining industry shed 5,000 jobs amid a steep drop in the price of commodities such as oil. The share of people participating in the labor force held steady at its lowest level in three decades. Although much of the decline is because of demographic changes, many workers have become so discouraged about their prospects of finding a job that they have given up the search.
The biggest risk to the recovery in the United States comes from overseas. China has acknowledged that the breakneck expansion that helped buoy the global economy after the financial crisis is no longer sustainable. The nation lowered its target for annual growth over the next five years from 7 percent to 6.5 percent. Fears over China’s ability to engineer a smooth transition set off wild swings in global financial markets over the summer, including a 1,000-point drop in the Dow Jones industrial average. Prices for oil and other commodities have plunged as a result of weak demand overseas, forcing the manufacturing and oil industries to shed thousands of jobs.
An increase in interest rates, however, is not a foregone conclusion. The Fed is charged with two separate but intimately connected responsibilities: maximum employment and price stability. Over the past year, the job market has improved, but inflation has run below the Fed’s target of 2 percent. The central bank thinks that stronger hiring eventually will push prices back up, but so far it has been disappointed. Some officials inside the Fed want to see more evidence that inflation is picking up before the central bank hikes rates.
“I think it’s a mistake to think they’re locked into December,” said Dean Croushore, head of the economics department at the University of Richmond.
There are still several key data releases before the Fed meets in December – including another jobs report. The central bank has emphasized that its decision will depend on the evolution of the economy. If the recovery proves stronger than expected, the central bank could withdraw its stimulus more quickly. If the economy disappoints, it could delay the process.
At a hearing on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, Fed Chair Janet L. Yellen attempted the tricky balancing act of flagging the potential for a move without committing to one.
“It could be appropriate to adjust rates at our next meeting,” she said. But she quickly added, “Now, no decision at all has been made on that.”