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U.S. job market set for more than just 'some' attention

People speak with job recruiters at the Nassau County Mega Job Fair at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Uniondale, New York October 7, 2014. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

By Ross Finley

LONDON (Reuters) - Now that U.S. Federal Reserve chief Janet Yellen has made it clear she's looking out for "some" improvement in the job market before voting for the first Fed interest rate rise in nearly a decade, so is everyone else.

The challenge is that the U.S. economy is generating very little inflation - not to mention disinflation coming from China and nearly no inflation in Europe - leaving many questioning whether the Fed even should be considering a rate rise.

The U.S. economy only grew by 1.5 percent in the first half of the year, slower than the average 2 percent pace over the previous three years and less than half the speed of past boom times in 2004-2005.

Yet the unemployment rate continues to fall, with first time claims for jobless benefits near a 40-year low. That, say some economists, is a cause for concern given rates are still at zero and would normally be much higher at this stage.

"The pace for growth remains extremely weak by past recovery standards, but with potential growth weaker as well it appears to be more than sufficient to keep the unemployment rate coming down," notes Jim O'Sullivan, chief U.S. economist at High Frequency Economics in Valhalla, New York.

If the potential growth rate is much lower, then spare capacity in the economy may be close to nil, which means that not only is the business cycle at a mature stage, interest rates may have to move up more quickly than most currently expect.

But there are different warning signs, too, not least the strong dollar, which has been keeping down the price of imported goods and has hurt U.S. businesses trying to sell their goods and services abroad by making them more expensive.

The latest gross domestic product data also showed a sizeable buildup of inventories in the first half of the year, which at some point will need to be drawn down, likely slowing production in the process, and with it, economic growth.

Next Friday's jobs data is expected to show the U.S. economy created 225,000 new jobs in July, just a tad more than in June, what was deemed a fairly disappointing report, according to economists polled by Reuters. The unemployment rate is expected to hold steady at 5.3 percent.

Better figures, sustained in August, might just be enough to meet Yellen's "some" improvement tag. For a Federal Open Market Committee that appears pre-disposed to get on with a much-awaited first rate rise, the bar does seem to be set fairly low.

"Keep an eye on the pay growth numbers too, for a possible edging up, after the slippage seen in June," warned Victoria Clarke, economist at Investec. "This would certainly do no harm for Fed lift-off prospects for the September FOMC."

Employment costs data for the second quarter implied there still has been no acceleration in pay, with a sudden slowing canceling out a stronger set of figures in January-March.

One thing is certain: once the Fed does begin hiking, the expected path of future rates and what that does to the dollar may have major repercussions for the world economy.

That becomes especially evident given that the big emerging market growth engines are running at half throttle at best, or in the case of Brazil, once Latin America's darling, crashing into recession. Many of their currencies are in full retreat.

BRITAIN'S SUPER THURSDAY

The Bank of England's Monetary Policy Committee also meets on Thursday to set interest rates. Although few expect any rate rise until early next year, several are expecting a few of its nine members to break ranks and vote for a hike.

The BoE is due to release all at once its policy decision, minutes from that decision's deliberations as well as the Inflation Report forecasts on which the decision is based, which may bring more clarity on how close a UK rate hike may be.

"We have framed the outlook for UK monetary policy in terms of a 'tug of war' between a tighter labor market pushing up on the medium-term outlook for inflation versus ... lower commodity prices and stronger sterling pushing down on inflation," wrote Andrew Benito, economist at Goldman Sachs.

In other words, that means "not yet." A recent Reuters poll found most expect the first UK rate hike in the first quarter, likely February, while others like Benito don't expect that to happen until the second quarter.

The latest round of purchasing managers surveys, from China to Europe and the Americas, also will be released early next week, with momentum in U.S. manufacturing under close watch.

And the Reserve Bank of Australia is due to meet, although only one economist out of 21 polled by Reuters expects an interest rate cut from 2.0 percent. Five, however, expect at least one more cut before year-end.

(Editing by Jeremy Gaunt)