A weak jobs report in September is unlikely to derail the Federal Reserve’s plans to start slowly withdrawing some economic support this year. But it is the latest indication of the delicate balancing act the central bank is facing as it tries to keep inflation tame while allowing the labor market to heal.

The Fed has two jobs: fostering maximum employment and keeping inflation low and steady. In recent decades, inflation has been contained or even tepid, so central bankers have been able to give the labor market plenty of room to heal. But today, inflation has jumped higher, and rising wages suggest that employers may need to continue to lift prices to cover their costs. At the same time, millions of jobs are still missing compared with before the pandemic, and they are only trickling back.

Those trends could prod the Fed to make tough judgment calls about its policy help, which it had been preparing to pull back only slowly.

“It’s intense right now,” said Julia Coronado, founder of MacroPolicy Perspectives and a former Fed economist. While she expects workers to come back, she noted that the report would look worrying to anyone already fretting about inflation. “These priorities are in stark conflict.”

Jerome H. Powell, the Fed chair, and his colleagues have been pumping $120 billion into markets each month and holding interest rates near zero to keep borrowing costs cheap and credit flowing easily, helping to stoke demand and encouraging employers to expand and hire.

Officials have signaled that they will soon begin to slow the bond purchases — something they could announce as early as November, based partly on progress in the labor market. The September jobs report probably will probably not thwart those plans, which officials have said were based on cumulative job gains and not a single month’s data. The United States has regained more than 17 million jobs since the worst depths of the pandemic.

Yet Fed policymakers have repeatedly promised that even as they pull back on bond buying, they will continue to support the economy with low rates — their more traditional and more powerful tool — for as long as it needs their help. If rapid inflation looks poised to stick around and the labor market is taking a long time to heal, though, they may find themselves forced to lift rates sooner in the jobs rebound than they would like.

“This is not the situation that we have faced for a very long time, and it is one in which there is a tension between our two objectives,” Mr. Powell said during a recent public appearance. He later added that “managing through that process over the next couple years, I think, is the highest and most important priority, and it’s going to be very challenging.”

Central bank officials are hoping that jobs lost during the pandemic return soon, but progress in recent months has been stop and start as coronavirus infections tied to the Delta variant surged, keeping diners away from restaurants and causing rolling school closures. Employers added 194,000 jobs last month, disappointing compared with economist forecasts, which had called for half a million.

Average hourly earnings climbed 0.6 percent in September from the month before, more than economists in a Bloomberg survey had expected, as would-be workers were in short supply.

“For people worried about inflation, Delta has dealt us a blow — both in terms of denting labor supply and causing upward pressure on wage rates” and, “at the same time, exacerbating bottlenecks,” Ms. Coronado said.

Inflation came in at 4.3 percent in August, far above the central bank’s goal, which is to average 2 percent over time.

The pop in prices in 2021 has been driven higher almost entirely by pandemic quirks. Strong consumer demand for refrigerators and computers has overwhelmed supply chains at the same time that coronavirus-tied factory shutdowns have delayed parts production. The combination has led to shortages for items as varied as rental cars and washing machines, pumping up prices.

Officials still expect the price pressures to prove temporary. But it has become increasingly clear that while the drivers are mainly one-offs, they could linger for months. Shipping routes are struggling to catch up, pandemic outbreaks continue to force factory closures and now a jump in raw-goods prices threatens to keep inflation elevated.

The Fed is closely watching to make sure that longer-term inflation expectations remain at healthy levels. Should consumers and investors come to expect higher inflation, they might change their behavior, creating a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Some key gauges of consumer price outlooks have begun moving up. And Fed officials are also watching wage data, because when pay is climbing quickly and companies have to lift prices to cover their costs, it can set off a cycle that locks in rapid inflation.

Today’s combination raises an unhappy possibility: The Fed might find itself under pressure to lift interest rates and cool off the economy before employment has fully rebounded.

“The report looks set to leave Fed officials in an uncomfortable position,” Andrew Hunter, senior U.S. economist at Capital Economics, wrote in a research note after the release.

There is little that a central bank can do to spur better port capacity or more apartments, but it could arguably calm demand by lifting interest rates. With fewer consumers buying condos, couches and lawn furniture, factories, homebuilders and cargo ships might catch up, helping to alleviate cost pressures.

But higher rates would also slow business growth and hiring, trapping the pandemic unemployed on the labor market’s sidelines. That’s why Mr. Powell and his colleagues are counseling patience, hoping to avoid overreacting to a price pop that will peter out.

As of their latest economic projections, the Fed’s 18 policymakers were evenly split, with half expecting one or more interest rate increases by late next year and half expecting them in 2023 or later. Those dividing lines could harden going forward.

Source Google News