A tight Christmas: US adds only 145,000 jobs in December

So much for the Thanksgiving goose to job-creation numbers. The number of jobs added in December dropped by over one hundred thousand to 145,000, according to today’s jobs report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Wage growth dropped off a bit as well, although the unemployment rate remained steady at 3.5%:

Total nonfarm payroll employment rose by 145,000 in December, and the unemployment rate was unchanged at 3.5 percent, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported today. Notable job gains occurred in retail trade and health care, while mining lost jobs. …

In December, the unemployment rate held at 3.5 percent, and the number of unemployed persons was unchanged at 5.8 million. A year earlier, the jobless rate was 3.9 percent, and the number of unemployed persons was 6.3 million. (See table A-1.) Among the major worker groups, the unemployment rates for adult men (3.1 percent), adult women (3.2 percent), teenagers (12.6 percent), Whites (3.2 percent), Blacks (5.9 percent), Asians (2.5 percent), and Hispanics (4.2 percent) showed little or no change in December. (See tables A-1, A-2, and A-3.)

The number of long-term unemployed (those jobless for 27 weeks or more), at 1.2 million, was unchanged in December and accounted for 20.5 percent of the unemployed. (See table A-12.) The labor force participation rate was unchanged at 63.2 percent in December. The employment-population ratio was 61.0 percent for the fourth consecutive month but was up by 0.4 percentage point over the year. (See table A-1.)

This was a swing and a miss on several levels. First, revisions to the previous two months shaved 14,000 jobs off the previous estimates. Economists had predicted a slowdown after November’s adjusted 256,000 addition, but they had predicted at least 160,000 jobs added. The wage growth was expected to hold at 3.1% annualized, but instead it came in at 2.9%, a potential sign that the labor markets are beginning to tilt a little less healthily.

In fact, as CNBC points out, it’s the lowest wage growth in 18 months. However, they also see some reason for optimism in other measures:

In addition to the slow payroll growth, average hourly earnings rose by just 2.9%, below the 3.1% projection. December marked the first time that wage gains were below 3% on a year-over-year basis since July 2018. …

On the upside, a separate, more encompassing measure that includes discouraged and underemployed workers fell to 6.7%, the lowest it’s ever been in records going back to 1994. The decline came amid a drop of 140,000 in people working part-time for economic reasons.

The labor force participation rate held steady at 63.2% as the labor force rose by 209,000 to 164.6 million and those considered out of the labor force fell by 48,000 to 95.6 million.

The total employment level rose to 158.8 million, also a fresh high. However, the unemployment rate for African-Americans rose 0.3 percentage points to 5.9%.

One other issue, especially for Donald Trump’s in his re-election efforts for a second term, is manufacturing. That key sector shed 12,000 jobs in December and has only gained 46,000 in 2019. The BLS notes that the gain in 2018 was 264,000, almost six times greater than in 2019. That will catch the attention of those who oppose Trump’s trade policies and especially his trade war with China.

The overall view doesn’t look rosy either. In 2019, the US economy added 600,000 fewer jobs than it did in 2018. That could be explained by hitting a level near the mythical status of “full employment,” but if we were near that, wages would be rising faster than they are now. This suggests that while we’re done dealing with the overhang of discouraged workers from the Great Recession of 2008-9, we’re still dealing with some drags on job creation — which might well be the trade wars, or could still be in tax and regulatory policy that keeps capital on the sidelines.

Whatever it is, the Trump administration will need to identify it and craft policy to address it. Even if they can’t get it passed, they need a good argument for a second term. It’s not too early to begin considering it.