Fed seen waiting to cut rates as job growth picks up

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By Ann Saphir

(Reuters) -A U.S. job market scorecard that exceeded all forecasts has undercut confidence over when, or even if, the Federal Reserve will begin easing policy this year, putting the focus for the policy outlook on next week’s Fed meeting and Fed Chair Jerome Powell’s own guidance.

The latest monthly Labor Department report did break the economy’s 2-year string of below-4% unemployment, a run not seen since the 1960s.

But it hardly seemed to matter: Hiring across the economy was broad, and the 272,000 jobs added in May topped even the highest-guessing economist in a Reuters poll. Wage growth accelerated.

All that flew in the face of growing expectations that the labor market had begun to cool, which would help the Fed reach its 2% inflation goal faster and pave the way for a reduction in borrowing costs before summer’s end.

After the report, traders slashed bets on an initial Fed interest-rate cut by September, taking the probability down to just a bit stronger than a toss of the coin, from about a 70% chance seen previously. A second rate cut by December is also now seen as only barely more likely than not.

U.S. central bankers meeting next Tuesday and Wednesday are still widely expected to leave the policy rate in the current 5.25%-5.5% range, where they have kept it since last July.

Most analysts have also predicted that Fed officials’ quarterly projections published at the end of next week’s meeting will reflect expectations for fewer rate cuts this year than the three that policymakers had penciled in in March.

The jobs data raises new questions over that outlook.

“We had been anticipating the start of rate cuts in September, totaling 50 basis points of cuts this year, but the persevering strong employment gains raises the likelihood of later rate cuts,” wrote Nationwide chief economist Kathy Bostjancic.

U.S central bankers have said they do not plan to cut rates until they are more confident that inflation is declining toward their 2% goal. Friday’s data suggests pressures are pushing prices the other way, with average hourly earnings up 4.1% in May from a year earlier, after an upwardly revised 4% rise in April.

Still, Bostjancic and other analysts pointed to weaknesses in part of Friday’s report that cloud the picture. One of the report’s two surveys showed a massive 408,000 drop in employment in May, which helped push the U.S. unemployment rate to 4%, from 3.9% in April. The rate had been below 4% for more than two years.

© Reuters. A hiring sign is seen at the register of Burger Boy restaurant, as many restaurant businesses face staffing shortages in Louisville, Kentucky, U.S., June 7, 2021.  REUTERS/Amira Karaoud

On Wednesday the Labor Department will publish the consumer price index data for May, giving policymakers fresh insight on whether inflation data is breaking lower after disappointingly high readings in the first several months of the year.

“The ambiguity on the May labor market front will place even more attention on next week’s CPI inflation data and how Jay Powell and the FOMC (Federal Open Market Committee) are factoring in the latest numbers into their rate-cut expectations,” wrote BMO Capital Markets economist Scott Anderson.

(With reporting and writing by Howard Schneider and Dan Burns; Editing by Jan Harvey and Chizu Nomiyama)

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