The stock market on Friday continued its wild movements, with the Dow Jones Industrials (DJINDICES:^DJI) falling as much as 200 points during the morning. As of 12:30 p.m. EST, the Dow had cut its losses but was still down 159 points. The move followed this morning's monthly release of employment data for December, leading some market commentators to look hard for signs that would have justified such a negative response from investors. Yet from a long-term perspective, job gains bode well for the U.S. economy, and that suggests today's Dow drop is more noise-related than connected to the employment report.
Jobs in America: Firing on all cylinders
The December employment report was full of encouraging numbers. Nonfarm payrolls rose by 252,000 for the month, which was larger than the 240,000 jobs economists had expected. Even better, the Bureau of Labor Statistics revised job-growth figures for October and November upward by a total of 50,000, with 261,000 jobs created in October and 353,000 in November.
Job creation came from a broad-based front last month. The professional sector saw employment rise by 52,000 jobs, followed by 48,000 jobs from construction, 44,000 from the restaurant, bar, and food-services industry, and 34,000 from healthcare. The construction jobs figure was especially significant as it represented a sharp rise from previous months.
Partially as a result of job gains, the unemployment rate fell to 5.6% in December. That's the lowest figure since the 2008 recession. Moreover, the number of discouraged workers fell by 177,000 from a year ago to 740,000, indicating fewer people believe there's no point in looking for work because there aren't any jobs suited to them.
For the year, the numbers were even more encouraging. The U.S. closed 2014 with annual job growth of more than 2.95 million, which was the best result since 1999.
The fly in the employment ointment
It's hard to see such strong numbers as being negative for stocks. Unlike in past years, when investors worried that signs of a strong economy would lead the Federal Reserve to change course on monetary policy, the central bank has already made clear its intentions to start raising short-term rates.
Some commentators, though, blamed the Dow's drop on a single piece of bad news from the employment report: the average hourly wage for employees in December fell $0.05 to $24.57, closing out 2014 with just a 1.7% gain from where wages finished 2013.
Given the importance of consumer spending to the overall U.S. economy, it's reasonable to see sluggish wage growth as a negative. Yet the average length of the typical workweek stayed the same, suggesting that a greater number of people are working the same number of hours and thereby offsetting some of the month's wage gains. From a macroeconomic standpoint, even if wages stay constant, the fact that more employees are at work earning those wages means more money overall for consumers to spend.
Today's triple-digit drop for the Dow is consistent with the spike in volatility we've seen at the beginning of 2015, but you shouldn't blame the employment report for the decline. If anything, a healthier employment picture in the U.S. should help the bull market's prospects in the long run.