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This morning’s August jobs report from the U.S. Labor Department was mediocre news for the American economy as a whole, but it finally brought some good news for opponents of President Trump’s trade policies. For the new monthly numbers, plus the latest set of benchmark revisions, finally revealed some notable damage to hiring in U.S. manufacturing in industries exposed the longest and most consistently to the tariffs he’s imposed.

Although it’s now gotten just about futile to measure the effect of Mr. Trump’s China policies – because of the on-again-off-again nature of his tariff and tariff threats, and because their future is still so cloudy – the President’s levies on steel and aluminum date from March, 2018 and most have stayed in place. Therefore, we have a solid idea over a respectable length of time over how these measures have affected manufacturing overall – as Trump critics have noted, not simply for the industries that have received trade protection, but for those (collectively much larger) sectors that use the two metals to make their final products.

As RealityChek regulars know, for many months following the metals tariffs’ imposition, these sectors had actually been outperforming not only the rest of manufacturing but the rest of the private sector economy on several fronts. (See, e.g., here and here.)

But the August jobs report makes clear that those days are over, at least for now. Below, as usual, are the figures for these main metals-using sectors since April, 2018 (the first full month in which the metals tariffs were in effect), along with the hiring statistics for two control groups: manufacturing overall, and the private sector overall.

                                                        Old thru July      New thru July      Thru August

entire private sector:                      +2.13 percent     +2.22 percent      +2.30 percent

overall manufacturing:                  +1.69 percent     +1.71 percent      +1.73 percent

durable goods:                               +2.10 percent     +2.10 percent      +2.10 percent

fabricated metals products:            +1.71 percent    +1.69 percent      +1.58 percent

non-electrical machinery:              +2.73 percent    +2.34 percent      +2.19 percent

automotive vehicles & parts:         +0.33 percent    -0.01 percent           0 percent

household appliances*:                   not available    -7.57 percent         not available

aerospace products & parts*:          not available   +8.36 percent         not available

*data are one month behind

As these figures demonstrate, except for aerospace (and oddly, because of Boeing’s safety troubles and their impact on this giant manufacturer’s sales and orders), all of the metals-using sectors are now under-performing the rest of industry and the private sector when it comes to net new job creation. And all except aerospace have displayed weaker relative momentum. (Don’t forget that the appliances totals have been affected not only by the metals tariffs, but by a separate set of product-specific tariffs levied on large household laundry equipment the month before.) 

The policy questions raised are whether these results mean either that Trump should rethink his decision to confront China’s economic and technological predation, or whether he should change tactics. My own answer is “No” in each case, since the stakes of countering China are so great, the losses are still small, and since the economy, manufacturing generally, and the metals-using industries could easily be revived – and strongly – with a big domestic infrastructure building and repair program. But the August jobs report does further undercut the President’s claim that “Trade wars are good, and easy to win.”

Meanwhile, the actual August manufacturing numbers and the revisions are worth examining. August’s 3,000 net monthly gain in manufacturing payrolls was the worst such improvement since May’s 2,000. And the revisions for July were nothing less than stunning: An initially reported 16,000 jobs sequential increase has been downgraded to 4,000 (a result that’s still preliminary). June’s downgrade was smaller – from a 12,000 advance to 10,000. But the initial estimate was 17,000, so the trend looks comparably bad.

Moreover, if the new (preliminary) August figure holds, it would produce the worst year-on-year manufacturing jobs performance (up 138,000) since September, 2017 (123,000). Last August’s year-on-year manufacturing employment advance, moreover, was nearly twice as strong – 256,000.

That July revision was so big that it could justify some hope that subsequent reevaluations will generate significantly upside surprises. President Trump, moreover, can still brag that manufacturing job creation during his first thirty months in office (up 467,00, or 3.77 percent since February, 2017) has considerably exceeded that of former President Obama’s final thirty months (up 179,000, or 1.47 percent). But hopes are just that. And many more months like the last few, and the Trump manufacturing jobs record will start looking awfully similar to that of his predecessor – both economically and politically.