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Jobless claims remain historically low amid Fed’s efforts to slow wage growth

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Federal Reserve Board Chairman Jerome Powell, an older white haired man.

Federal Reserve Board Chairman Jerome Powell speaks during a news conference after a Federal Open Market Committee meeting on Feb. 1, 2023 in Washington, DC. Kevin Dietsch / Getty Images

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First-time applications for unemployment benefits rose to 196,000 last week, according to data released by the Labor Department this morning.

That might sound like a lot but put in context, those new claim numbers are historically low – lower than one might expect, given the Fed’s effort to slow job growth and reduce inflation.

The cascade of data that economists look at tells the story of a strong labor market.

So much so, says University of Michigan Professor Betsey Stevenson, that they’ve been asking whether it’s too strong.

“Are employers trying to hire a bunch of phantoms — people who don’t exist? Are they just finding it too hard to find people?” Stevenson said.

This labor market seemingly still has legs, she says, even as employers report less trouble filling jobs.

This after the Federal Reserve raised interest rates eight times over the last 11 months.

Brad Hershbein, senior economist at the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, says the Fed’s job is to keep employment high and inflation low.

And right now, he says policymakers are keeping close tabs on how much wages are rising.

“The Fed is actually going to pay even more attention to that than the number of jobs being created because that’s what their fear is: that wage growth is going to feed into inflation,” he said.

Elise Gould, senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute, says it might be odd to think of policymakers as wanting to see wage growth fall.

“People are like ‘wait, what do you mean?’ And I think it’s important to note that inflation is actually coming down faster than nominal wage growth is coming down,” said Gould.

That means there are genuine wage gains, says Kate Bahn, chief economist at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth.

“What we’re seeing here is that maybe workers actually are sharing a little bit more in those gains of a healthy economy, which is a good sign,” she said.

Still, certain sectors have suffered high-profile layoffs, says Ellis Phifer, managing director of fixed income research at Raymond James.

“The tech businesses has seen the opportunity to shed some workers,” said Phifer, as have the media and finance sectors. 

“So it’s been a very mixed picture,” said Phifer.

But strong hiring in sectors like hospitality and food service could be offsetting those layoffs. 

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