An eagle tops the U.S. Federal Reserve building's facade in Washington
An eagle tops the U.S. Federal Reserve building's facade in Washington, July 31, 2013.

Federal Reserve officials have acknowledged that the battle against inflation will be paid for with lost jobs, and the U.S. central bank will need an unlikely combination of events to keep those losses to a minimum as interest rates continue to rise.

Economists assessing the trade-off facing the Fed estimate U.S. employment could drop by anywhere from a few hundred thousand positions to as many as several million.

The final tally will depend on how closely the economy follows patterns seen in recent decades, to what extent things like improved global supply chains help lower inflation, and how strict the Fed is in enforcing its 2% inflation goal.

With the central bank's preferred inflation measure currently increasing at more than a 6% annual rate, Joe Brusuelas, chief U.S. economist at RSM, a U.S.-based consulting firm, estimates it would take 5.3 million lost jobs and an unemployment rate of 6.7%, nearly double the 3.5% in July, to lower inflation to 2%.

"Can the Fed achieve a pure soft landing? ... Probably not," Brusuelas said, referring to a scenario in which monetary tightening slows the economy, and inflation, without triggering a recession. "It is difficult to envision a benign outcome."

The release of the Labor Department's August employment report on Friday will provide the latest pulse of an economy that is continuing to confound. Economists polled by Reuters expect 300,000 jobs were added last month, as U.S. companies scramble to hire hard-to-find workers even as the economy slows and Fed rate hikes promise to slow it further.

The report will include wage growth data important to the Fed's deliberations on whether to raise interest rates by half a percentage point or three-quarters of a percentage point at the Sept. 20-21 policy meeting.

After the July gain of more than half a million jobs blew away expectations, another strong job growth reading could push policymakers toward a larger rate hike, as would continued strong wage gains. A dip towards the monthly average gain of 183,000 jobs seen in the decade before the coronavirus pandemic could pull in the other direction.

Fed officials hope the burden of fighting inflation falls less on employment than other parts of the economy, even as for months they've bemoaned the labor market's current state as unsustainable.

Cleveland Fed President Loretta Mester this week said recent wage increases were "not consistent with inflation returning to our 2% goal." An Atlanta Fed wage tracker shows worker pay on average was rising at annual rate of 6.7% as of July, and Mester said that would "need to moderate to around 3.25% to 3.5% to be consistent with price stability."

'UNPRECEDENTED'

Fed officials have been less specific about what will bring things into balance, with some of the working ideas requiring U.S. job markets to act differently than they have in the past.

Fed Governor Christopher Waller has pointed to the Beveridge Curve, which plots the relationship between job openings and the unemployment rate, to argue that the labor market could behave differently this time.

The current ratio of two job openings for each unemployed person is a record high. Typically when the job vacancy rate falls, the unemployment rate rises as it becomes harder for job seekers to find a match. But Waller argues the Beveridge Curve changed during the pandemic, and is in a place now that would allow job openings to fall sharply as the economy slows, relieving pressure on wages and prices, without much of a rise in unemployment.

"We recognize that it would be unprecedented for vacancies to decline by a large amount without the economy falling into recession...We are, in effect, saying that something unprecedented can occur because the labor market is in an unprecedented situation," Waller wrote in a research note published by the Fed in late July.

Other soft-landing narratives also hang on history not repeating.

HELPING HAND

In June, for example, the median estimate among Fed officials was for unemployment to rise somewhat - but only to about 4.1% by the end of 2024, a slow and limited climb.

Updated projections are due to be released at the end of the policy meeting in September. If, as expected, they show higher unemployment, the chances for a soft landing will confront an unpleasant historical fact: Once the U.S. unemployment rate increases beyond a certain amount, it tends to keep rising.

Since at least the late 1940s, even modest increases of half a percentage point in the unemployment rate from a year earlier - the magnitude of increase Fed officials have begun to hint at - have tended to spiral to jumps of 2 percentage points or more.

At the current labor force level of 163.9 million, that would translate into about 3.3 million fewer people employed - below some estimates but still high.

"Usually, once the labor market gets going downhill, it picks up speed and it goes," said Claudia Sahm, a former Fed economist and founder of Sahm Consulting.

As a Fed economist, she developed the eponymous "Sahm Rule," which says that once the three-month average unemployment rate rises half a percentage point from its recent low, the economy is already in recession. Given the oddities of the pandemic-era labor market, however, she's open to an exception this time.

Sahm's baseline is for a rise in the unemployment rate to around 4%, which would translate into a loss of fewer than a million jobs, but for the economy to avoid a recession.

A lot would have to go right to get that outcome.

"It hinges on supply chains healing, more people coming back into the workforce, more price sensitivity by consumers," Sahm said. "It's a normalization of the economy."

If that doesn't happen, and labor market pain increases, the Fed would have options, Brusuelas and others have noted: Raise the inflation target from the current 2%. He estimates that getting to a 3% inflation rate would cost 3.6 million fewer jobs than insisting on hitting the current target, with the unemployment rate rising by just over one percentage point from the current level.

So far, that's not a conversation the Fed wants to have.

"We've communicated over and over and over again our commitment to achieve that 2% goal," New York Fed President John Williams told the Wall Street Journal this week. "I think it'll take a few years, but there's no confusion ... We're absolutely committed to doing it."

The U.S. Federal Reserve building is pictured in Washington
The U.S. Federal Reserve building is pictured in Washington, March 18, 2008.