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The economic anthem of the moment depends on how you read the data

Stephanie Hughes Aug 1, 2023
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The song economist Sarah Wolfe uses to describe our current economic moment: Journey's "Wheel in the Sky." Denise Truscello/Getty Images for iHeartMedia

The economic anthem of the moment depends on how you read the data

Stephanie Hughes Aug 1, 2023
Heard on:
The song economist Sarah Wolfe uses to describe our current economic moment: Journey's "Wheel in the Sky." Denise Truscello/Getty Images for iHeartMedia
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Fewer workers are quitting their jobs, according to the Job Openings and Labor Turnover survey for June, or JOLTS, out Tuesday from the Labor Department.

Officially, the quits rate ticked down two-tenths of a percentage point from May to 2.4%. Employers are also bringing on fewer workers, as indicated by a hiring rate that also ticked down. These are signs the labor market is slowing, which could be music to the Federal Reserve’s ears. Or it could be more of a cacophony.

The anthem of the labor market right now, according to Morgan Stanley economist Sarah Wolfe, is a Journey song from the late ’70s.

“You know, like ‘The wheel in the sky keeps on turning,’” she said. “I guess metaphorically, it’s like our economy continuing to push forward.”

That wheel has lost some momentum, Wolfe said. But Tuesday’s JOLTS data shows that even with an economic slowdown, employers are opting to hire fewer workers instead of laying people off. This comes after two years of struggling with labor scarcity

“Reflecting this kind of outlook, you know, I’d rather, like, hoard my workers than get rid of them,” Wolfe said.

This is consistent with a “soft landing” scenario, in which the Fed brings down inflation but the economy avoids a recession, she said, adding that the reduction in quitting fits right in. “Fewer people being able to move around jobs, but not a lot of people being laid off. So just everybody more so staying put where they are.”

But economists differ on their forecasts. And their taste in music.

Steven Blitz, chief U.S. economist for GlobalData TS Lombard, has a different anthem in mind. “How about ‘Bad Moon Rising’? That’s Creedence [Clearwater Revival], right?”

This kind of drop in hiring usually means unemployment will start to rise, Blitz said. “And these negative drops really reflect what we would often see at the beginning of a recession.”

We know that Fed Chair Jerome Powell is a Grateful Dead fan. It remains to be seen if the next economic phase will sound more like “Truckin’” or “Looks Like Rain.”

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