Today’s U.S. jobs report (for September) contained much better news for President Trump and his supporters in terms of the economy’s overall performance than it did in terms of his trade policies. American employment on net rose by a decent 136,000 sequentially last month, and the revisions (which boosted the July and August numbers by a total of 45,000) were especially encouraging.
But payrolls in domestic manufacturing – a sector heavily exposed to trade – shrank month-to-month by 2,000. That decline was the first such dip since March’s 3,000. And despite the big positive revisions in overall employment, manufacturing’s left its modest recent hiring record virtually unchanged.
Worse for the President, manufacturing’s metals-using industries in September continued their worrisome recent transition from employment out-performers for the first half year or so after the first duties on steel and aluminum were levied to employment laggards.
Moreover, although manufacturing employment does face two obstacles having nothing to do with the Mr. Trump’s trade wars – Boeing’s safety woes and the strike that began last month against General Motors – damage from the former isn’t yet evident in the jobs data, and the latter probably began too recently to be showing up in the numbers yet.
The impact of the much broader China tariffs remained as elusive as ever, largely because of the on-again, off-again nature of the President’s policies, along with changes and threatened changes in tariff rates on so many goods. But even if Mr. Trump was a model of consistency on this score, the China levies’ effects would be fiendishly difficult to gauge because manufacturing inputs from China are used so broadly but so unevenly by domestic manufacturers.
By contrast, the trends for the metals-using industries look clear enough. This time, I’ll present not only their employment changes since April, 2018 (the first full month in which the metals levies were in effect) and September, but the same employment changes for an earlier post-tariff period. First, the latest numbers:
Old thru Aug New thru Aug Thru Sept
entire private sector: +2.30 percent +2.31 percent +2.40 percent
overall manufacturing: +1.73 percent +1.73 percent +1.71 percent
durable goods: +2.10 percent +2.10 percent +2.05 percent
fabricated metals products: +1.58 percent +1.56 percent +1.36 percent
non-electrical machinery: +2.19 percent +2.20 percent +1.95 percent
automotive vehicles & parts: 0 percent -0.23 percent -0.69 percent
household appliances*: not available -6.31 percent not available
aerospace products & parts*: not available +8.38 percent not available
*data are one month behind
The loss of the metals-using sectors’ employment momentum in relative and absolute terms can be easily seen. But the more important comparison is between the above figures and those below, which present these trends for the first 10 months of the metals tariffs.
Old thru Dec New thru Dec Thru Jan
entire private sector: +1.37 percent +1.36 percent +1.60 percent
overall manufacturing: +1.45 percent +1.39 percent +1.49 percent
durable goods: +1.67 percent +1.72 percent +1.97 percent
fabricated metals products: +1.75 percent +1.57 percent +1.78 percent
non-electrical machinery: +2.20 percent +2.33 percent +2.57 percent
automotive vehicles & parts: +0.77 percent +1.07 percent +1.15 percent
household appliances*: not available -2.21 percent not available
aerospace products & parts*: not available +5.51 percent not available
*data are one month behind
This table shows that except for the household appliances sector (which has faced a separate, product-specific set of tariffs on large household laundry equipment since February, 2018), and automotive, the metals-using sectors were creating new employment at a considerably faster pace than both the overall private economy and overall manufacturing. And automotive was closing the gap.
Aside from trade, the White House, and everyone seeking the best for the U.S. economy, should also be troubled by the drop in September in the year-on-year manufacturing jobs increase to 117,000. That’s the worst such performance since August, 2017’s 112,000 and less than half the rate of the previous September annual improvement (266,000).
Better news for Trump-ers? Manufacturing job creation during the first 31 months of the Trump presidency is still much better (464,000) than during the last 31 months of former President Barack Obama’s administration (198,000).
Matters look better for the President (and manufacturing workers) on the wages front. Although industry’s pre-inflation hourly pay only inched up on month by 0.07 percent, that result beat the 0.04 percent dip for the overall private sector. (The Labor Department, which tracks the employment and wages figures, doesn’t monitor public sector wages since they’re set largely by politicians’ decisions, not largely by market forces. Therefore, they say almost nothing about the state of the labor market or the economic in general.)
Moreover, this relatively good manufacturing’s wage performance continued a slow relative catch up trend that began this year. Since January, current-dollar private sector pay is up 1.92 percent, versus 2.20 percent for manufacturing workers.
All the same, since the current economic recovery began, in mid-2009, private sector wages have risen by 26.87 percent. Manufacturing’s increase? Only 21.03 percent. And these manufacturing wages rose faster during the last 31 months of the Obama presidency (6.04 percent) than during the first 31 months of the Trump administration (5.53 percent).
The safest economic conclusion seems to be that manufacturing hiring is hardly in the dumps – as suggested by the latest (also September) soft data from the Institute for Supply Management. Nor does this looks like a “Tariff-mageddon” is upon us. But manufacturing job creation is also well off 2018’s robust pace, and the more so in major trade-affected industries . And its underlying situation will as more difficult to describe the Boeing and General Motors effects become visible (assuming the auto strike isn’t settled quickly).
But as cautious as that analysis is, the political implications as the 2020 presidential campaign heats up are even murkier. For barring a dramatic change in the manufacturing picture, they’ll depend on voters deciding whether the Trump manufacturing, trade, and overall economic record are good enough.