The winter jobs boom

It was a winter of surging job creation. Employers created jobs on a mass scale, Americans returned to the workforce, and the labor market shrugged off the Omicron variant and its broader pandemic funk.

  • That’s the takeaway from the February jobs report, which showed employers added 678,000 jobs last month. December and January job growth was better than previously thought, and the unemployment rate fell to 3.8%.

Why it matters: Yes, inflation is high as prices rose 7.5% over the last year as of January, and could rise higher as disruptions from the Ukraine war ripple through the economy.

  • But rising prices are coming amid an astonishingly rapid jobs boom.

Between the lines: The report shows the pandemic impact is fading. But some analysts warn not to expect this level of gains to continue as the crisis in Ukraine cuts into growth.

  • “The improvement in the American labor market is now very much a rearview mirror phenomenon,” economist Joe Brusuelas wrote in a research note.

One big surprise: Wage growth was essentially nonexistent, with average hourly earnings rising only a penny to $31.58.

  • That may reflect the nature of the jobs being added — disproportionately in the low-paying leisure and hospitality sector.
  • That is good news for those worried that rising wages and prices will drive further inflation. It is worse news for workers, whose average pay gain of 5.1% over the last year is far below inflation.

The share of adults in the labor force — which includes those looking for work — ticked up, as did the share of the population that’s actually employed. That suggests the robust job growth is pulling people back into the workforce, if gradually.

  • The labor force participation rate was 62.3% in February, more than a percentage point below its level two years ago, before the pandemic.

State of play: The Federal Reserve is set to begin an interest rate hiking campaign on March 16, amid high inflation and new geopolitical uncertainty from the Ukraine war. The new numbers are unlikely to change that one way or the other.

M&A boom will surge into 2022: KPMG

Dive Brief:

  • The boom in global mergers and acquisitions in 2021 will surge into 2022, fueled by abundant investment capital, historically low interest rates and a rebound in global economic growth, according to a survey of 345 corporate dealmakers in the U.S. by KPMG.
  • “Based on the volume of new pitches in November and December — transactions that would come to market in Q1 and Q2 of 2022 — there are no signs of a slowing deal market,” according to Philip Isom, global head of M&A at KPMG. While facing high valuations, “most investors have limited time horizons to invest in, so they may be willing to reach further on price than they have historically.”
  • More than 80% of the survey respondents across several industries expect total M&A valuations to rise further next year, with about one out of every three predicting at least a 10% increase, KPMG said. Dealmakers said transaction levels will remain robust because companies “need to remain on the offense with the competition” and “feel pressure from investors to raise their own valuations.”

Dive Insight:

Worldwide deal value from January until mid-November this year hit $5.1 trillion, the highest level since 2015 and a 34% gain compared with all of 2020, KPMG said. U.S. transactions rose to $2.9 trillion, or 55% more than during all of last year.

M&A has soared in 2021 as the economy recovered from a pandemic shock, record monetary and fiscal stimulus pumped up liquidity and many companies sought through acquisitions to regain their footing after months of lockdowns and persistent supply chain disruptions.

A widespread labor shortage will probably push up dealmaking next year. One-third of survey respondents said they want to use M&A to acquire talent, KPMG said.

Also, companies increasingly use acquisitions to change their business or operating models, KPMG said, noting that industrial and financial services companies buy companies that help speed their digital transformation.

“The aim is to increase efficiencies and contribute to having more agile workforces,” according to Carole Streicher, KPMG’s deal advisory and strategy service group leader in the U.S.

Private equity firms will continue to push up the volume and value of M&A next year, after increasing their involvement in transaction value by more than 55% so far in 2021, KPMG said. PE firms have pursued deals this year in part because of the prospect of an increase in corporate capital gains taxes.

Growing support for sustainability among investors, regulators and other stakeholders may prompt M&A, “as businesses look at their ecological footprint and consider purchasing, rationalizing or divesting assets,” KPMG said. Investors are likely to consider sustainable businesses more adaptable to market shifts.

Finally, concerns about the potential for rising borrowing costs may prompt dealmakers who rely on debt financing to speed up acquisition plans. Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell late last month said policymakers at their two-day meeting beginning Tuesday will likely consider speeding up the withdrawal of accommodation.

Dealmakers face some headwinds. Democrats in the Senate have yet to muster enough support for a roughly $2 trillion social policy bill that would help sustain economic growth. Meanwhile, the outbreak of the omicron variant of COVID-19 has highlighted the fragility of financial markets and the economy to any setbacks in curbing the pandemic.

Survey respondents identified several factors that will influence dealmaking next year, with 61% underscoring high valuations, 56% pointing to liquidity and other economic considerations, and 55% noting intense competition for a limited number of highly valued acquisition targets, KPMG said.

Still, only 7% of the survey respondents said they expect deal volumes to decline in their industries next year.

Survey respondents work at companies in industries ranging from media and financial services to energy and technology, with 194 of them CFOs, CEOs or other C-suite executives.

State of the Union: by Paul Field

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Federal Reserve announces 2nd consecutive rate cut

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The Federal Reserve cut interest rates by a quarter point on Wednesday, bringing the target range for the benchmark Fed Funds rate to 1.75%–2%.

Why it matters: The Fed’s 2nd consecutive rate cut reflects worries about the U.S. economy. The trade war and slowing growth around the world have made corporate executives more worried than they’ve been in years.

  • The move prompted a near-immediate response from President Trump, who called chair Powell a “terrible communicator.” The president has demanded in a series of tweets that the Fed cut interest rates more aggressively.

The big picture: Speaking at a press conference, Powell again cited the trade war as a key risk to the economic outlook. “Our business contacts around the country have been telling us that uncertainty about trade policy has discouraged them from investing in their businesses,” Powell said.

  • Still, new projections showed a division among Fed officials about whether more rate cuts are warranted this year.
  • Powell did note that if “the economy does turn down, then a more extensive sequence of rate cuts could be appropriate.”

Powell also acknowledged the liquidity shortfall in money markets that has forced the Fed to intervene — something that before this week hadn’t happened since the financial crisis.

  • In response to the drama in the short-term funding markets, Powell suggested that the Fed may increase the size of its balance sheet through “organic growth” earlier than expected.