Saturday, March 8, 2014
Christopher S. Rugaber / The Associated Press
(Continued from page 1)
The U.S. economy is benefiting from the Federal Reserve's drive to keep interest rates at record lows. Lower borrowing rates have made it easier for Americans to buy homes and cars and for companies to expand.
The Fed and other key central banks have taken extraordinary steps to pump money into their financial systems to try to spur borrowing and spending, boost stock prices and stimulate growth.
The Fed has said it plans to keep the benchmark rate it controls near zero at least until the unemployment rate has fallen to 6.5 percent, as long as the inflation outlook remains mild.
Friday's jobs report isn't expected to move up the Fed's timetable for any rate increase.
"This may not yet be the substantial improvement in the labor market outlook that the Fed is looking for, but it's moving in the right direction," Paul Ashworth, an economist at Capital Economics, said in a note to clients.
The brighter hiring picture has yet to trigger a flood of people who aren't looking for a job to start seeking one. The proportion of Americans either working or looking for work dipped one-tenth of a percentage point in February to 63.5 percent, matching a 30-year low.
Even though the recession officially ended nearly four years ago, many Americans have remained discouraged about their job prospects and have given up looking. Others have returned to, or stayed in, school. And the vast generation of baby boomers have begun to retire. Their exodus reduces the percentage of adults working or looking for work.
Further strong hiring gains will hinge, in part, on healthy consumer spending. So far, higher gas prices and a Jan. 1 increase in Social Security taxes haven't caused Americans to sharply cut back on spending.
Across-the-board government spending cuts also kicked in March 1 after the White House and Congress failed to reach a deal to avoid them. Those cuts will likely lead to furloughs and layoffs in coming weeks.
The Congressional Budget office has estimated that the cuts mean government spending will drop $44 billion in the budget year that ends Sept. 30. That reduction, slightly more than 1 percent of federal spending, will likely hold down hiring in spring and summer, Sweet says. But more hiring and pay increases now should ease the blow.
A big source of strength has been home sales and residential construction: New-home sales jumped 16 percent in January to the highest level since July 2008. And builders started work on the most homes last year since 2008.
Home prices rose by the most in more than six years in the 12 months that ended in January. Higher prices tend to make homeowners feel wealthier and more likely to spend. So do record-high stock prices.
"If my house is worth a little more, my 401(k) is going up ... maybe I can afford to go buy that car, or continue to spend," says Ed Hyland, investment specialist at JPMorgan Private Bank.