Market Insider

A Now Hiring sign is seen inside a WholeFoods store in New York City.
Adam Jeffery | CNBC

Economists expect hiring remained strong in February and that wages grew even faster than they did in January.

February’s employment report is expected Friday at 8:30 a.m. ET. Economists forecast 225,000 new jobs were added in February, lower than January’s surprisingly strong 517,000 jobs, according to Dow Jones.

The unemployment rate is expected to hold steady at 3.4%. Average hourly earnings are forecast to rise by 0.4%, or 4.8% year over year. That is more than January’s 0.3% increase, or a 4.4% annualized rate.

If the report is as expected, it will do little to quell concerns about high inflation and it could even increase the odds for a half-point rate hike from the Federal Reserve at its next policy meeting in less than two weeks. Investors are also focused on whether there will be revisions to January’s startling report.

Investors are closely watching the employment data since it and the upcoming consumer price index due March 14 are two reports that could influence the Fed’s March 22 rate decision. The futures market Thursday was pricing a nearly 70% chance of a 50 basis point increase. A basis point equals 0.01 of a percentage point.

“I think an in-line number could lead to further selling, because we’re coming off such a wallop of a number last month,” said Peter Boockvar, chief investment officer at Bleakley Financial Group. “Not seeing any reversion of note could be taken negatively by the bond market.”

KPMG chief economist Diane Swonk said she expects to see 210,000 jobs were created in February. “The real issue is what kind of threshold would the Fed need to really stop the rate hiking cycle or stop from going 50 basis points,” she said. “You really need to get to below 100,000 to think 25 basis points is okay. They need to see signs of a major chill.”

The persistently strong jobs market and hotter-than-expected January inflation data changed the outlook for the Fed. Fed Chairman Jerome Powell told congressional committees this week that inflation could be harder to tame and the Fed may need to raise interest rates even more than anticipated.

Prior to those comments, markets were pricing in just a quarter-point hike for the March meeting. The futures market is now pricing an end point for Fed rate hikes near 5.75%, against the current target range of 4.50%-4.75%.

The Fed has tried to cool the economy, but employers still struggle to find workers in a tight labor market, which has helped force up wages.

“We’re expecting continued strength in leisure and hospitality hiring,” said Swonk. “Manufacturing activity is still trying to ramp up. Construction is starting to weaken, but infrastructure jobs are taking over for the housing market.”

Aditya Bhave, Bank of America senior U.S. and global economist, expects 230,000 jobs were added in February and that the January number was inflated. He said there could have been additional jobs created that month because of favorable weather, but that 50,000 jobs alone were added because of the end of a University of California strike.

“From our perspective, the true number was closer to 350,000,” he said.

If there are downward revisions or the February report is weaker than expected, Boockvar said, the stock market could rally and bond yields could fall. Yields move in the opposite direction of price, so that when bond prices fall, yields rise, and vice versa.

“It would be a huge pressure point that gets relieved, at least for tomorrow,” he said.

Economists said the Fed opened the door to a half-point hike this week, and the jobs report will likely influence expectations going in to the policy meeting later this month.

“I think the onus is on the data to convince the Fed to do 25,” Bhave said, noting that after Friday, Fed officials enter a blackout period ahead of their March 21 and 22 meeting.

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