Only eight days separated the two government reports, yet they seemed to describe entirely different realities.
The first showed a weak economy that — coupled with the highest inflation in 40 years — offered consumers nothing but grief. The second reflected a juggernaut that was minting jobs faster than workers could be found to fill them, with an unemployment rate that matched the pre-pandemic low of 3.5 percent.
“It’s normal for different economic indicators to point in different directions. It’s the magnitude of the discrepancies right now that’s unprecedented,” said Jason Furman, formerly President Barack Obama’s top economic adviser. “It isn’t just that the economy is growing in one measure and shrinking in another. It’s growing incredibly strongly in one measure while shrinking at a pretty decent clip in another.”
In Washington on Friday, President Biden took a victory lap for the job growth while claiming credit for gas prices having declined for more than 50 consecutive days. Yet he also acknowledged the disconnect between the sunny employment report and the inflation headaches that afflict many households.
“I know people will hear today’s extraordinary jobs report and say they don’t see it, they don’t feel it in their own lives,” the president said, speaking from a White House balcony. “I know how hard it is. I know it’s hard to feel good about job creation when you already have a job and you’re dealing with rising prices, food and gas, and so much more. I get it.”
The surprisingly robust jobs number seemed to call into question the president’s argument that the economy is undergoing a “transition” from its faster growth rates last year to a slower, more sustainable pace.
No one expects the economy to continue producing half a million new jobs each month. No one thinks it could without inflation remaining at uncomfortable heights.
Almost five months after the Federal Reserve began raising interest rates to cool off the economy and to bring down the highest inflation since the early 1980s, the labor market report showed that the nation’s central bank has more work to do. Average hourly earnings for private sector workers rose by 5.2 percent over the past year, which hints at the sort of wage-price spiral that the Fed is determined to prevent.
Last month, the Fed lifted its benchmark interest rate to a range of 2.25 percent to 2.5 percent, its highest level in almost four years. Yet in “real” or inflation-adjusted terms, borrowing costs remain deeply negative, which acts as a spur to economic growth.
Fed Chair Jerome H. Powell said last month that additional rate increases are likely when policymakers next meet on Sept. 21. The size of the next increase – either half a percentage point or three-quarters of a point – will “depend on the data we get between now and then,” he told reporters.
Investors see a 70 percent chance of the larger move, according to CME Group, which tracks purchases of derivatives linked to the central bank’s key rate.
On Wednesday, the government is scheduled to release inflation readings for July, which are expected to show a modest improvement compared to June’s 9.1 percent figure, thanks to falling energy prices.
Powell’s decision to stop telegraphing Fed moves by providing “forward guidance” of its plans is itself a sign that the current environment is murkier than usual.
“A lot of what’s happening in this economy is being driven by the pandemic, and then the pandemic response. And so, we are in a very unusual time, in many ways [it’s] challenging to sort of read through those data,” Loretta Mester, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, and a voting member of the Fed’s rate-setting committee, told The Washington Post this week.
Almost 22 million Americans lost their jobs between February and April of 2020 in covid’s first months. The unemployment rate hit 14.7 percent, the highest figure recorded by the Labor Department in a series that began in 1948.
With July’s gains, the economy now has recovered all of the lost…