By Lucia Mutikani
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. job growth surged in April and the unemployment rate dropped to a more than 49-year low of 3.6 percent, pointing to sustained strength in economic activity even as last year’s massive fiscal stimulus fades.
The Labor Department’s closely watched monthly employment report on Friday, however, showed steady wage gains last month, consistent with moderate inflation. The decline in the unemployment rate to the lowest level since December 1969 was because people left the labor force, suggesting some slack in the jobs market remains.
The report was broadly supportive of the Federal Reserve’s decision on Wednesday to keep interest rates unchanged and signal little desire to adjust monetary policy anytime soon. Fed Chair Jerome Powell described the economy and job growth as “a bit stronger than we anticipated” and inflation “somewhat weaker.”
“Employment gains are strong enough to dispel any immediate concerns over the health of the economy, while wage gains are not strong enough to force the Federal Reserve’s hand to tighten the policy stance,” said Harm Bandholz, chief U.S. economist at UniCredit Research in New York.
Nonfarm payrolls increased by 263,000 jobs last month, amid gains in hiring nearly across all sectors. The economy created 16,000 more jobs in February and March than previously reported. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast nonfarm payrolls rising by 185,000 jobs last month.
The strong economy, especially the labor market, could boost President Donald Trump’s re-election hopes next year. Trump has touted the economy as being one of the big wins of his first term in office. The economy will celebrate 10 years of expansion in July, the longest on record.
Job growth is well above the roughly 100,000 needed per month to keep up with growth in the working-age population.
The second month of strong job growth was further evidence that February’s paltry 56,000 increase in jobs was an aberration.
It also effectively put to rest concerns about a recession and diminished expectations of an interest rate cut this year that had been fanned by a brief inversion of the U.S. Treasury yield curve in March.
Hiring remains strong, despite anecdotal evidence of worker shortages in the transportation, manufacturing and construction industries, suggesting there is still some spare capacity in the labor market.
Steadily rising wages have on balance been keeping workers in the labor force and drawing back those who had dropped out. Average hourly earnings rose six cents, or 0.2 percent in April after rising by the same margin in March. That kept the annual increase in wages at 3.2 percent. Workers put in fewer hours in April. The average workweek fell to 34.4 hours from 34.5 hours.
Though wage growth is not strong enough to drive up inflation, it is seen as sufficient to underpin economic growth as the stimulus from last year’s $1.5 trillion tax cut wanes.
The economy grew at a 3.2 percent annualized rate in the first quarter, driven by a surge in exports and inventories, quickening from the October-December period’s 2.2 percent pace.
The dollar dipped versus a basket of currencies after the employment report, while U.S. Treasury yields were marginally lower.
PEOPLE LEFT LABOR FORCE
The two-tenths of a percentage point drop in the unemployment rate from 3.8 percent in March was because 490,000 people left the labor force in April. The jobless rate is now below the 3.7 percent that Fed officials project it will be by the end of the year.
A broader measure of unemployment, which includes people who want to work but have given up searching and those working part-time because they cannot find full-time employment, was unchanged at 7.3 percent in April.
The labor force participation rate, or the proportion of working-age Americans who have a job or are looking for one, fell to 62.8 percent in April from 63.0 percent in March. The participation rate hit a more than five-year high of 63.2 percent in January.
Some economists expect job growth to slow this year as fewer workers become available, which will push up wages and lift inflation back to the Fed’s 2 percent target. An inflation measure tracked by the U.S. central bank increased 1.6 percent in the year to March, the smallest gain in 14 months, from 1.7 percent in February.
Employment at construction sites increased by 33,000 jobs in April, rising for a second straight month. Manufacturing sector payrolls rebounded by 4,000 jobs after being unchanged in March.
The industry is being pressured by layoffs in the automobile sector as assembly plants try to cope with declining sales and an inventory overhang.
Leisure and hospitality sector payrolls increased by 34,000 jobs last month. Professional and business services employment added 76,000 jobs last month. There were increases in healthcare, transportation and warehousing employment, as well as financial activities.
But retail payrolls fell by 12,000 jobs in April, declining for a third straight month. Temporary help, a harbinger for future hiring, rebounded last month after dropping in March.
Government payrolls increased by 27,000 in April, likely driven by early hiring for the 2020 Census.
(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Andrea Ricci)