U.S. private payrolls rise strongly; housing market struggling

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. private payrolls increased solidly in January, pointing to sustained labor market strength despite a recent easing in consumer and business confidence that has suggested a loss of momentum in the economy.

FILE PHOTO: A help wanted sign is posted at a taco stand in Solana Beach, California, U.S., July 17, 2017. REUTERS/Mike Blake/File Photo

The strong hiring shown in the ADP National Employment Report on Wednesday also suggested a minimal impact on the labor market from the just-ended 35-day partial shutdown of the federal government.

The data came as Federal Reserve officials were wrapping up a two-day policy meeting. The U.S. central bank is expected to keep interest rates unchanged.

“It looks like the labor market remains in solid shape despite significant weakening in business and consumer sentiment in recent months and we don’t see much evidence that the government shutdown spilled over into the private labor market in an especially meaningful way,” said Daniel Silver, an economist at JPMorgan in New York.

The ADP National Employment Report showed private payrolls increased by 213,000 in January after surging 263,000 in December. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast private payrolls advancing 178,000 in January.

The ADP report, which is jointly developed with Moody’s Analytics, was published ahead of the government’s more comprehensive employment report for December scheduled for release on Friday.

While the ADP report is not considered a reliable predictor of the private payrolls portion of the government’s employment report because of differences in methodology, it was in line other market data, including weekly filings for unemployment benefits, that have suggested a healthy jobs market.

According to a Reuters survey of economists, non-farm payrolls likely increased by 165,000 jobs in January after jumping 312,000 in December. The unemployment rate is forecast unchanged at 3.9 percent.

U.S. financial markets were little moved by the data as traders awaited the Fed’s policy statement at 2 p.m. EST (1900 GMT) and Chairman Jerome Powell’s press conference afterwards.

HOME SALES CONTRACTS FALL

In a separate report on Wednesday, the National Association of Realtors said its pending home sales index, based on contracts signed last month, dropped 2.2 percent to 99.0, the weakest reading since April 2014.

Contracts to purchase homes have now declined for three straight months. Pending home sales become sales after a month or two, and last month’s drop suggested further weakness in existing home sales after they hit a three-year low in December.

Economists had forecast pending home sales rising 0.5 percent. Pending home sales fell 9.8 percent from a year ago, the 12th straight month of annual decreases.

The weak housing report added to surveys showing a plunge in consumer confidence in January and some regional Fed manufacturing surveys that have suggested a slowdown in economic activity in the fourth quarter and early in 2019.

Economists believe economic growth cooled in the fourth quarter from the July-September period’s brisk 3.4 percent annualized rate.

The advance fourth-quarter GDP report, which was scheduled for release on Wednesday, has been delayed as the government shutdown prevented the collection of source data by the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Economic Analysis and Census Bureau.

Despite the weakness in signed contracts and sales, the outlook for the housing market is improving amid a moderation in house price inflation.

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A report on Tuesday showed the S&P CoreLogic Case-Shiller composite index of home prices in 20 metropolitan areas rose 4.7 percent in November on a year-on-year basis, the smallest gain since January 2015, after advancing 5.0 percent in October.

The slowdown in house prices comes at time when the 30-year fixed mortgage rate is hovering at a nine-month low of 4.45 percent, according to mortgage finance agency Freddie Mac. This, together with improving supply could help to support the housing market this year after it struggled in 2018.

In December, pending home sales dropped 5.0 percent in the populous South, 2.0 percent in the Northeast and 0.6 percent in the Midwest. They rose 1.7 percent in the West.

Reporting By Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Andrea Ricci

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