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One of the biggest questions raised by the new (lousy) manufacturing results of this morning’s monthly U.S. jobs report concerns whether industry’s dismal recent performance is being impacted more by President Trump’s tariff-heavy trade policies or by Boeing’s aircraft safety woes. The bulk of the evidence released this morning seems to point to the trade wars as the continuing main culprit, but also to some Boeing-related puzzles. 

Overall, the sector lost 12,000 jobs on month in December – its worst such result (excluding October, whose figures were distorted by the General Motors strike) since August, 2016’s 23,000 decrease).  Moreover, the year-end annual manufacturing jobs gain of 46,000 was the lowest such figure since 2016’s 7,000 loss.  (For comparison’s sake, 2018’s annual manufacturing employment increase of 264,000 was the best such result since 1997’s 304,000.  

The trade wars evidence for the recent deterioration comes in the form of comparisons between the major metals-using industries during the early months following the imposition of tariffs on steel and aluminum, and afterwards (when many Trump critics argue that the trade curbs’ impact began sinking in). As always, the impact of Mr. Trump’s levies on imports from China remain too diffused throughout the manufacturing sector – and too unevenly so – to be gauged reliably. For good measure, they’ve also been threatened and applied in a confusing, on-and-off manner, and the recent Phase One trade deal and announcement of follow-on negotiations looks unlikely to end much of the measurement uncertainty.

First, here are the data on employment changes in those metals-using sectors from April, 2018 (the first full month during which the tariffs were in effect) through last month. Figures for the U.S. private sector overall, manufacturing overall, and manufacturing’s durable goods super-sector (in which most of the main metals users are classified) are included for comparison’s sake. Keep in mind that the results for household appliances also reflect a separate set of tariffs for large household laundry machines that have been in place since February, 2018.

                                                  Old thru Nov      New thru Nov       Thru Dec

entire private sector:                +2.82 percent      +2.81 percent    +2.92 percent

overall manufacturing:            +1.83 percent      +1.84 percent    +1.75 percent

durable goods:                         +1.99 percent      +2.02 percent    +1.94 percent

fabricated metals products:     +1.51 percent       +1.45 percent   +0.96 percent

non-electrical machinery:       +1.26 percent       +1.56 percent   +1.37 percent

automotive vehicles & parts:   -0.45 percent        -0.73 percent    -0.81 percent

household appliances*:            not available        -5.84 percent     not available

aerospace products & parts*:  not available        +9.02 percent     not available

*data are one month behind

There’s no mistaking that net new hiring in the metals-using sectors has been slower than in the rest of manufacturing and the private sector. As is clear from the table below, that’s a substantial change from the early post-metals tariffs period (presented here as April, 2018 through December, 2018 and January, 2019), when most metals-users were leaders in boosting payrolls:

                                                                Thru December           Thru January

entire private sector:                                +1.36 percent            +1.60 percent

overall manufacturing:                            +1.39 percent            +1.49 percent

durable goods:                                         +1.72 percent            +1.97 percent

fabricated metals products:                     +1.57 percent            +1.78 percent

non-electrical machinery:                        +2.33 percent           +2.57 percent

automotive vehicles & parts:                   +1.07 percent           +1.15 percent

household appliances:                              -2.05 percent –           2.52 percent

aerospace products & parts:                    +5.47 percent           +5.87 percent

But what about the Boeing effect – which figures to be considerable given the major role played by the aircraft and aerospace giant not only in American industry but the entire economy? As the data below show, the impact of the company’s production slowdown and more recent suspension of the previously best-selling but flawed 737 Max model (not to mention worldwide groundings) is anything but clear-cut. Presented here are the job change figures for aircraft and related parts industries, along with the numbers for other major supplier industries and the usual comparison sectors for the eight months preceding and following the announcement of global 737 Max groundings last March. The latest available data for the aerospace-specific industries only go through November, so that’s the final month used for the entire table.

                                                 July, 2018 thru March           March thru Nov

entire private sector:                     +1.38 percent                    +1.03 percent

overall manufacturing:                 +0.98 percent                    +0.28 percent

durable goods:                              +1.17 percent                    +0.11 percent

fabricated metals products:          +0.89 percent                     -0.31 percent

non-electrical machinery:            +1.38 percent                     -1.16 percent

aerospace products & parts:        +4.34 percent                    +2.27 percent

aircraft:                                        +6.59 percent                    +2.09 percent

aircraft engines & engine parts:  +1.04 percent                    +3.67 percent

non-engine aircraft parts/equip: +3.06 percent                     +1.22 percent

The pattern seems to show employment slowdowns nearly across the board. But the two non-aerospace-specific supplier industries – fabricated metals and non-electrical machinery – saw net hiring increases turn into net hiring decreases. Moreover, in aircraft engines and engine parts, payroll improvements actually accelerated.

At least some of this apparent paradox might result from the November end date used here. Boeing didn’t decide to suspend outright production of the troubled model until December 16, and the decision won’t even go into effect until sometime this month. Indeed, the company initially announced that no layoffs were accompanying the halt, although significant workforce reduction plans were finally made public yesterday. In this vein, reports of actual supply chain employment effects didn’t begin appearing until mid-December. Moreover, it’s possible that employment pain has been felt by the non-aerospace-specific companies in Boeing’s vast domestic supply chain before it spread to the aerospace-related firms.

So the safest bottom line so far seems to be this: Contributors to manufacturing’s recent jobs slump might now include both trade war- and non trade war-related developments. And anyone singling out one or the other deserves considerable skepticism.