Jun 27, 2019

The U.S. jobs market is starting to worry economists

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

The U.S. jobs market, having long been the bedrock of the nation's economic expansion, is starting to worry economists ahead of next week's payroll data.

What's happening: After years of remarkably smooth sailing, 2019 has brought market volatility and some concern about whether the economy can keep adding jobs at a fast enough pace to sustain the expansion.

What we're hearing: Job gains don't necessarily have to turn negative to signal trouble, Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's Analytics, told Axios at a labor market conference hosted by payroll processor ADP this week.

All that's required is a strong slowdown in job growth. A 0.5% increase from a cyclical low on the unemployment rate has accurately predicted every recession in recent history and has never been a false positive, as Brookings economist Claudia Sahm noted recently.

  • "Once unemployment starts to rise, even from a very low level, it undermines confidence, and the only difference between an expanding economy and a recessionary one is faith," Zandi said.
  • "A recession is a collective loss of faith, and people lose faith when they start seeing unemployment rise."

Why now? A slowdown is not that unlikely, given the state of the labor market. The unemployment rate is at a 50-year low — it was 3.6% in May — and employers are reporting more trouble finding people to hire.

  • In a poll of small business owners conducted in May, 25% said that finding qualified workers was their No. 1 problem, according to the National Federation of Independent Business.
  • The trade war also is adding stress to the economy, but so far the effects have been concentrated in the trade and export sectors, which make up a small piece of overall employment.

What to watch: The all-important services side of the economy has been strong, but is beginning to feel the impact of the tight labor market, said Ahu Yildirmaz, co-head of ADP Research Institute. The number of job openings exceeded the number of unemployed Americans by the largest margin on record in April.

  • "Let's remember you need approximately 100,000 net new jobs to keep the economy moving. We're still above that level, however there are so many other factors," she said.
  • "If you look at the last couple months, the jobs numbers were really, really volatile."

The bottom line: Another blowout print like January's, which showed 312,000 jobs added, will calm a lot of jitters.

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Subscribe to Mike Allen's Axios AM to follow our coronavirus coverage each morning from your inbox.

The weirdest NBA draft ever

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The 2020 NBA draft was already shaping up to be the weirdest draft in years, and now that the coronavirus pandemic has disrupted the sports world, it could be the weirdest draft ever.

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