Blockbuster jobs report puts fears of the economy's demise to rest

Markets were expecting business payrolls to expand by 176,000 workers, but the Friday report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics showed companies added an outsized 312,000 employees to their payrolls in December.

Job growth occurred across the board with all sectors of the economy adding jobs in December, save for the information sector. Leisure and hospitality, construction, professional and business services, manufacturing and health care all experienced sizeable job gains in December.

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The average monthly job gains in 2018 was 220,000 — the fastest average pace since 2015 when job gains averaged 226,000 and the third-fastest in the recovery to date.

Nine-and-a-half years into the economic expansion, to see job growth accelerating at this clip should allay fears that the economy has begun its initial descent in recession.

The results from the household survey also reveal the strength of the labor market. At first glance, the increase in the headline unemployment rate from 3.7 percent to 3.9 percent might appear to be a weak spot in this report, but the increase was driven by growth in the labor force of 419,000, which pushed the labor force participation rate up to 63.1 percent. 

The participation rate for prime-age workers (25-54 years old), which is not impacted by retiring baby boomers, continues to climb and is at its highest rate since 2010.

Plentiful job opportunities and wages and salaries rising at the fastest pace in the recovery to date (3.2 percent) are drawing more people back into the labor force. This puts upward pressure on the unemployment rate but is a sign of the strength of the labor market, not an indication of weakness.

Accelerating wages and the Tax Cut and Jobs Act have combined to give American workers something they have not had much experience with in this economic cycle: increasing take-home pay. It turns out that when you put all those “crumbs” together you end up with a well-stocked cookie table. 

Early indications are that consumers are feasting on the spread. A report from Mastercard indicated that the 5.1 percent increase in spending over 2017 levels was the best holiday shopping season in six years. Consumer sentiment in 2018 held at the highest levels since 2000 and will likely get a lift from falling gasoline prices.

The largest component of the U.S. economy — consumption — is well-poised for sustained growth as we begin 2019.

The stock market appeared to welcome the jobs report as major indexes were up significantly at midday.  However, much of this surge was likely due to comments made by Federal Reserve Chairman Jay Powell, who continues to signal a more dovish approach to rate hikes and possibly balance sheet reductions in 2019.

The economy is on the brink of experiencing 3.0-percent annual real GDP growth for the first time in this economic cycle, and the labor market remains strong as Friday’s report reaffirms. Yet, observing the stock market during the final quarter of 2018, you'd get the impression that our economic wheels are in the process of coming off.

So why is there such a disconnect between Main Street and Wall Street? 

Simply put, financial markets are going through withdrawal. After seven years of zero interest rates and a $3 trillion dollar balance-sheet bender that was followed by a record-breaking Trump bump after the 2016 election, markets are fitfully adjusting to an environment where interest rates are on the rise. 

Anxiety, fatigue, sweating, depression, restlessness and even hallucinations of the Fed cutting interest rates in 2019 are the symptoms of this ongoing withdrawal process in financial markets and are driving the volatility we have recently experienced.

Perhaps someone will develop a 12-step program for financial markets to help them in the recovery from their addiction to easy money. Until then, we will all have to endure this withdrawal one trading day at a time. 

A blockbuster jobs report doesn’t hurt, but it is not a panacea for what ails our financial markets. However, it should reassure those who are troubled by the paroxysms in the stock market that the wheels are not coming off of the economy. To the contrary, the recovery is rolling on and appears to have picked up speed in 2018.

Sean Snaith is the director of the University of Central Florida’s Institute for Economic Competitiveness and a nationally recognized economist in the field of business and economic forecasting.