US employers pulled back on hiring in October, adding 150,000 jobs in face of higher borrowing rates

The unemployment rate rose from 3.8 percent to 3.9 percent in October.

The U.S. job market has remained on firm footing even as the Federal Reserve has raised its benchmark interest rate 11 times since March 2022 to try to slow the economy, cool hiring and tame inflation, which hit a four-decade high last year. The steady pace of hiring has helped fuel consumer spending, the primary driver of the economy. Employers have added a healthy 225,000 jobs a month over the past three months.

Friday’s jobs report from the government comes as the Fed is assessing incoming economic data to determine whether to leave its key interest rate unchanged, as it did this week, or to raise it again in its drive to curb inflation. In September, consumer prices rose 3.7 percent from a year earlier, down drastically from a year-over-year peak of 9.1 percent in June 2022 but still well above the Fed’s 2 percent target level.

The Fed scrutinizes the monthly job data to assess whether employers are still hiring and raising pay aggressively as a result of labor shortages. When that happens, companies typically try to pass on their higher labor costs to their customers in the form of higher prices, thereby raising inflationary pressures.

The Fed’s policymakers are trying to calibrate their key interest rate to simultaneously cool inflation, support job growth and ward off a recession. Inflationary pressures have been easing as the Fed has sharply raised borrowing costs. U.S. consumer prices rose 3.7 percent in September from a year earlier, down drastically from a year-over-year peak of 9.1 percent in June 2022.

Wage gains, which can fuel inflation, have been slowing, too. Yet inflation remains well above the Fed’s 2 percent target, and workers’ year-over-year pay gains would need to fall further to be consistent with the central bank’s inflation goal.

In the meantime, despite long-standing predictions by economists that the Fed’s ever-higher interest rates would trigger a recession, the U.S. economy, the world’s largest, remains durable. From July through September, the nation’s gross domestic product — the output of all goods and services — rose at a 4.9 percent annual pace, the fastest quarterly growth in more than two years.

And companies are still looking to hire. On Wednesday, the Labor Department reported that employers posted 9.6 million job openings in September, up slightly from August. Opening are down substantially from the record 12 million recorded in March 2022 but are still high by historical standards: Before 2021 and the economy’s powerful recovery from the COVID-19 recession, monthly job openings had never topped 8 million. There are now 1.4 jobs available, on average, for every unemployed American.

The combination of a solid economy and decelerating inflation has raised hopes that the Fed can nail a so-called soft landing — raising interest rates just enough to tame inflation without tipping the economy into recession.

Adding to the optimism is an influx of people into the job market, drawn by higher wages and reduced health risks from COVID-19 and the childcare struggles caused by pandemic-related school closings. Immigration has also rebounded after falling at the height of the pandemic.

Over the past year, more than 3.3 million people have either taken jobs or begun looking for one. Having more job applicants to choose from reduces pressure on companies to raise wages.

The Fed’s decision this week to leave its benchmark rate unchanged for a second straight time will give its policymakers time to assess the cumulative effects of their previous rate hikes. Many economists say they believe the Fed is done raising rates for now.

Still, at a news conference Wednesday, Fed Chair Jerome Powell cautioned that any evidence that the economy is running too hot “or that tightness in the labor market is no longer easing” could hinder further progress on inflation and justify additional rate hikes.

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