HIGHLIGHTS OF THE WEEK
- The Federal Reserve meets next week and is near-universally expected to raise interest rates by 25 basis points, bringing the target for the fed funds to a range of 1.25% to 1.5%.
- The U.S. labor market continues to make progress with 228k jobs added in November. Given the current rate of job creation, it is only a matter of months before the unemployment rate pushes below 4%.
- The American economy is likely to continue its winning streak. Even without tax cuts, 2018 is likely to see growth around 2.5%. With increasing prospects for fiscal stimulus to push growth even higher, the Federal Reserve will continue to remove monetary accommodation.
The Fed Can’t Ignore A 3-Handle On Unemployment
As the Federal Reserve meets next week to decide interest rate policy for the final time in 2017 it is faced with ebullient financial markets and an economy that is operating increasingly close to full capacity. With November’s gain of 228k jobs, the streak of positive job creation entered its 86th month. The unemployment rate in November held steady at 4.1% (a seventeen year low), but with job growth trending above 200k, it is only a matter of months before it pushes to lows not seen since the 1960s.
Monetary policy is set with an eye to the future. As a thought experiment, assume that the rate of job creation continues at around its current pace of 200k a month. Given demographics, this is more than double the pace needed to keep up with labor market growth. Should this continue over the next year it will push the unemployment rate to just 3.4% – the lowest rate on record (data goes back to 1947).
While there are some doubts about the strength of the relationship between unemployment and inflation, an unemployment rate that begins with a three handle is certain to raise eyebrows. The unemployment rate is already below the FOMC’s assumed neutral level of 4.6%, and other broader measures of labor market slack, such as long-term unemployed and the U-6 measure of labor underutilization, continue to trend lower.
The hope is that employer demand for labor will draw discouraged workers back into the labor force, but the pool of such potential workers is dwindling. Relative to the population, the share of people outside of the workforce (not actively searching for a job), who want a job now is at the same rate it was prior to the recession (Chart 1). The employment to population ratio of core working-aged women (between 25 to 54) has already regained its prerecession peak (Chart 2). The ratio is still lower for men, but it has been steadily declining for no less than seventy years. Subtracting the long-run trend, the ratio does not appear all that abnormal.
Even without tax cuts, the U.S. economy appears likely to continue its winning streak. Growth in the fourth quarter is tracking close to 3%. With supportive financial conditions, economic growth in the range of 2-2.5% appears likely over the next year. Into this environment, Congress looks increasingly likely to pass a tax cut that will raise the deficit and add as much as $1 trillion to the national debt over the next decade.
Any boost to growth from the proposed tax reform plan is likely to show up in higher wages and inflation, which may have to be offset by additional interest rate hikes. Our model simulations based on a Taylor Rule monetary policy reaction function suggest that for every 0.25 percentage points added to economic growth above its trend rate, the Fed should raise rates by an additional 25 basis points. While there is considerably uncertainty around the timing of tax cuts, investors should not discount the likelihood that what Congress giveth the Federal Reserve may taketh away.
James Marple, Director & Senior Economist
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