Last year was an impressive one for the job market, but it may have ended on a down beat.
The Labor Department will release the final employment report of 2018 Friday. In one of the worst months for the stock market in decades, hiring may have begun to slow as well.
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It probably won't be dramatic — economists polled by Refinitiv are projecting that employers added 178,000 jobs in December, which would be more than enough to accommodate the natural growth of the labor force. As the American population grows, the economy needs to add about 110,000 jobs each month just to keep pace.
With an unemployment rate forecast of 3.7% -- the same as last month and still the lowest in nearly 50 years -- modest jobs growth could also be a sign that businesses are just having trouble finding enough people to fill jobs.
Economists expect wages grew a relatively healthy 3%. Businesses' need to retain and attract workers is finally resulting in salary increases after years of stagnant paychecks.
But 178,000 new jobs would still be a notch less than the 204,000 jobs the economy has added on average over the last year, and another relatively weak month after November's 155,000 jobs added.
"So far they've been averaging out," says Bill Dunkelberg, chief economist with the National Federation of Independent Business. "But if you get two lows, you can say that's not a good sign."
The report will not include the impact of about 380,000 federal workers who were furloughed in December because of the government shutdown. That's because the data for Friday's report was collected before the shutdown started on December 22.
The Labor Department will remain funded during the shutdown, so the preparation of Friday's and future reports will not be affected. But if the shutdown continues through next week, the number of workers on furlough could show up in the January survey. That could mean the January jobs report released next month would show a drop rather than a gain in employment.
The January report could also be affected by the shutdown of E-Verify, the service used by employers to check that the workers they want to hire are eligible to work in the United States.
The numbers will come as most forecasts predict a sharp economic deceleration in the coming year, as the effects of the tax cuts wear off and the Federal Reserve is expected to continue hiking interest rates.
Higher borrowing costs have already chilled home buying — new single family home sales have fallen 24% from their post-recession high in November 2017. (The most recent data available Is from October, since the government shutdown has delayed the November release.)
Another closely watched indicator of how companies view their future growth prospects, the purchasing manager's index for manufacturing, dropped to a 15-month low in December. The analytics company IHS Markit, which compiles the index, said that higher prices because of the US-China trade war were starting to cut into consumer demand.
Economists with Morgan Stanley are forecasting 1.7% gross domestic product growth for 2019, which would be the lowest level since 2012. That's not catastrophic, but those are the kinds of weak projections that have been giving the stock markets severe indigestion in recent weeks.
"I think we're transitioning to a weaker economy, but not a real downturn," says economist Ed Leamer, who directs the UCLA/Anderson Business Forecast Project. "We're not going to get a collective pullback of spending that would be enough to pull GDP into a negative and kill off the job market. Once the market realizes that, it'll calm down."
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