The Federal Reserve Bank building
Kevin Lamarque | Reuters
In addition to signaling a possible turn in the economy, the big job gains in May give the Federal Reserve some more wiggle room before its next policy move.
Markets will be watching this week’s Federal Open Market Committee meeting more for what the central bankers say than what they do. There’s virtually no chance they will move on interest rates, and only a marginal possibility of changes to asset purchases or the myriad programs put in place to combat the coronavirus pandemic and the accompanying recession.
However, the committee could give a nod to future intentions regarding caps put on interest rates, as well as guidance for what the Fed hopes to achieve with its near-zero rates and trillions in bond buying and when some of that will be rolled back.
But with a strong jobs report — a 2.5 million gain in payrolls and a drop in the unemployment rate to 13.3% — providing at least some cover, policymakers can wait before committing to any more accommodation.
“If I’m the Fed now, why do I want to introduce anything else? I might continue with what I’m doing, but why would I want to bring up anything else if things are going well?” said Jim Paulsen, chief investment strategist at the Leuthold Group. “I’d do little more than say things like, ‘we’re going to stand ready, we’re going to continue to provide liquidity and we’re going to be ready to support if need be.’ But why would I want to go any further now given where things are and you can see the eyes of confidence coming back into the country?”
History has shown that in low-growth times, low rates that are rising are better for stocks, Paulsen said. With that in mind, he said a commitment from the Fed to keep rates lower for longer could be interpreted as a lack of confidence in the future pace of recovery.
“There’s nothing right now that immediately needs an additional or changing Fed response,” he said.
For its part, the jobs report provided an upside surprise likely of greater magnitude than Wall Street has ever seen. Even though the Labor Department said the unemployment rate would have been about 3 points higher had employed workers not at their jobs because of the coronavirus been counted as unemployed, the magnitude of decrease from April would have been the same and maybe even a bit bigger.
That was indicative that the labor recovery at the very least happened sooner than virtually any economist had expected, and means that the need for Fed policy actions have lost some of their urgency.
A recovery in sight
“This bought the Fed some time,” economists at Bank of America Global Research said in a note. “At the upcoming meeting, the Fed is likely to still sound cautious but with some underlying optimism that the recovery has begun.”
BofA expects the Fed to pause any new policy measures through the summer as it assesses the progress of a recovery that is expected to accelerate as greater parts of the economy reopen. The Bureau of Economic Research said Monday that the recession officially began in February, but many economists see it ending in the third quarter, which would make it the shortest contraction on record.
But the Fed is likely to be called back into action in the fall as fiscal and monetary stimulus fades and the economy needs another boost after the initial jolt it will get from the restart.
The Fed “has — and will continue to — lean in the direction of being too easy rather than less so,” BofA said. “They have embraced the idea that it is better to do more than fail to do enough with deep regrets.”
Indeed, even with the job gain for May and likely continued increases in employment over the next several months, both the central bank and Congress have more to do, as Fed Chairman Jerome Powell has acknowledged.
Additional spending from Congress now looks more likely to be around $1 trillion rather than the $3 trillion figure once bandied around, but the Fed will still be left with the job of supporting the markets and keeping cash flow going to businesses.
“They still need to be very aggressive and the Fed does need to provide more support through stronger forward guidance and ultimately yield curve control,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics. “They’re going to have to do that, but they don’t need to that at this meeting. The pressure is off due to that [jobs] number.”
Still, Zandi said that even the big gain in employment for May was just pulled forward from future months due to an earlier reopening in many states, and it won’t mask the other economic challenges resulting from the coronavirus-related shutdown.
“Markets are up and that helps ease the pressure as well. But at the Fed, the reality is the same: This economy’s going to struggle,” he said. “If we don’t get more support from the Fed and lawmakers on the other side of Labor Day and the policy support currently in place starts to fade, then we’ve got a problem. They know that, and ultimately they will come through with more support.”