A Surprisingly Weak Payrolls Report For August

Ouch! That stings. The private sector created substantially fewer jobs in August than expected, according to this morning’s monthly update from the US Labor Department. Private payrolls increased 134,000 last month, far below the consensus forecast that anticipated a gain of 220,000, according to Econoday.com’s estimate. Even worse, the August rise is the weakest so far this year. Compared with July’s 213,000 gain, the tepid advance in August looks troubling. But there are several reasons for reserving judgment on whether today’s release warrants a radical downsizing of expectations.

Despite today’s disappointing monthly number, payrolls continue to increase at a low-2% year-over-year pace. That’s an encouraging trend that’s been around for a while and it’s not obvious in today’s report that it’s set to fade. In addition, a number of other macro indicators have been strong lately, including this week’s August releases on the manufacturing and services sectors via the ISM data. Also, yesterday’s ADP estimate of private payrolls for last month is significantly higher than the goverment’s numbers, which suggests that today’s weak estimate may be revised up in the months ahead. And let’s not forget that weekly jobless claims, a valuable leading indicator for the labor market, remains close to a post-recession low. In sum, today’s monthly change via the Labor Department data looks like an outlier at the moment.

Even if we take today’s soft monthly comparison at face value, it’s not unprecedented relative to recent history. As the chart below reminds, the monthly changes in private-sector employment (red line) have been fluctuating around the +200,000 mark for several years. Today’s number is clearly near the low end of those fluctuations, but we’ve been here before only to see the monthly data perk up again. When and if we see the monthly change sink even lower, below its recent floor and persistently so, we’ll have a genuinely dark signal. But it’s far too early to pull the fire alarm at this stage, in part because the annual rate of growth in private payrolls continues to rise at a 2%-plus rate through August—2.12% vs. a year ago, to be precise (black line). That’s down a touch from the 2.17% increase in July, but the fact remains that private-sector employment is still growing above the 2% mark. Today’s data also shows that private employment rose more than 2% on an annual basis for the sixth straight month.

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Granted, today’s report strikes a blow against the argument that US economic growth is accelerating. At the same time, there’s still a good case for expecting moderate growth to persist for the near term. Arguing otherwise because of one weak data point is highly speculative at this point.

This piece is cross-posted from The Capital Spectator with permission.