Jobs Numbers in Focus as the Fed Hints at a ‘Skip’

Federal Reserve officials have signaled that they could hold rates steady at their upcoming meeting in June — pausing after a string of 10 straight rate increases to give themselves time to see how the economy is shaping up. But Friday’s fresh jobs data is likely to inform policymakers as they try to decide whether this is the right moment to take a break.

Central bankers lifted interest rates to a range of 5 to 5.25 percent as of last month, up sharply from near-zero at the start of 2022. But they have been signaling for months that it could soon be appropriate to take a break from increasing rates so that they can assess how the economy is absorbing the big policy changes they have already made and the consequences of other developments, such as the fallout from recent bank turmoil.

Higher interest rates cool the economy by making it more expensive to borrow to buy a house or finance a car purchase, but they take time to have their full effect. As rates rise, businesses gradually pull back on expansion plans, slowing hiring, which then feeds into weaker wage growth and a slower economy overall.

That is why policymakers are watching job market data to figure out how higher interest rates are working. They have been expecting hiring to slow, wage gains to pull back and unemployment to begin to rise — but that has taken time to play out.

Some Fed officials favor holding off on a rate increase in June, allowing more time for them to see how higher borrowing costs and heightened uncertainty are combining to restrain the economy. Patrick T. Harker, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, said this week that he is “definitely in the camp of thinking about skipping any increase at this meeting.”

Others have underlined that while the Fed may be poised to pause its campaign to cool the economy, that does not mean it is done raising interest rates altogether.

“A decision to hold our policy rate constant at a coming meeting should not be interpreted to mean that we have reached the peak rate for this cycle,” said Philip Jefferson, a Fed governor who is President Biden’s pick to be vice chair of the institution, during a speech this week.

“Indeed, skipping a rate hike at a coming meeting would allow the Committee to see more data before making decisions about the extent of additional policy firming,” Mr. Jefferson added. The Fed vice chair is traditionally an important communicator for the institution, one who broadcasts how core officials are thinking about the policy path forward.

But even as the Fed moves toward a possible pause this month, officials will take into account incoming data on the economy. A key inflation number released last week came in firmer than economists had expected, and officials will receive a fresh Consumer Price Index inflation report the day that their June 13-14 meeting begins.

Friday’s jobs report could reinforce — or, if it is abnormally strong, call into question — whether a skip makes sense.

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