By Lucia Mutikani
U.S. job growth surged in January and wages increased further, recording their largest annual gain in more than 8-1/2 years, bolstering expectations that inflation will push higher this year as the labor market hits full employment.
Nonfarm payrolls jumped by 200,000 jobs last month after rising 160,000 in December, the Labor Department said on Friday.
The unemployment rate was unchanged at a 17-year low of 4.1 percent. Average hourly earnings rose 0.3 percent in January to $26.74, building on December's solid 0.4 percent gain.
That boosted the year-on-year increase in average hourly earnings to 2.9 percent, the largest rise since June 2009, from 2.7 percent in December. Workers, however, put in fewer hours last month. The average workweek fell to 34.3 hours, the shortest in four months, from 34.5 hours in December.
The robust employment report underscored the strong momentum in the economy, raising the possibility that the Federal Reserve could be a bit more aggressive in raising interest rates this year. The U.S. central bank has forecast three rate increases this year after raising borrowing costs three times in 2017.
"This report supports the Fed's contention that the jobs market is nearing full capacity and wage and inflation pressure has begun to make its way into the data," said Marvin Loh, senior global market strategist at BNY Mellon in Boston.
"With almost full odds priced in for a March rate hike, investors have moved towards the second, third, or even possible fourth rate hike this year."
Fed officials on Wednesday expressed optimism that inflation will rise toward its target this year. Policymakers, who voted to keep interest rates unchanged, described the labor market as having "continued to strengthen," and economic activity as "rising at a solid rate."
U.S. financial markets have priced in a rate hike in March. The dollar rose against a basket of currencies on the data. Prices for U.S. Treasuries fell, with the yield on the benchmark 10-year note rising to a four-year high. Stocks on Wall Street were trading lower.
The unemployment rate dropped seven-tenths of a percentage point in 2017 and economists expect it to hit 3.5 percent by the end of the year. Economists say job gains are being driven by buoyant domestic and global demand.
Given that the labor market is almost at full employment, economists saw little boost to job growth from the Trump administration's $1.5 billion tax cut package passed by the Republican-controlled U.S. Congress in December, in the biggest overhaul of the tax code in 30 years.
President Donald Trump and his fellow Republicans have cast the fiscal stimulus, which includes a reduction in the corporate income tax rate to 21 percent from 35 percent, as creating jobs and boosting economic growth.
According to outplacement consultancy firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, only seven companies, including Apple AAPL.O, had announced plans to add roughly a combined 37,000 new jobs in response to the tax cuts as of the end of January.
Economists polled by Reuters had forecast nonfarm payrolls rising by 180,000 jobs last month and the unemployment rate unchanged at 4.1 percent. January's jobs gains were above the monthly average of 192,000 over the past three months.
The economy needs to create 75,000 to 100,000 jobs per month to keep up with growth in the working-age population. January marked the first full year of employment data under the Trump administration. Job growth averaged 176,000 under the current government, compared to 208,300 during last year of the Obama administration.
JOB GAINS SEEN SLOWING
Job growth is expected to slow this year as the labor market hits full employment. Companies are increasingly reporting difficulties finding qualified workers, which economists say will force some to significantly raise wages as they compete for scarce labor.
Wage growth last month was likely supported by increases in the minimum wage which came into effect in 18 states in January. They probably also got a lift from the tax cut. Companies like Starbucks Corp SBUX.O and FedEx Corp have said they will use some of the savings from lower taxes to boost wages for workers.
Further gains are expected in February when Walmart WMT.N. raises entry-level wages for hourly employees at its U.S. stores. Annual wage growth is now close to the 3 percent that economists say is needed to push inflation towards the Fed's 2 percent target.
But there is still some slack in the labor market. A broader measure of unemployment, which includes people who want to work but have given up searching and those working part time because they cannot find full-time employment, rose one-tenth of a percentage point to 8.2 percent in January.
The unemployment rate for African Americans shot up to 7.7 percent from 6.8 percent and is more than double that of whites. The department also released annual revisions to the payrolls data from the survey of employers, which showed the level of employment in March of last year was 146,000 higher than it had reported, on a seasonally adjusted basis.
Manufacturing payrolls increased by 15,000 last month after rising 21,000 in December. The sector is being supported by strong domestic and international demand. A weak dollar is also providing a boost to manufacturing by making U.S.-made goods more competitive on the international market.
Hiring at construction sites picked up last month despite unseasonably cold weather. Construction payrolls increased by 36,000 jobs after rising 33,000 in December. Retail employment rebounded by 15,400 jobs in January after slumping 25,600 the prior month.
Government employment increased by 4,000 jobs following two straight months of declines. There were also increases in payrolls for professional and business services, leisure and hospitality as well as healthcare and social assistance.
(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Andrea Ricci)