US payrolls surge in February but wage growth slows

Last Updated Mar 9, 2018 10:16 AM EST

The American economy's steady expansion stepped up in February as U.S. companies added to their head count at a surprisingly robust pace.

The Labor Department on Friday reported the U.S. economy created 313,000 jobs last month, far exceeding Wall Street expectations for 200,000 new jobs. The previous two months were upwardly revised by 54,000. The unemployment rate remained at 4.1 percent and wage growth stalled, with the previous month's sharp spike in pay revised lower. 

Average hourly earnings rose 68 cents, or 2.6 percent, to $26.75 in February from a year earlier. January's gain was revised lower to a 2.8 percent annualized gain from 2.9 percent previously. On a month-to-month basis, average earnings rose 4 cents in February after a 7-cent gain the prior month. 

"Today's strong jobs report marks 89 consecutive months of positive job gains for the economy, an all-time record since the 1930s," Glassdoor economist Andrew Chamberlain offered in emailed commentary. "Our current economic expansion has now hit 104 months, which is the third-longest American expansion on record since the 1850s." 

Gus Faucher, chief economist at PNC, called the February numbers "excellent," and noted the increase in payrolls marks the biggest one-month gain in more than two years. 

The data portrayed a healthy labor market while the wage numbers were dialed back from a pace that spooked Wall Street last month. Sharply higher wage growth in January had sparked investor concerns about a potential pick-up in inflation, which could prompt the Federal Reserve to boost interest rate rates at a more rapid pace than had been expected.

The latest economic report comes less than two weeks before the Federal Reserve meets on monetary policy, and the accelerated job growth cemented the view that the Federal Open Market Committee would raise its federal funds rate by a quarter of a percentage point to a range of 1.50 to 1.75 percent.

"The FOMC will try to let some of the steam off the economy, concerned that an overheating labor market will push inflation past the committee's 2 percent goal," Faucher wrote in a client's note.