Sometimes the only good news is that there wasn't more bad news.
Take the September jobs report. The economy added 142,000 jobs when it was expected to add 201,000. It also turned out it added 59,000 fewer jobs than we thought it did in July and August. The unemployment rate stayed at 5.1 percent mostly for the bad reason that there were fewer people looking for work. And people didn't get anything even resembling a raise, with average hourly earnings still up a measly 2.2 percent the past year. For whatever reason, the economy seems to have hit a rough patch.
Now, this is the part where I remind you that there is a lot of randomness in a single jobs report. These numbers will get revised and revised again, so what looks like a bad month now might not in November or December. But that isn't much of a silver lining. That's because we're not talking about one bad jobs report. We're talking about two bad ones. It's not clear why, but, as you can see below, the economy seemed to have stalled out at the end of the summer. It went from adding a three-month average of 324,000 jobs last December to 167,000 today. Maybe the rest of the world slowing down is dragging us down. Or maybe just the expectation that the Federal Reserve would start increasing interest rates was enough to put a brake on things. Or maybe it's just random.
Whatever it is, though, it's a good reason to hold off on raising rates for now. After all, inflation is well below the Fed's 2 percent target; core inflation, which strips out volatile food and energy prices to better predict future inflation, is too, and wages are barely rising themselves. In short, there is nothing to suggest that the Fed needs to hike rates to stop the economy from overheating. It might not even be properly heated right now.
The most important word there is "might." We just don't know how much we should or shouldn't worry about this. Now, if you're a glass-half-full kind of person, you might point out that job growth was always going to come down as the pool of unemployed workers did. And that besides, 140,000 jobs a month should still be enough to bring unemployment down when, due to our aging workforce, we probably only need 80,000 now to keep things from getting worse. On the other hand, if that glass strikes you as half empty, you might reply that, sure, job growth was supposed to slow down, but by this much? The economy is creating half as many jobs as it was at the beginning of the year, and that might not be a fluke when you look at how much the rest of the world seems to be struggling. Maybe markets knew something when they sold off in August.
The thing about raising rates, though, is that you have to be sure. Now, increasing interest rates by 0.25 percentage points might not sound like a lot—and it isn't—but increasing them in the face of a weak economy would tell markets that the Fed is determined to do so no matter what. That would make people expect more interest rate hikes than they did before, which, in turn, would hurt the economy enough that the Fed would probably have to reverse course back to zero. That, at least, is what has happened to every other country that has tried to raise rates from zero in the past decade. And that's why you shouldn't try to do so unless you know you need to do so. If you raise rates before you should, you'll end up having to cut them before you want, and get stuck back at zero for longer than you otherwise would have been.
The only thing we know is we don't know if we should raise rates—which is enough reason not to.