By Ann Saphir
(Reuters) - A stronger-than-expected U.S. labor market won't keep the Federal Reserve from pivoting to a series of interest-rate cuts next year, but it could take until May for it to deliver the first reduction, traders bet on Friday.
Employers added 199,000 workers to their payrolls in November, the Labor Department's monthly jobs report showed, more than the 180,000 that economists had expected, and the unemployment rate unexpectedly fell to 3.7%, from 3.9% in October.
Hourly earnings ticked up 0.4% from a month earlier, more than expected and an acceleration from the prior month. But the labor force participation rate also rose, to 62.8%, easing the prospect that an overheated job market will short-circuit progress on the Fed's inflation battle.
A separate report Friday showed U.S. consumer sentiment improved more than expected in December as households saw inflation pressures easing.
The U.S. central bank is expected to keep rates in the current 5.25%-5.50% range when it meets next week, leaving policy on hold since July. Traders before Friday's jobs report had put about a 60% probability on a March start to Fed rate cuts, but after the data reduced that to just under 50%, with a first reduction seen as more likely to come in May.
Further rate cuts are priced in for the rest of 2024, with the policy rate seen ending the year in the 4%-4.25% range as the Fed adjusts borrowing costs downward not as an antidote to a weaker labor market but rather to keep pace with an expected continued cooling in inflation.
The pace of that improvement in inflation will help determine the timing of the Fed's pivot to rate cuts, analysts said.
"We maintain our call for the Fed to start cutting rates by mid-year, but it is contingent on inflation continuing to trend lower and further weakening in economic activity," wrote Nationwide economist Kathy Bostjancic after the report.
Fed policymakers will release their own views of where the economy, inflation, and interest rates will go next year when they wrap up their last meeting of the year on Wednesday.
(Reporting by Ann Saphir; Editing by Christina Fincher, Kirsten Donovan and Nick Zieminski)