Payrolls rose by 266,000 last month and the unemployment rate ticked down slightly to 3.5%. Hourly wage growth for all private sector workers remained where it has been, up 3.1%, year-over-year, while the pay of lower-wage workers–the 82% of payroll employment that’s blue collar in factories and non-managers in services–has been trending up a bit, and was up 3.7% last month (a slight tick down from 3.8% in October). With inflation running around 2%, this translates into solid real wage gains for these workers. The stronger trend for lower-paid workers is also a reminder of who disproportionately benefits from persistently high-pressure labor markets.
The November jobs number of 266K was boosted by the return of almost 50,000 strikers due to the end of the GM strike. Thus, much like we discounted the loss of those workers in the previous month’s jobs report, we should discount their return (I discuss the trend in manufacturing employment below). Even so, our monthly smoother implies, if anything, there’s been a slight acceleration in job gains in recent months (the smoother averages monthly payroll gains over 3, 6, and 12-month windows, and thus smooths out the strike effect).
In tandem with the wage results, payroll gains of this magnitude suggest that the persistently high-pressure labor market is boosting labor supply at both the extensive and intensive margins, i.e., pulling people in and adding hours for incumbent workers. I often stress the positive wage effects of high pressure labor markets, but the supply effects are structurally important, as they imply the potential for increased economic capacity. Fans of economic theory will recognize this as reversed “Say’s Law.” That is, Say’s Law, which is now widely viewed as erroneous, argued “supply creates demand.” It appears more accurate to argue that demand–in this case, persistently strong demand for labor–creates (labor) supply.
A hugely important policy question is whether that supply lasts past the next recession. This will surely require employment-oriented policies to avoid last-hired, first-fired outcomes when demand eventually lags. Such policies include subsidized employment, training, and apprenticeship programs.
Turning to one key, and less favorable, recent sectoral development, many different data sources have shown weakness in manufacturing employment, driven by the trade war and slower global growth. What is sometimes not emphasized enough in this context is that both of these factors tend to put upward pressure of the US dollar. As trade economist Rob Scott pointed out in a recent op-ed: “The dollar has climbed 10 percent since the tariffs first took effect in March 2018, and has also risen 11 percent against the [Chinese] yuan in the same period. This lowers the cost of imports and raises the cost of U.S. exports…”
As the next figure shows (and note the figure smooths out the strike effects), there’s but a large deceleration in manufacturing job gains as the above-named factors have seriously dinged manufacturing activity.
The U.S. job market continues to post impressive job gains. While overall wage trends remain stalled, those of lower-paid workers serve as a reminder of one of the benefits of high-pressure job markets. At the micro-level, especially given low inflation, this means real paycheck gains for working Americans. At the macro-level, it means we can expect the American consumer to continue to fuel the already record-long expansion. Against this broadly favorable backdrop, Trump’s trade war is a clear negative, demonstrably hurting factory workers.