The final jobs report of 2018 released Friday, boasting 312,000 jobs added in December, puts the U.S. economy on track for another relatively strong showing in 2019, with economists predicting a slowdown coming toward the end of the year.
Unemployment is one of the factors in the latest data influencing such predictions. The unemployment rate rose to 3.9 percent in December, but some economists attribute that mostly to more people entering the workforce and more people quitting their jobs — a sign that they believe they can get a job, and possibly higher pay, elsewhere. Over much of next year, the unemployment rate is expected to be around 3.7 percent before rising slightly in 2020, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia’s quarterly survey of forecasters.
The forecasters also anticipate real GDP to drop slightly from 2.9 percent to 2.7 percent before falling further to 2.1 percent in 2020.
Inflation is not expected to take off any time soon, despite the tightened labor market. Core inflation will likely tick up to 2.4 percent from 2.2 percent in 2018, according to the forecast.
And despite the recent decline in the stock market, consumer confidence remains high, which economists say is a good sign that the economy will keep running at a steady pace in the near-term.
So if things look good now, why are forecasters predicting slower times ahead?
There are signs of economic headwinds. Higher interest rates, economic slowdowns abroad and concerns over trade battles between the U.S. and other nations, including China, could hamper growth later in the year.
Here are seven other factors economists are keeping an eye on:
Average hourly wages are now 3.2 percent higher than they were a year ago, rising 11 cents since last month. That’s significantly higher than inflation (2.2. percent).
Experts are now cautiously optimistic about growth in the coming year. “Wages are rising and we expect them to continue doing so,” said Dan North, chief economist at Euler Hermes North America, “but keep an eye out for an impending slowdown.”
Wage pressure is helping drive the increase. With a record number of job openings—7.1 million to 6.3 million unemployed people—employers are starting to hire at slightly higher pay rates.
Twenty-five percent of small business owners plan to raise compensation, the highest since 1989, according to the latest National Federation of Independent Business survey. This is largely in response to “persistently high levels of unfilled open positions.”
Additionally, workers earning minimum wage who reside in one of twenty-one states or the District of Columbia will automatically receive increases this year, thanks to a raft of city and state legislation.
With the unemployment rate being low, if you aren’t getting the pay you want, “this is the time to switch jobs,” said Robert Frick, a corporate economist with Navy Federal Credit Union. That’s especially true for people with unique skills and qualifications, like engineers or IT specialists.
But, Frick warns, you might have to be willing to relocate to improve your prospects.
What could temper wage increases? Factors like the government shutdown, the volatile financial market, a slowing global economy and uncertainty around monetary policy mean employers may exercise caution in raising wages in fear of another economic downturn.
More workers coming off the sidelines
The percentage of able-bodied, working-age people who have a job or are looking for one — known as the labor force participation rate — rose to 63.1 percent in December. That’s better than it has been in recent months and near the long-term average, but it’s significantly lower than the 67.3 percent peak seen in the 2000s.
The labor force participation rate went down during the Great Recession when people became too discouraged to look for work. A higher labor force participation rate also means more people are participating in the economy, and, therefore, generating economic growth for the nation.
As wages rise in 2019, more people who aren’t currently trying to get hired might be encouraged to enter the labor market.
“We think there is a probability that rising wages are going to reinvigorate the job market,” Frick said.
But Frick and other economists do not expect hiring to be as strong as it was in 2018. He estimates monthly job hiring could remain near 200,000 per month but then weaken toward the end of the year.
Interest rate hikes
The Federal Reserve is expected to raise interest rates only once or twice in 2019. Fed Chair Jerome Powell said at an economic conference Friday that the central bank will be flexible when determining whether to raise interest rates in the coming year.
The Fed uses interest rates to help keep the economy moving at a steady pace. Raising interest rates can keep inflation in check. Lowering them can give an added boost to a sluggish economy.
The Federal Reserve raised interest rates four times last year. Fears that the Fed was raising rates too quickly, in part, led to a selloff in the stock market. But the Fed’s goal is not to keep the stock market afloat. It is to monitor the broader economy, which is why Powell has made it clear he will keep a close eye on economic indicators when making policy decisions for 2019.
Any more interest rate hikes in the new year would likely push credit card and auto loan interest rates higher, meaning it will cost more for consumers to borrow, which could button up spending.
While few people are likely to “downsize from the SUV to a compact because of interest rates,” Greg McBride, chief financial analyst for Bankrate.com, said now is a good time for Americans to pay off their credit cards.
Mortgage rates are a different ballgame.
The 30-year fixed income mortgage rate, which is based on the bond market, has declined the past two months. McBride expects the rate to remain volatile, rising above 5.25 percent before dropping sharply later in the year.
While every region’s housing market is different, in general, if mortgage rates go back up, it could slow the national housing market, and, conversely if they drop, it could give it another boost.
Corporate debt has ballooned since the 2008 financial crisis to $9 trillion. Low interest rates over the past several years have made it easy for companies to borrow cheaply.
Last month, Powell said the corporate debt level is not yet high enough to be alarming, but he did take notice, as other economists have.
“As capital costs rise, that’s going to create a greater risk of business failure,” said Brian Schaitkin, a senior economists at Conference Board.
Schaitkin encourages businesses large and small to take those increased costs into account when determining their plans for the coming year.
China and the slowdown in global growth
U.S. businesses will also have to account for what’s happening overseas. The World Bank predicts economic growth will slow throughout much of the world as central banks pull back on some of the policies they used to prop up their economies after the 2008 financial crisis.
The U.S. trade battle with China is also complicating matters. Apple this week revised its earnings projections because of decreased demand in China, sending stocks down. Other companies could soon follow suit.
The U.S. and China have a self-imposed March deadline to agree how to address tariffs and other economic issues. If they fail to make a deal, that could create added uncertainty and hurt both Chinese and U.S. businesses throughout 2019.
Companies too big too fail
Economists are keeping a close eye on several of the major tech companies to see how they fare with uncertainty in the global market, but also how they address criticism for how they handle customer data privacy, as well as geopolitical matters (like foreign election interference on social media).
“During the ’08 financial crisis, we saw the emergence of banks that were too big to fail. Now we may have companies that are in some ways too big to fail,” Schaitkin said.
Companies like Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google play an outsized role in the U.S. economy in terms of retail, advertising and data. With their new control in the House, Democrats are likely to push for greater scrutiny of Silicon Valley in terms of antitrust enforcement, data privacy and the industry’s role in elections.
While tech executives, such as Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai, have signalled they are willing to work with Congress, increased oversight and potential regulation may introduce some uncertainty to the sector.
If these companies falter, Schaitkin said, that could shake consumers and business confidence and have serious ramifications for the economy.