Merry Christmas and Happy Hannukah from your friends at the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The November jobs numbers were very good, across the board. The unemployment rate fell to 7 percent, its lowest level in exactly five years, from 7.3 percent. The nation added 203,000 jobs last month, nearly identical to October's numbers and affirming that hiring is starting to happen at a steady clip. Revisions to previous months' data was slightly positive. Americans are working more hours, for slightly higher wages.
Some of the good news was more statistical blip than something meaningful: The size of the labor force grew nicely (455,000 people), as did the proportion of Americans who report having a job (58.6 percent, up from 58.3 percent), but those both reflected reversals of October effects owing to the government shutdown. Still, the confirmation that the wrong turn taken in October was only temporary is welcome.
The numbers, taken together, don't point to a huge acceleration in the pace of growth. Indeed, the three-month average rate of job creation, at 193,000 positions a month, has been higher at several points in recent years (winter 2013, winter 2012, spring 2011, spring 2010). This could be another false start for a period of speedier job growth just as those turned out to be.
But it was not that long ago -- October, to be precise -- that there was real reason to wring one's hands and fear that tighter fiscal policy was causing the recovery to peter out entirely. And that was before factoring in any damaging effects to business and consumer confidence owing to the government shutdown and debt ceiling standoff. With solid October and November jobs readings in the bag, we can now safely put those fears aside. The numbers amount to confirmation that the jobs recovery remains underway, is well-entrenched and is solid and steady.
Which brings us to the Federal Reserve. Two consecutive months of solid payroll gains will strengthen the arguments of those at the central bank who want to start slowing their $85 billion-a-month bond-buying program when policymakers meet in less than two weeks. Indeed, back in June, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke said the consensus of the committee was that the program will end entirely roughly when the unemployment rate hits 7 percent, the level it reached in November (the Fed at the time didn't expect unemployment to drop to that level until the summer of 2014).
Here's the argument for tapering bond-buying that will likely be heard around the big mahogany table when the Fed meets: We have to end this thing sometime. We've had some success persuading markets that just because we wind down quantitative easing it doesn't mean interest rate hikes are imminent. And we're seeing the substantial improvement in labor market conditions that we've been saying we need to see first.
Here's the argument against: What's the rush? Every time there are a couple of months of good news, markets see us rush toward the exit of easy monetary policy, and that's keeping the economy from lifting off. Inflation is well below our target. So, waiting another meeting or two to make sure the better jobs data persist is the wise course.
Whichever way they decide -- and this looks likely to be a very close call -- Ben Bernanke will not be able to spend his final Federal Reserve news conference on Dec. 18 riding off into the sunset. He will have some major explaining to do.