US job openings unexpectedly rise; quits at two-year low

WASHINGTON – US job openings unexpectedly rose in December and data for the prior month was revised higher, suggesting the labour market likely remains too strong for the Federal Reserve to start cutting interest rates in the first quarter.

A rate cut this year, however, remains in the cards with the report from the Labour Department on Jan 30 also showing Americans staying put at their current jobs, which could help to slow wage growth.

The number of people quitting their jobs, likely in part for greener pastures, dropped to a two-year low.

Fed officials are expected to keep interest rates unchanged at the end of a two-day policy meeting on Jan 31 against the backdrop of a resilient economy, which is being anchored by the labour market through consumer spending.

Financial markets have lowered the odds of a rate cut in March to below 50 per cent.

“Persistent demand for workers, while positive for continued economic growth, may throw a wrench into efforts to cool inflation early in 2024,” said Mr Ben Ayers, senior economist at Nationwide in Ohio. “This is again a sign of too much of a good thing, which should lead to a later-than-hoped shift to monetary policy easing.”

Job openings, a measure of labour demand, were up 101,000 to 9.026 million on the last day of December, the Labour Department’s Bureau of Labour Statistics said in its monthly Job Openings and Labour Turnover Survey, or JOLTS report.

Data for November was revised higher to show 8.925 million unfilled positions instead of the previously reported 8.79 million. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast 8.75 million job openings in November.

Job openings peaked at a record 12 million in March 2022. Demand for labour has remained fairly healthy despite tighter monetary policy. Since March 2022, the US central bank has raised its policy rate by 525 basis points to the current 5.25 per cent to 5.5 per cent range.

There were an additional 239,000 job openings in the professional and business services sector in December.

There were also notable increases in manufacturing, retail trade, health care and social assistance as well as financial activities sectors. Unfilled jobs, however, decreased by 121,000 in the accommodation and food services industry and fell 83,000 in the wholesale trade sector. The job openings rate was unchanged at 5.4 per cent.

Hiring rose 67,000 to 5.621 million, lifted by professional and business services, accommodation and food services as well as state and local government. But health care and social assistance hiring declined 119,000.

The hires rate rose to 3.6 per cent from 3.5 per cent in November. Layoffs increased 85,000 to a still-low 1.616 million, with the layoffs rate unchanged at 1 per cent. Companies are generally hoarding workers following difficulties finding labour in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Consumers upbeat

Resignations fell 132,000 to 3.392 million in December, the lowest level since January 2021. The fourth straight monthly decline was led by health care and social assistance, where quits decreased 71,000. The quits rate, viewed as a measure of labour market confidence, was unchanged 2.2 per cent. The relatively low quits rate bodes well for slower wage inflation and price pressures in the economy.

Labour market strength, subsiding inflation and expectations of a rate cut helped to boost consumer confidence in January.

The Conference Board said in a separate report on Jan 30 that its consumer confidence index rose to 114.8 this month, the highest reading since December 2021, from a downwardly revised 108.0 in December. Economists had forecast the index rising to 115.0 from the previously reported 110.7.

The rise in confidence was across all age groups, with bigger gains reported for consumers 55 years and over. Confidence improved for all income groups, with the exception of households with annual incomes of US$125,000 (S$160,000) and more, which recorded a marginal decline.

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