The job market is looking way better. It’s still playing catch-up

More than 20 months into the pandemic, the US job market has reached a milestone.

What’s happening: Weekly claims for unemployment benefits fell to 199,000 last week after seasonal adjustments, their lowest level since 1969. They hit a peak of 6.15 million in April 2020.

So, does that mean employment conditions are back to normal? Not quite.

“Although the plunge in [unemployment] claims was certainly welcome, it does not indicate a dramatic turn in the labor market,” PNC chief economist Gus Faucher said in a note to clients. “Claims are highly volatile, especially around holidays.”

The reason claims are so low may also have to do with ongoing distortions in the labor market.

“Claims have been trending down as employers keep a tight hold on to their employees because of the labor shortages,” observed Peter Boockvar, chief investment officer at Bleakley Advisory Group.

Remember: Demand for workers is high, but the number of people actively seeking work has slipped. In September, the number of people who voluntarily quit their jobs rose to a record high 4.4 million.

The US jobs report for November, due this week, will be watched closely, especially as central bankers weigh their next steps.

Economists polled by Refinitiv expect more good news. They predict that the economy added 563,000 positions, up from 531,000 in October.

The unemployment rate is expected to fall to 4.5%. It was at 3.5% in February 2020.

That could give the Federal Reserve more latitude to roll back stimulus measures as it tries to keep a lid on inflation without jeopardizing the jobs comeback.

In a research note published Thursday, strategists at Goldman Sachs forecast that the Fed would opt to speed up the rate at which it tapers asset purchases. They think the central bank will announce in December that it will reduce bond buying by $30 billion per month starting in January.

That would allow the central bank to consider hiking interest rates, which it has said it will only do once tapering is complete, as soon as March. Goldman expects the Fed to wait until June, though, “when a few additional employment reports will be available.”

All eyes on OPEC after oil prices plunge

Oil prices have tumbled more than 15% in a month. A coordinated release of millions of barrels of reserves by the United States, China, India, Japan, South Korea and the United Kingdom helped get the ball rolling.

New restrictions in Europe to tackle a surge in Covid-19 sent prices even lower, before the emergence of a new, potentially more transmissible variant last week pushed them over the edge — US oil traded below $70 a barrel on Friday, down from $85 in late October.

What happens next could depend on the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and its top allies.

The Wall Street Journal has already reported that OPEC and Russia could stop increasing production in response to the release of reserves by the United States and other major oil consuming nations.

The group has been adding 400,000 barrels per day each month. The White House wanted OPEC and Russia to move more quickly to meet surging demand, but producers including Saudi Arabia held their ground, worried about the risks the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic may pose this winter.

Analysts were already speculating that Europe’s new Covid wave would encourage OPEC and Russia to stick to their gradual supply increases when they meet on Wednesday and Thursday. Friday’s price plunge now begs the question: will they cut production instead?

OANDA senior market analyst Craig Erlam notes that OPEC and Russia may soon feel compelled to act. “[This week] may come too soon but another major outbreak could see them slam on the brakes.”

Up next

Monday: Cyber Monday; Pending US home sales; Germany inflation

Tuesday: China manufacturing data; Europe inflation; US consumer confidence; Salesforce earnings

Wednesday: ISM Manufacturing Index; Snowflake earnings

Thursday: OPEC+ meeting; US initial jobless claims; Europe unemployment; Dollar General, Kroger, Smith & Wesson and Ulta Beauty earnings

Friday: US job report; Europe retail sales; ISM Non-Manufacturing Index

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