Economists are jittery, but expect a strong jobs report Friday

Posted December 6, 2018 12:38 p.m. EST

— America's economy is flashing some warning signs, but -- for now -- the labor market appears to be going strong.

In advance of Friday's jobs report, economists polled by Refinitiv estimate that employers added 200,000 jobs in November, with the unemployment rate remaining at 3.7% and average hourly earnings growing 3.1% from the same month last year. The numbers will reflect higher-than-usual holiday hiring, as retailers anticipate a robust Christmas season.

America's employers have added an average of 215,000 jobs per month over the past year and wages have been slowly creeping higher as the economy has soaked up nearly all its available workers, prompting businesses to offer higher salaries, better benefits and more perks. Some economists expect the unemployment rate to sink even lower by the end of 2019, bottoming out at 3.2%. That would be the tightest labor market in 65 years.

"At this point in an expansion, we should have seen much higher wages, so I think that's finally starting to kick in," says Robert Frick, chief economist for Navy Federal Credit Union. Mentions of labor shortages and fatter paychecks peppered Wednesday's edition of the Federal Reserve's Beige Book, with one report of employees "ghosting" on companies for better jobs elsewhere.

Faster wage growth can rattle Wall Street, as it puts pressure on corporate profit margins and raises fears that the Fed will hike interest rates to forestall inflation. But recent statements from Fed officials, including Chairman Jay Powell, have indicated mounting caution about moving too quickly.

"With inflation tame, this is the perfect time for people to be making more," Frick says. "As long as spending is going up, profits are going to go up and companies are going to have to invest to become more efficient, and that's an absolute good."

However, the jobs report will land at a time when markets are getting increasingly nervous that an economic cooling off period is around the corner.

One indicator: The housing market is in the middle of a dramatic slowdown, as low inventory and rising mortgage rates have dissuaded would-be home buyers and sellers. Housing accounts for nearly 15% of the economy, and the decline in new home sales may turn into a decline in construction jobs -- even as falling prices could be good news for Americans struggling to afford a place to live.

Another troubling sign: The "yield curve," or the difference between interest rates on 3-year and 5-year bonds, inverted for the first time since the Great Recession this week. Historically, when investors think that short-term bonds are riskier, economic downturns nearly always follow. (Another closely-watched pairing, the difference between 2-year and 10-year bonds, hasn't turned negative yet.)

Declining growth in other countries could eventually create a drag on America as well.

That doesn't mean a recession is necessarily around the corner. Most forecasters don't expect any kind of crash in 2019, unless trade wars escalate or the Fed hikes rates too quickly. This won't be the last solid jobs report — but there may not be many in the not-too-distant future.