After an explosion in job growth at the start of the year, new data on Friday will show whether employers moderated their hiring in February — and whether any slowdown was enough to fundamentally upend the labor market’s momentum.
Forecasters estimate that the economy added 225,000 positions last month, which would constitute a return to a gentle downward trend that January interrupted with an unexpected jump of 517,000 jobs. Labor Department surveyors have struggled to account for wildly varying seasonal factors, as well as whiplash from the pandemic, which is why revisions of data for December and January will be closely watched.
On the surface, employment growth has reflected scant impact from a series of interest rate increases as the Federal Reserve works to contain inflation. Although goods-related industries have faded as consumers shift their spending back to traveling and dining out, backed-up demand and a reluctance to let go of scarce workers have prevented mass layoffs.
And so far, the sharp cuts that have been announced in the technology industry haven’t spread widely.
“There are sectors of the economy that have not recovered to prepandemic levels — especially leisure and hospitality — and they don’t care about higher interest rates,” said Eugenio Alemán, chief economist at the financial services firm Raymond James. “We have a scenario where the most interest-rate-sensitive sectors have already contracted, mainly housing, and those sectors have not been able to bring down the rest of the economy.”
Analysts broadly expect the data to show little if any change in the nation’s unemployment rate, which last month reached a half-century low of 3.4 percent. Americans left the work force in droves at the outset of the pandemic and have been slow to return, helping to keep the job market exceptionally tight — there were still nearly two jobs for every unemployed person in January, the Labor Department reported Wednesday.
Wage growth, which has been the Federal Reserve’s primary concern, is forecast to have sped up on a year-over-year basis, while remaining below last year’s blistering high.
Since January, the persistent strength of the labor market appears to have fueled a renewed acceleration of economic indicators such as retail sales, as consumers continue to spend down piles of cash that accumulated during the pandemic. Even the housing market has recently shown signs of unfreezing, with new-home sales picking up as mortgage rates sank slightly (though they bounced back up in February).
The brighter tenor of the data flow has prompted Fed officials — including Jerome H. Powell, the chair, during two days of testimony this week on Capitol Hill — to warn they may have to push interest rates higher than anticipated to suppress prices.