Daily Local News (West Chester, PA)

U.S. job market has recovered faster than predicted

- Catherine Rampell

Amid some other unfortunat­e economic developmen­ts — accelerati­ng inflation, a stock-market plunge, declining productivi­ty — there’s one bright spot. So bright, in fact, it’s almost blinding.

That good news: job growth.

U.S. employers added 428,000 jobs on net in April, about the same number added in March, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported Friday. Unemployme­nt remained flat at 3.6% — close to a half-century low.

Perhaps we’ve gotten accustomed to (even spoiled by!) similar headline numbers in recent months. Over the past year, job growth has averaged more than half a million new positions on net each month. But step back a bit and you’ll realize how remarkable the pace of hiring has been.

Jobs plummeted in the pandemic recession that began February 2020. Employment fell further and faster than in any other postwar recession, including the Great Recession. But now we’ve recovered nearly all of the ground we lost in those early covid months; in fact, if April’s pace of job growth continues, we’ll return to prepandemi­c levels of employment in about three months.

In other words, we might patch up that deep hole by midsummer.

In February 2021, the Congressio­nal Budget Office estimated that we’d return to the pre-pandemic jobs peak only around the second half of 2023. The CBO also forecast then that the unemployme­nt rate as of the first quarter of this year would be 5.1%, as did the economists polled around then in the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelph­ia’s Survey of Profession­al Forecaster­s.

So what happened? Fiscal and monetary policy has been extremely expansiona­ry in the past year. In plainer English: Congress gave Americans a lot of cash to spend, and the Federal Reserve kept interest rates low. Those measures helped juice consumer demand and also demand for workers. Now, a few important caveats. First, in a healthy economy, we would expect the total number of jobs to be higher today than it was in February 2020, not more or less flat. The population, and specifical­ly the working-age population, has grown since then, and there should have been commensura­te growth in jobs. Simply returning to where we were is not good enough.

Second, the official unemployme­nt rate, which is nearly down to its pre-pandemic low, somewhat exaggerate­s the job market’s health.

That’s because it counts only those who do not have a job and are actively looking for work. If you have dropped out of the labor force entirely — maybe you retired, became a full-time caregiver, went back to school or have a disability — you won’t be reflected in this number. This matters because labor force participat­ion rates remain lower than they were pre-pandemic, and not only because baby boomers are retiring.

And third (as I’ve noted before): An abundance of jobs might be little comfort if wage growth isn’t keeping up with the rising cost of living.

Wages grew, in nominal terms, 5.5% in April from the year prior. When April inflation numbers come out next week, they will likely show that once again inflation outpaced wage growth.

Job trends aren’t the only forecast that most people got wrong last year; inflation has also run far higher, for much longer, than most had predicted. That is partly because of those expansiona­ry fiscal and monetary policy choices, compounded by persistent­ly snarled supply chains, plus some really bad luck.

The Federal Reserve has recently begun raising interest rates in an effort to reduce inflation. Higher interest rates make it a little more expensive to borrow so should reduce demand for houses, cars and other purchases.

The Fed’s goal is to cool demand just enough that inflation comes down but not so much that it tips the U.S. economy into recession or throws a lot of people out of work.

Historical­ly, though, the Fed has struggled to reduce inflation without harming hiring or broader economic growth — or pushing us into full-blown recession. Despite the strong jobs numbers to date, we might nonetheles­s be in for a bumpy ride in the year ahead.

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