The job recovery could perhaps best be described as modest, and Friday's jobs report for May further solidified that description. U.S. employers added 175,000 new jobs last month – a strong showing, but only moderately so. And from the perspective of a central banker, that might be welcome news.
An employment report that showed too big of a spike in job creation could spook investors, even as it signals a healthy economy, says Brett Wander, chief investment officer in fixed income at Charles Schwab Investment Management.
"There's some concern [among investors] that in turn [Federal Reserve Chairman Ben] Bernanke's going to take the punch bowl away. Then it may be a very short-lived party. He wants a long sustained jobs growth," says Wander.
That "punch bowl" is the Fed's $85 billion of monthly purchases of bonds and mortgage backed securities, known as QE3. While Bernanke has mentioned the possibility of tapering in coming months, he has also said he believes sustained and substantial job market improvement will be a prerequisite for dialing back the program. Markets have been watching closely for any signs of when that might be.
Those bond buys have been keeping interest rates very low. However, even Bernanke's mention of possible future tapering in a congressional testimony last month sent bond yields spiking. If a job report comes in too strongly, says Wander, it will trigger a bond sell-off, sending bond yields upward. In other words, there is a scenario in which a supremely positive jobs report could, ironically, hurt the economy.
"It's those low yields that are arguably stimulating the economy," says Wander. For example, low bond yields mean low mortgage rates, which could inspire more buyers to get into the housing market. Higher interest rates could slow that down.
On the other hand, it's important to remember that low interest rates are not the Fed's ultimate goal. Rather, they're a means to the end of boosting employment.
For that reason, it may be that the economic outlook is sunny, whether jobs data is modest or booming.
"If you take a bullish view – and we are bullish – we're kind of in a win-win situation here," says Hank Smith, chief investment officer and director at Haverford Trust. "Yes, better data will lead to the fed starting to pull back from its quantitative easing, but better data is something that is desired. So that should be good for corporate earnings, which is the ultimate driver of stock prices."
In Smith's opinion, the latest jobs report was better than expected but "still reflective of an economy that's growing at a below-average rate."
He's not the only one who considers economic growth middling. In its latest Beige Book report released Wednesday, the Federal Reserve characterized activity as growing at "modest to moderate pace." So while the chatter grows, even among Fed Presidents, about the prospect of tapering, more mixed data could mean a full punch bowl for at least a few more months.