As we approach the end of 2019, it’s important to keep the long-run perspective on economic health in mind, but also investigate new trends that have emerged in the last several months that need to be closely monitored. Two concerning trends are the slowdown in nominal wage growth as well as the slowdown in payroll employment growth.
Let’s start with payroll employment growth. On its face, the pace of job growth in 2019 hasn’t been particularly troubling. The economy continues to move in the right direction—though at a slightly slower pace than the last couple of years—soaking up sidelined workers as the unemployment rate remains at historically low levels. But, when you factor in the preliminary benchmark revisions—which showed a half million fewer jobs created between April 2018 and March 2019—the data indicate weaker employment growth this year than originally reported. The final benchmark revisions won’t be released until the January 2020 employment numbers are released in February, but the preliminary release is troubling. And large downward revisions are sometimes associated with early signs of a recession because it means the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)’s model for predicting the births and deaths of firms is off, often accompanied by a turning point in the economy. These revisions don’t tell us a recession is necessary on the immediate horizon, but they are certainly something to keep in mind as the year winds down.
While the topline numbers are important to track, it’s also important to look under the hood. Manufacturing employment, for instance, has exhibited a notable slowdown in employment growth this year. The figure below shows the month-to-month change in manufacturing employment over the last two years with two important modifications. First, I’m using a three-month moving average to smooth the volatility in the series. Second, I’m removing the effect of the 46,000 striking GM workers that depressed the October numbers.
This obvious slowdown in manufacturing employment is troubling in itself, but the reason to look more closely at manufacturing isn’t simply because it’s a significant share of the economy (10% of private-sector employment) and historically has been a place for decent non-college jobs—largely due to the relatively high levels of unionization in that sector in the past. Manufacturing is one of the most cyclical sectors, bested only by construction (among major industries) in its prediction of upcoming economic slowdowns. And, construction isn’t looking too hot either. Average monthly construction job growth so far in 2019 is about half as fast as it was in 2018. This does not mean we are necessarily headed toward a recession, but this is certainly an indicator to keep an eye on in coming months.
The Federal Reserve is doing the right thing by cutting the federal funds rate this year, helping to keep the economy from stalling and for workers to hopefully see stronger wage growth. The figure below shows year-over-year nominal wage growth over the last several years. After rising to 3.4% in February 2019, the rate of growth has been tapering off. Wage growth is now back down to 3.0% over the year, significantly lower than levels consistent with inflation targets and productivity potential. This is slower than expected given that the unemployment rate has been at or below 4.0% for 20 months in a row. All else equal, the relative scarcity of workers should be driving up wages as employers have to compete to attract and retain the workers they want.
The lack of wage growth indicates there continues to be more slack in the economy than the unemployment rate would suggest. In October, the prime-age employment to population ratio finally hit its pre-Great Recession level, but it remains significantly lower than where it was in 2000. Signs of slightly stronger wage growth among the approximately 82% of workers in production/nonsupervisory jobs is promising, but doesn’t warrant celebration on its own because, as the figure shows, periods of stronger wage growth for production/nonsupervisory workers in this recovery tend to be followed by periods of relatively weaker growth.
All told, employment growth continues to be strong enough to keep up with population growth and pull in sidelined workers, but it’s important to keep closely watching overall trends in employment and wage growth with an eye on indications of turning points in the labor market.