Monthly jobs reports continue to offer a mixed picture of the economy. April's job gains were lower than expected, while unemployment fell due to 236,000 leaving the workforce. Wage growth continued to puzzle, slowing despite the shrinking labor pool. Although low jobs numbers and slower wage growth might suggest slowing economic growth, lower employment gains might indicate that the labor market is reaching its limit, making an acceleration in wages imminent. The underemployment rate will be a key metric in the coming months; the still-high rate is often seen as a sign that the labor market has yet to reach capacity, explaining why wages haven’t increased significantly.
U.S. GDP grew at an annualized rate of 2.3% in Q1—slower than Q4's 2.9% but quicker than the 2.1% consensus estimate. The better-than-expected performance came even though the economy was rattled by volatile stock markets and the announcement of potential tariffs on certain imports. Growth slower than the previous three quarters was due to weaker contributions from personal consumption expenditure, non-residential fixed investment, exports and government spending. Despite a buildup in inventories, slightly slower import growth subtracted a little from overall GDP growth.
Monthly job growth has averaged a relatively strong 202,000 for the past three months, but remains volatile, as do revisions. Average hourly earnings rose slightly in March. Wages have risen by 2.7% this year. In these results, there is no reason to think the Fed might change course in its normalization of monetary policy. Markets have already priced in two additional rate increases this year. The Fed could consider a third increase if wage growth remains above 2.5%, given uneven productivity growth.
President Trump’s recent executive order imposing tariffs on steel and aluminum imports (25% and 10%, respectively) could increase the cost of commercial real estate construction. Costs will vary by asset type, local market conditions and materials used, but high-rise office and industrial building construction costs could rise modestly. While commodity prices have fluctuated in recent years, the primary driver of higher construction costs has been a scarcity of skilled labor, particularly in metro areas with the most development activity.
Employment gains continued to surprise to the upside in February. Meanwhile, wage growth slowed slightly—after the strong January increase that led investors to believe higher wage growth might be imminent. February’s report may quell some of that concern. Hiring increases were broad-based and robust in the construction, retail trade, manufacturing, professional & business services, financial activities, health care and mining sectors.
The economy started off 2018 on a strong note, with employment gains surprising on the upside. Job growth has slowed in the past two years but remains solid. A tighter labor market may finally be translating into greater pay increases for workers—wages saw their largest increase since 2009 in January. Hiring was broad-based and robust in the construction, manufacturing, food services and health care sectors, with employment continuing to trend upward.
Gross Domestic Product grew at an annualized rate of 2.6% in Q4—slower than both the 3.2% registered in Q3 and the 3.0% consensus estimate. The weaker-than-expected growth reflected some drag from net exports and inventories, which somewhat offset the quarter's strong consumer spending. Government spending rose 3%, amid post-hurricane rebuilding efforts. For the year, GDP grew by 2.3% in 2017, up from 1.5% in 2016.
Since the Fed resumed its (so far, incremental) increases in December, long-term rates have remained stable, keeping cap rate increases limited. CRE fundamentals remain strong, so improved economic growth should lead to an extended cycle.