Fed Officials Keep an Eye Out for Cracks in the Job Market

The labor market has maintained surprising vigor over the past year, but as fewer jobs go unfilled and a growing number of people linger on unemployment insurance rosters, Federal Reserve officials have begun to watch for cracks.

Central bankers have recently begun to clearly say that if the labor market softens unexpectedly, they could cut interest rates — a slight shift in their stance after years in which they worked to cool the economy and bring a hot job market back into balance.

Policymakers have left interest rates at 5.3 percent since July 2023, a decades-long high that is making it more expensive to get a mortgage or carry a credit card balance. That policy setting is slowly weighing on demand across the economy, with the goal of wrestling rapid inflation fully under control.

But as inflation cools, Fed officials have made it clear that they are trying to strike a careful balance: They want to ensure that inflation is in check, but they want to avoid upending the job market. Given that, policymakers have signaled over the past month that they would react to a sudden labor market weakening by slashing borrowing costs.

The Fed would like to see more cooling inflation data “like what we’ve been seeing recently” before cutting rates, Jerome H. Powell, the Fed chair, said during a speech this week. “We’d also like to see the labor market remain strong. We’ve said that if we saw the labor market unexpectedly weakening, that is also something that could call for a reaction.”

That’s why employment reports are likely to be a key reference point for central bankers and Wall Street investors who are eager to see what the Fed will do next.

For years, the Fed had been watching the job market for a different reason.

Officials had worried that if conditions in the labor market remained too tight for too long, with employers fighting to hire and paying ever-rising wages to attract workers, it could help keep inflation faster than usual. That’s because companies with higher labor costs would probably charge more to protect profits, and workers earning more would probably spend more, fueling continued demand.

But recently, job openings have come down and wage growth has abated, signals that the job market is cooling from its boil. That has caught the Fed’s attention.

“At this point, we have a good labor market, but not a frothy one,” Mary C. Daly, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, said in a recent speech. “Future labor market slowing could translate into higher unemployment, as firms need to adjust not just vacancies but actual jobs.”

The unemployment rate has ticked up slightly this year, and officials are watching warily for a more pronounced move. Research shows that a sudden and marked uptick in unemployment is a signal of recession — a rule of thumb set out by the economist Claudia Sahm and often referred to as the “Sahm Rule.”

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