Private payrolls in the US grew at a surprisingly slow pace in August, according to this morning’s monthly employment update from the US Labor Dept. Companies created 140,000 new jobs last month—well below expectations for 200,000-plus. The disappointing news raises new questions about the strength of economic growth–and the timing of the Federal Reserve’s interest-rate hike.
Last month’s pace of job creation stumbled, but there’s minimal effect on the year-over-year rate of employment growth—a more reliable measure of the trend. The annual change in employment growth ticked down in August, although the roughly 2.4% gain in year-over-year terms is still a healthy advance. Still, the downward bias this year deserves close attention. The burning question, which will take time to answer: Will growth continue to decelerate?
After peaking at a 2.7% annual increase in February, the upside trend in private non-farm payrolls has been slipping, albeit slowly. It’s unclear if the slower rate of growth is a warning sign for the business cycle or just a normal process of fluctuation. Considering that most economic indicators for the US are still pointing to moderate growth for the near-term future, it’s premature to interpret today’s report as a clear-cut signal of trouble for the macro trend.
Indeed, economic recessions aren’t likely to begin with 2%-plus year-over-year growth in payrolls. Employment is a lagging indicator, of course, and so there are limits to analyzing the state of the economy in real time by way of the labor market. That said, payrolls would have to weaken further in the months ahead in order to dispense a clear and unambiguous recession warning. Meantime, the worst that you can say by looking at today’s payrolls data is that growth has slowed.
The crucial unknown: Will it continue to slow? No, according to initial jobless claims—a leading indicator for employment. Although new filings for unemployment benefits rose last week, claims are still close to the lowest level since the early 1970s and continue to post decent if unspectacular declines on a year-over-year basis.
Keep in mind, too, that yesterday’s August sentiment data for the services sector still looks solid. As such, today’s weak rise in payrolls for August could be noise as long as the biggest driver of economic activity continues to trend positive. Manufacturing, on the other hand, is weak, but looking at a broad set of indicators to date suggests the expansion rolls on–and today’s update doesn’t really change that analysis. That’s not a guarantee that all’s well, but it’s a strong clue for arguing that it’s still premature to declare that the business cycle in the US has slipped over to the dark side based on numbers through August.
It’s tempting to think otherwise by looking at the soft rise in payrolls for last month. But the numbers overall don’t back up that call, at least not yet.
At the same time, we’re still on high alert, so to speak. As I noted earlier this week, a markets-based estimate of the macro picture has turned worrisome lately. Unfortunately, deeper clarity isn’t forthcoming–next week’s light schedule for economic updates will keep the crowd guessing until later in the month.
The bottom line: the evidence is mounting that third-quarter economic growth will be considerably slower vs. Q2’s robust rise of 3.7%, based on GDP data. Yet using the latest numbers to go beyond that call and paint a darker future as fact still requires a hefty dose of guesstimating. Nonetheless, even an optimist has to concede at this point that the margin for disappointment going forward has become unusually thin.