There are two ways of looking at the middling jobs report for August.
One is to focus on a distinct slowdown in the pace of job growth. Employers added 130,000 jobs in August, which is okay. But for the year, job growth is averaging 162,000 new jobs per month, a sharp decline from an average of 223,000 last year. The strongest job growth of the last 10 years came in 2014, with 251,000 new jobs per month, on average.
But other trends look better. Wages are up 3.2% year over year, which isn’t fantastic, but wage growth during the last year has stayed consistently above 3% for the first time in 10 years. There was also a modest increase in hours worked in August, reversing a pullback in July. That alleviates concern, for now, about worker cutbacks that might hint a recession is coming.
There was also a bit of optimism this week about the Trump trade war with China. Senior negotiators will meet again, probably in October, a development that sent stock markets upward. Investors are probably too optimistic about the prospects of a trade deal. But the Trump-o-meter is in a generous mood this week, with a reading of MEDIOCRE, the third highest.
In one way, the August jobs report was weaker than it appeared. Those 130,000 new jobs included 25,000 temporary workers for the 2020 Census, bringing the creation of “real” jobs lower. The tepid numbers are consistent with soft GDP growth of around 2%. That’s not the recession scenario some worriers foresee. But it’s not the robust 3% or 4% growth Trump promised, either.
The Trump trade war is becoming a bigger and bigger problem for the U.S. economy, with Oxford Economics estimating that GDP growth could fall below 1% next year if a new set of Trump tariffs goes into effect Dec. 15 as scheduled. Trump has now gone beyond imported factory goods from China and imposed tariffs on consumer products, likely to show up in stores soon as higher prices. With the economy slowing and stimulus from the 2017 tax cuts over, it’s not a great time to chip away at growth with protectionist trade policies.
Markets are optimistic about a deal between Trump and China—probably too optimistic. “It would be foolhardy to get too excited about this new round of negotiations,” research firm Capital Economics advised clients. “Any deal that would see the removal of the tariffs already imposed seems unlikely, at least within the next 12 months.”
China has already refused to agree to Trump’s terms, and as the U.S. economy weakens, so does Trump’s bargaining power. There could be some happy talk after the next round of talks—which will be the 13th—but Trump could grow frustrated by lack of progress and raise tariffs further, as he has before. Every respite from trade turmoil is welcome, but none, so far, has proved to be lasting.
Rick Newman is the author of four books, including “Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success.” Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman