Coronavirus risk is lurking, but if the US economy’s vulnerable it’s not obvious in today’s payrolls report for February. Hiring by American firms remained strong last month: private payrolls increased 228,000, the Labor Department reports. The gain is near the best increase in recent history and lifted the one-year trend to a 13-month high.
In normal times the news would be greeted with cheers on Wall Street and beyond. But with fears raging over the coronavirus the employment report is effectively a non-event today. Softer growth generally is likely to weigh on future economic numbers, although the labor market’s strength will help mute future headwinds.
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“An important piece of good news here is that while we face these extraordinary uncertainties — and I think that’s going to continue throughout most of 2020 — our economy coming into this was much more resilient than say Germany or Japan,” says Lara Rhame, chief U.S. economist for FS Investments.
The resiliency is certainly on display in the one-year trend for private hiring. US companies increased payrolls by 1.7% last month vs. the year-earlier level–the strongest gain in more than a year.
The critical question, of course, is how payrolls and other corners of the economy fare as the influence of the coronavirus begins to show up in the data. It’s all guesswork at this point, but that doesn’t stop anyone from trying to divine the future.
“This could be the last perfect employment report the market gets for some time,” predicts Chris Rupkey, chief financial economist at MUFG Union Bank.
Fortunately, the labor market remains in good shape to face whatever’s coming.
“Sadly, these job numbers are sure to be eclipsed by response to the spread of the coronavirus,” predicts Michael Hicks an economist at Ball State University. “The supply shocks from quarantined factories in Asia are weeks away from idling U.S. factories, and the demand-side impact on tourism, travel, eating and drinking establishments is already being felt across the world. The March jobs report, will be far less optimistic.”
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