Job market still strong for 2020 — but red flags abound

Manufacturing is in contraction, and that trend doesn’t seem likely to reverse anytime soon, economists agree.
Image: A welder works during production at the Life Fitness manufacturing facility in Falmouth, Kentucky, on April 9, 2015.
A manufacturing facility in Falmouth, Kentucky, in 2015.Luke Sharrett / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

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By Martha C. White

The final word on American jobs in 2019 was more whimper than bang, with the number of jobs added coming in slightly below expectations at 145,000, even as unemployment remained at 3.5 percent and underemployment hit a record low.

Labor market observers said the gradual deceleration of job growth was to be expected at this stage of the economic cycle, and that positive signs are mixed with a number of potential red flags for 2020.

“People shouldn’t be shocked by the fact that the unemployment rate is bottoming,” said Mark Hamrick, senior economic analyst at Bankrate.com.

“There’s been some slowing, but in 2019, the economy was very strong by historical standards,” said Andrew Chamberlain, chief economist at Glassdoor.com. “Job growth is slowing, but 2018 may have been artificially inflated with the federal tax cut,” he said.

The big question is whether this stamina can be sustained through 2020. Experts say the answer hinges on trade, and how far the beleaguered retail sector still has to fall.

“We expect to see that downtrend continue in the labor market and the economy in general in 2020,” said Dan North, chief economist at Euler Hermes North America. “People focus on the non-farm payrolls and the unemployment rate. Those are lagging indicators.”

Manufacturing is in contraction, and that trend doesn’t seem likely to reverse anytime soon.

Conversely, forward-looking measures, including weekly job openings and an unemployment index produced by the San Francisco Federal Reserve, show a less rosy picture, North said. “You’ve basically seen a 10-year trend up in job openings, and the past few months, that’s started to go down. It’s harder to create jobs if there are fewer of them that are open,” he said. “You may not see it tomorrow, but in the next few months I think you’re going to see a slide in the labor market. I think it’ll be broad-based,” he predicted.

Economists say there is evidence of growing fatigue, particularly in goods-producing sectors, where December gains of 20,000 jobs in the construction sector still weren’t enough to offset the loss of 21,000 jobs in manufacturing, logging and mining.

“The decline in manufacturing jobs — that was a bit of a surprise after the phase one trade deal,” said Sameer Samana, senior global market strategist at the Wells Fargo Investment Institute. “It’s definitely worrisome, and definitely worth watching,” he said.

“The trend in manufacturing is clear and doesn’t seem likely to reverse anytime soon. If you look globally, manufacturing is in contraction,” North said. “You’d point to trade naturally as a headwind there.”

“I think the biggest risk facing the economy today is trade,” Chamberlain said, adding that the deal between the U.S. and China set to be signed next week is unlikely to be much more than a temporary reprieve. “I view the phase one deal as a Band-Aid on a bigger wound facing the economy [because] we’re more globally integrated than ever before,” he said.

North added that the loss of 10,000 jobs in the transportation sector likely is a knock-on effect of the manufacturing slump. “It’s no surprise that transportation is down… and it makes sense with the global trade situation,” he said.

Glassdoor’s Chamberlain said that his firm’s internal data is suggestive of a slowdown in in these sectors for 2020. “We actually saw U.S. job posting volume on our platform down 1.8 percent from a year ago. And it seems to be concentrated in transportation and logistics and retail,” he said. “This is a relatively new development. It’s hard to say whether it’s the beginning of a bigger trend,” he said. “It’s one thing that does concern me.”

Although the retail sector showed a surprising gain of 41,000 jobs in December, this doesn’t indicate that the sector’s struggles are over, Hamrick said. “There’s no reason to think that diminishes anytime soon,” he said, pointing to sliding holiday sales at Macy’s, Kohl’s and JCPenney. “The reality is that some of these legacy players in retail are fighting a losing battle.”

This means that the retail sector is likely to continue to weigh on the labor market in 2020, economists say. “Total holiday sales were up,” North said. “When you see same-store sales shrinking for those stores and the rest of the world is growing, that’s not a good sign.”