Labor Market Not Adding Up

On the surface, there’s much to like about the job market. But when you get into the details, it’s not quite as strong and some things don’t add up.

Here’s what to like.

The establishment survey answered by a sample of businesses showed that nonfarm payrolls increased 353,000 in January, easily beating the consensus expected 185,000, the largest gain in a year, and coming in higher than the forecast from every economics group (that filed a forecast with Bloomberg). Meanwhile, payroll gains were revised up by 126,000 for November and December, bringing the net gain, including revisions, to 479,000. In the past year, payrolls are up 2.9 million or 244,000 per month.

We like to follow payrolls excluding government (because it's not the private sector), education & health (because it rises for structural and demographic reasons, and usually doesn’t decline even in recession years), and leisure & hospitality (which is still recovering from COVID Lockdowns). That “core” measure of payrolls rose 194,000 in January, which is the best month since mid-2022.

That same payroll survey showed that average hourly earnings – cash earnings, excluding irregular bonuses/commissions and fringe benefits – rose 0.6% in January and are up 4.5% versus a year ago. The Federal Reserve might not like that – the odds implied by the futures market that the Fed will cut rates by the end of the May 1 meeting went down substantially – but it is good news for workers and means wage growth per hour is out-stripping inflation.