President Donald Trump. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
WASHINGTON - US job growth slowed more than expected in December amid a decline in retail employment, but a pick-up in monthly wage gains pointed to labour market strength that could pave the way for the Federal Reserve to increase interest rates in March.

Non-farm payrolls rose by 148 000 last month after a surge of 252 000 in November, the Labour Department said on Friday. Retail payrolls fell by 20300 in December, the largest drop since March, despite reports of a strong holiday shopping season.

The unemployment rate was unchanged at a 17-year low of 4.1%. Economists polled had forecast payrolls rising by 190 000 in December. The economy needs to create 75000 to 100 000 jobs per month to keep up with growth in the working-age population.

“We do not think that today’s employment report will keep the Federal Reserve from tightening again at the March policy meeting, given other strong recent economic data,” said David Berson, chief economist at Nationwide in Columbus, Ohio.

Job growth surged in October and November after being held back in September by back-to-back hurricanes, which destroyed infrastructure and homes and temporarily dislocated some workers in Texas and Florida.

Taking the sting out of the moderation in job gains, average hourly earnings rose 9cents, or 0.3%, in December after a 0.1% gain in the previous month. That lifted the annual increase in wages to 2.5%, from 2.4% in November.

Prices of US Treasuries fell on the employment report while the dollar rose marginally against a basket of currencies. Stocks on Wall Street traded higher.

Employment gains in December were below the monthly average of 204 000 over the past three months. Job growth is slowing as the labour market nears full employment, but could get a temporary boost from a $1.5 trillion (R18.48 trillion) package of tax cuts passed by the Republican-controlled US Congress and signed into law by President Donald Trump last month.

The lift from the fiscal stimulus, which includes a sharp reduction in the corporate income tax rate to 21percent from 35percent, is likely to be modest as the stimulus is occurring with the economy operating almost at capacity. There are also concerns the economy could overheat.

Data ranging from housing to manufacturing and consumer spending have suggested solid economic growth in the fourth quarter, despite a widening of the trade deficit in October and November, which could subtract from gross domestic product.

In a separate report on Friday, the Commerce Department said the trade gap widened 3.2% in November to $50.5 billion, the highest level since January 2012. It was boosted by record high imports, which offset the highest exports in three years. The economy grew at a 3.2% annualised rate in the third quarter.

For all of 2017, the economy created 2.1 million jobs, below the 2.2 million added in 2016. It was the seventh year in a row that the economy generated more than 2 million jobs.

Economists expect job growth this year to slow to well below the 2017 monthly average of 170 000 as the labour market hits full employment, which will likely boost wage growth as employers compete for workers.

“Almost every person ready, able and willing to work now has a job,” said David Kelly, chief global strategist at JPM Asset Management in New York. “Meeting the labour demand of 2018 will require hiring those less willing, and enticing them into the labour market will probably require stronger wage growth.”

Economists are optimistic that annual wage growth will top 3% this year. The unemployment rate fell by seven-tenths of a percentage point last year.