The runway is getting clearer, but the U.S. economy still isn’t assured of a soft landing

November’s solid jobs report did not assure that the economy will come in for a soft landing, but it did help to clear the runway a little more.

After all, there’s nothing about a 3.7% unemployment rate and another 199,000 jobs that even whispers “recession,” let alone screams it.

At least for now, then, the U.S. economy can take another win with a small “W” as it looks to navigate through what had been the highest inflation level in more than 40 years — and a still-uncertain path ahead.

“Overall, the jobs market is doing its part to get us to a soft landing,” said Daniel Zhao, lead economist at jobs rating site Glassdoor. “It’s boring in all the right ways. That’s a welcome change after a few years of less-boring reports.”

Indeed, despite a high level of anxiety heading into the Labor Department’s nonfarm payrolls report, the details were fairly benign.

The level of job creation was just above the Wall Street estimate of 190,000. Average hourly earnings rose 4% from a year ago, exactly in line with expectations. The unemployment rate unexpectedly declined to 3.7%, easing worries that it could trigger a historically dead-on signal known as the Sahm Rule, which coordinates increases of the unemployment rate by half a percentage point to recessions.

Still, the solid report couldn’t dispense the lingering feeling that the economy isn’t out of the woods yet. The fear primarily comes from worries that the Federal Reserve’s aggressive interest rate increases haven’t exacted their full toll and still could trigger a painful downturn.

“The key uncertainty for the labor market in 2024 is whether job growth slows to a more sustainable pace, or whether the economy moves from monthly job gains to monthly job losses. The former would be consistent with the Fed’s soft-landing scenario, while the latter would mean recession,” said Gus Faucher, chief economist at PNC Financial Services. “PNC still thinks recession is the more likely outcome in 2024, but it is a close call.

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