Friday’s monthly U.S. jobs report (covering April) not only included the third straight month of weak manufacturing employment gains. It contained the first notable evidence that President Trump’s tariffs (at least on imports of steel and aluminum) contributed to a payroll slowdown.
Industry created only 4,000 new jobs sequentially in April. The February and March revisions were positive (the latter from an increase of 1,000 to 8,000, and the latter from a decrease of 6,000 to no change. But these single-digit (at best) results represented manufacturing’s poorest three-month employment performance stretch (producing a cumulative net gain of 12,000 since January) since the September-December, 2016 period (when the increase was 11,000).
At least as important, the greatest weakness came in those manufacturing sectors that most heavily use the metals for which tariffs have been imposed by Mr. Trump since April, 2018. Whereas until the April, 2019 data, these industries (the main ones are listed in the table below) were generally creating jobs at a faster pace than less metals-reliant manufacturing sectors and even the private sector economy overall, that out-performance came to an end for the industries where April figures are available.
Old thru March New thru March Thru April
entire private sector: +1.78 percent +1.79 percent +1.98 percent
overall manufacturing: +1.48 percent +1.58 percent +1.61 percent
durable goods: +1.85 percent +1.92 percent +1.92 percent
fabricated metals products: +1.60 percent +1.82 percent +1.80 percent
non-electrical machinery: +2.76 percent +2.68 percent +2.44 percent
automotive vehicles & parts: +0.40 percent +0.42 percent +0.27 percent
household appliances: not available -4.10 percent not available
aerospace products & parts: not available +6.56 percent not available
In other words, as the private sector and manufacturing in general both generated greater employment increases in April than in March (the latter just barely), the metals-using sectors’ April gains were smaller than March’s, and the durable goods super-sector in which they’re all found could only match its March jobs improvement rate.
Further, one point to bear in mind about the numbers for household appliances. This sector includes the large household laundry machines that saw a separate set of tariffs imposed starting in February, 2018.
As usual, the impact of the President’s tariffs on products made in China are more difficult to judge for at least four reasons. First, an enormous number of manufacturing industries use Chinese inputs – and to greatly varying extents. Second, these levies only began in July, and then on a relatively small scale. Third, the list of products tariff-ed beginning in July matches up imperfectly at best with the sectoral classification scheme used by the Labor Department to track manufacturing employment. And fourth, most of the affected products are found in relatively narrow categories of manufactures, where the jobs data is one month behind.
To muddy the waters further, in late February, the President decided to suspend an increase slated to go into effect March 1 on tariffs that began in late September on $200 billion in imports from China. His stated reason: progress in the bilateral trade talks. The levies were to rise from 10 percent to 25 percent.
This morning, however, came another apparent about-face: Mr. Trump announced that the tariff hike suspension would end this coming Friday, and that 25 percent tariffs would go into effect on the remaining $325 billion worth of imports from China “shortly.”
So with all those provisos, here are the latest available employment statistics for some major manufacturing sectors that use the Chinese parts, components, and materials that have been slapped with tariffs since July. As far as I can tell, no clear trend jumps out.
July-Feb Old July-March New July-March July-April
private sector: +1.11 percent +1.24 percent +1.25 percent +1.44 percent
overall mfg: +1.00 percent +0.90 percent +1.00 percent +1.03 percent
aircraft engines +0.93 percent not available +1.39 percent not available
& engine parts:
industrial +2.46 percent not available +2.46 percent not available
oil & gas +5.83 percent not available + 6.11 percent not available
drilling platform parts:
farm mach +1.67 percent not available +0.33 percent not available
ball bearings: +1.82 percent not available +1.42 percent not available
Anyone seeking to evaluate the economic effects of the Trump tariffs in a serious manner should recognize that a useful verdict may not be visible for years. But all trends (and their reversals) begin at specific points in time. Further, until the release of the April jobs numbers, tariff supporters could easily demonstrate that the apocalyptic predictions of tariff opponents had not yet come close to appearing. At least for now, that particular case has become somewhat harder to make.