U.S. Job Gains Await Economic Liftoff

Unemployment in the U.S. is falling, but stronger growth will be needed to boost wages and increase the participation rate.

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Today’s employment report confirms that the U.S. labor market is healing. Taken against the backdrop of a weakening global economy, it highlights the extent to which the U.S.'s economic and policy situation is diverging from that of Europe and Japan. It also speaks to what would need to happen next to ensure that a broader recovery in the labor market is part of the long-desired liftoff for the U.S. economy.

The strength of the latest monthly employment report can be seen in the job-creation figure of 214,000 for October. When combined with revisions of 31,000 for the prior month, the six-month average is 235,000 (and 220,000 for 12 months). The unemployment rate also declined, to 5.8 percent, the lowest since July 2008. The unemployment rate has fallen 0.8 percentage point this year, with the more comprehensive measure of unemployment and underemployment falling even more, to 11.5 percent.

Unfortunately, these improvements haven't been replicated in other indicators of labor-market health. On the wage front, the growth in average hourly earnings is disappointing. In addition to its adverse impact on demand, this does nothing to counter the widening in income inequality. More robust income increases are needed to complement stronger gains in some of the more structural components of the labor markets, particularly the participation rate and long-term joblessness.

Notwithstanding these weaknesses, taken against the backdrop of slow global economic growth, this morning’s data highlight what is already a rather noteworthy divergence in both economic performance and policy prospects between the U.S., Europe and Japan. Not only is the U.S. outperforming, but the gap is likely to widen in the months ahead. This will also add to expectations that the Federal Reserve will again ease off the stimulus pedal while the Bank of Japan and the European Central Bank press hard.

The foreign-exchange market is the most sensitive to this economic and policy divergence. The dollar has already strengthened noticeably since the summer, and it will likely continue gaining against the euro and yen in particular. Over an extended period of time, though, the foreign-exchange market won't be able to serve as the sole shock absorber in the global system without increasing the risk of financial instability down the road.

To ensure a more orderly global rebalancing, Europe and Japan need to strengthen competitiveness, increase infrastructure investment and deal with residual pockets of excessive indebtedness. This might close the performance gap with the U.S., helping the laggards grow faster while not hurting the gains of the leader.

Growth overseas has a major role to play in strengthening the U.S. labor market, including in helping to overcome structural headwinds. Only with an economic recovery in Europe and Japan can there be a more decisive economic liftoff for this country, and eventually for the rest of the global economy.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

    To contact the author on this story:
    Mohamed A. El-Erian at melerian@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor on this story:
    James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net

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