An interest rate hike later this month was already in the cards for the Federal Reserve. But after the June jobs report, the timing of a second hike remains unclear.
Job gains remain robust, wage growth is still going strong, and unemployment continues to hover near historic lows. That means the job market is still fueling demand in the economy, which the Fed has been trying to slow through rate hikes. And Fed officials have made it clear they think the central bank still has more work to do to bring down inflation, which is still running well above the 2% goal.
Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago President Austan Goolsbee, a voting member of the Fed committee that decides interest rates, said in an interview Friday that he sees “a decent chance of further tightening down the pipeline” and that inflation “needs to come down more.”
Other Fed officials have struck a similarly hawkish tone on inflation, hinting strongly at a hike in July.
“I remain very concerned about whether inflation will return to target in a sustainable and timely way,” said Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas President Lorie Logan on Thursday during a meeting hosted by the Central Bank Research Association. “I think more restrictive monetary policy will be needed to achieve the Federal Open Market Committee’s goals of stable prices and maximum employment.”
Fed officials voted last month to hold the key federal funds rate steady at a range of 5-5.25% to reassess the economy after a string of 10 consecutive rate hikes and to monitor the effects of bank stresses in the spring, according to minutes from that meeting released Wednesday.
“We can take some time and assess and collect more information and then be able to act, knowing that we also communicated through our projections that we don’t think we’re done, based on what we know,” said New York Fed President John Williams Wednesday during a moderated discussion in New York. “And obviously we’re absolutely committed to achieving our 2% inflation goal.”
And Fed Chair Jerome Powell himself has doubled down on the need for more rate increases in recent speeches, not ruling out back-to-back hikes, despite economic indicators showing slight progress on inflation.
Financial markets are pricing in a more than a 90% chance of a rate hike later this month, according to the CME FedWatch Tool.
The Fed wants to see the labor market slow down broadly, bringing it into “better balance,” as Powell has frequently described it. That means wage growth would need to cool consistently, monthly payroll growth would need to be close to a range of 70,000 and 100,000 — the smallest job gain needed to keep up with population growth — and unemployment would need to rise, according to economists. Job market conditions don’t resemble that just yet.
“This is clearly a very tight labor market, so I expect the Fed to look at this data and say there is justification here for continued small rate increases because the labor market is not cooling enough,” Dave Gilbertson, labor economist at payroll software company UKG, told CNN.
Labor costs are higher because of a persistent difficulty in hiring, weighing on labor-intensive service providers such as hospitals and restaurants, which has put upward pressure on consumer prices since businesses typically raise wages to address hiring challenges.
Powell homed in on that dynamic in recent remarks, and research from top economists argues the Fed will have to slow the economy further to fully address the labor market’s stubborn impact on inflation. Whether that means a full-blown recession or a so-called soft landing remains to be seen, but some Fed officials are optimistic.
“I feel like we are on a golden path of avoiding recession,” Goolsbee told CNBC Friday.
And there has been some progress on bringing the job market back into better balance while inflation has come down. Job openings fell to 9.82 million in May, down from a peak of 12 million in March 2022, though they still greatly exceed the number of unemployed people seeking work. And June’s jobs total of 209,000 is still robust by historical standards.
But Gilbertson said labor shortages have been largely driven by demographic shifts, which might keep the job market tight for the foreseeable future.
Beyond the expected hike in July, the Fed is going to remain laser-focused on wage growth to inform its decision-making later in the year. Central bank officials will pay particular attention to the Employment Cost Index, which recently showed that pay gains picked up in the first three months of the year. The index for the second quarter will be released in late July — after the Fed meets.
“The focus is on the path of wage inflation because of its pass-through to services inflation,” said Sonia Meskin, head of US Macro at BNY Mellon IM.
The June jobs report showed that average hourly earnings growth was unchanged at 0.4% from the month before and also unchanged at 4.4% year-over-year — not a welcome development.
Core inflation hasn’t decelerated as fast as the headline measure because of the tightness in the labor market. The Personal Consumption Expenditures price index, the Fed’s preferred inflation gauge, rose 3.8% in May from a year earlier, down from April’s 4.3% rise; while the core measure edged lower to 4.6% from 4.7% during the same period.
Within the core measure, services inflation also remains sticky and Powell said in last month’s post-meeting news conference that “we see only the earliest signs of disinflation there” and that the services sector’s “largest cost would be wage cost.”
The Fed’s strategy to address services inflation is simply by curbing demand through more rate hikes. So, in addition to the labor market, the Fed is highly attentive to consumer spending, which has cooled in the past several months, according to figures from the Commerce Department.
Other headwinds are expected to weigh on consumers in the months ahead, such as the resumption of student loan payments and the Supreme Court blocking President Joe Biden’s student loan forgiveness program. Americans are also running down their savings accounts while racking up debt, so US consumers may need to start cutting back soon.