US employers turned cautious last month, slowing hiring amid rising trade tensions and signs that the economy is losing steam.
Nonfarm payrolls rose by 75,000 in May, the Labor Department reported Friday, the 104th straight monthly increase, but a surprisingly sharp drop from the 224,000 jobs added in April. The unemployment rate was unchanged at 3.6 percent, a nearly five-decade low.
The jobs report supports the consensus among economists that growth is cooling after a strong start in the first quarter. Industrial production is already softening, as is the housing market.
What is not clear is whether the weak May number is an outlier or the start of a more serious downturn that could affect everything from how much borrowers pay for mortgages to President Trump’s reelection prospects.
“We need to see more data,” said Tony Bedikian, head of global markets at Citizens Bank in Boston. “The unemployment rate is still very low and the economy continues to add jobs.”
After raising rates four times last year, Federal Reserve officials have adopted a wait-and-see stance. Investors are betting they will loosen credit, a move Trump has urged the central bank to take.
Stocks, which typically rise when rates are falling, jumped Friday, with the Dow Jones average climbing 263 points, or 1 percent, to 25,984. The yield on the benchmark 10-year Treasury note fell to 2.085 percent, the lowest since September 2017, also a signal that investors expect the Fed to soften the blow of the administration’s hard-line trade policies.
Although the United States has been sparring with China over trade for more than year, the latest payroll survey was taken before the president threatened to slap tariffs on goods from Mexico. How talks with both countries play out will influence the Fed’s decision-making, according to Peter Ireland, an economics professor at Boston College.
“I think that issue, rather than the month-to-month economic data, is what Fed officials will be focusing on most,” he said in an e-mail. “For now, my best guess is that they’ll stick to their ‘patient, watchful and waiting’ stance, while also emphasizing that uncertainty about trade and the mixed tone of recent economic data have tilted the risks somewhat to the downside.”
The administration has raised tariffs to 25 percent on $200 billion of goods from China, and is threatening levies on another $300 billion of imports. China plans to retaliate with tariffs on $60 billion of US goods. Meanwhile, Trump had said he would slap charges on all Mexican imports starting Monday unless the government there stops the flow of immigrants over the southern border.
Gross domestic product — the nation’s output of goods and services — is expected to expand by a decent 2.5 percent in 2019, according to forecasts tracked by Bloomberg. GDP grew by 2.9 percent last year, fueled by tax cuts and government spending whose impact is waning.
The current rate is robust enough to absorb workers entering the labor force.
Beyond the headline payroll and jobless rate numbers, the Labor Department’s report showed reduced hiring in manufacturing, construction, and professional and business services.
The retail and government sectors saw outright declines.
Employers added an average of 223,000 jobs each month in 2018. So far this year, the monthly average is 164,000.
Average hourly wages rose 3.1 percent in May over the year-earlier month, the slowest rate since September.
The good economy has been Trump’s strongest argument to voters that he deserves another four years. While the president was active on Twitter on Friday, he didn’t comment on the jobs report.
“We seek to continue job growth by opening more opportunities through policies like USMCA moving forward,” Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta said in a statement Friday, referring to the new US-Mexico-Canada trade agreement.
The obvious concern at the White House is whether the economy, just one month from setting the record for longevity, can hold up long enough to bolster Trump’s reelection campaign. Only a handful of economists are predicting a recession — and not until 2020.
Megan Greene, an economist and incoming senior fellow at the Center for Business and Government at Harvard Kennedy School, said that first-quarter GDP growth of 3.1 percent is well above the rate at which the economy can expand without boosting inflation.
“So there is a lot of room to slow down before we actually move into recession territory,” she said. “The market-based probabilities for rate cuts this year (currently 2 by December) are premature and exaggerated at this stage.”