Even a monthly jobs report that clocked in exactly as expected, coming on the heels of the first interest rate cut in more than a decade, wasn’t enough to ease market jitters on Friday, after the White House vowed to slap tariffs on virtually all Chinese imports as of Sept. 1.
Ordinarily, economists said the labor market’s growth by 164,000 jobs in July — a figure almost exactly in line with expectations — would have affirmed the Federal Reserve’s characterization of its quarter-point rate cut this week as an “midcycle adjustment” rather than the start of a series of rate cuts. But President Donald Trump’s Thursday announcement that the United States will begin levying a 10 percent tariff on $300 billion of Chinese exports is likely to change that calculus.
“The tariffs provided some vindication to Powell. The tariffs will make a September cut an almost certainty,” said Dan North, chief economist at Euler Hermes North America.
Job gains have been slowing gradually, with a monthly average over three months of 140,000, after downward revisions made to May and June figures that pared the number of new jobs by 41,000. But unemployment held at 3.7 percent, while wage gains and labor force participation ticked up in July. Everything else being equal, economists agreed that Friday’s data should have been good news.
“I think it’s a very respectable report,” said Mark Hamrick, senior economic analyst at Bankrate.com.
Hamrick added that the central bank will have to parse the implications of how a cyclical deceleration of the long-running economic expansion could snowball in the face of a trade war. “There’s a sense that burgeoning trade tensions and the real impact they have on the real economy will likely keep the Federal Reserve watching closely,” he said. “[Slower growth] might have been expected, given that we’re deep into an economic expansion, but we don’t know how much that slowing has been exacerbated.”
Economists point to manufacturing as the most visible example of the trade war’s impact on jobs — and a clear example of the limitations of monetary policy to mitigate the impact. Although manufacturing companies added a relatively robust 16,000 jobs in the month of July, monthly job growth has averaged just 8,000, compared to an average 22,000 jobs added monthly in the sector last year.
“The slowing economy has contributed to this underperformance, but the administration has also committed some serious unforced errors,” Alliance for American Manufacturing President Scott Paul said in a statement, lambasting the White House for “promising big changes on trade outcomes, but delivering only an erratic tariff policy so far.”
“If you look at a lot of the indicators … we’re verging on a manufacturing recession,” North said, pointing to weakness in manufacturing activity and soft business investment.
A main goal of monetary policymakers when they lower interest rates is to stimulate business borrowing and investment. But economists say it’s the trade quagmire, not a lack of access to capital, that’s sidelining business growth today.
“Business investment has flatlined despite last year’s massive tax cuts to businesses. Now it’s showing up in jobs,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's Analytics, adding that an escalation of the trade war with China will spread the pain around to other labor market sectors such as transportation and retail.
Retailing has led job cut announcements to date,” Hamrick pointed out. “That’s going to be an area that feels a lot of pain if these threatened tariffs take place in a month.” Particularly in the context of back-to-school shopping and preparation for the holiday season, retailers face an unappealing choice: Cut jobs, or raise prices.
“You’ve got a kneecapping of the consumer that’s looming,” he said.
Jack McIntyre, portfolio manager at Brandywine Global, said the current pace of consumer spending is driving what he termed a “virtuous cycle” that feeds back on itself. But there also is a flip side to this confidence-driven momentum, he warned.
“The vicious cycle is companies are worried about tariffs, global growth — they’ve already cut back on capex,” McIntyre said, using an abbreviation for capital expenditure. Paring back hiring would be the next step — and economists say any jump in the unemployment rate, even if it comes from a low baseline, has harmful effects on consumer behavior.
“If you think about the consumer being the engine for 70 percent of economic activity, if the consumer is handicapped, then that engine begins to misfire,” Hamrick said. “Ultimately, it filters on through the rest of the economy.”