The momentum in the American labor market slowed in August, but the economy still added a solid 151,000 jobs last month, according to government data released Friday morning.
The Labor Department reported that the unemployment rate remained unchanged at 4.9 percent. The pace of job growth and the stagnant unemployment rate were slightly more disappointing than analysts had anticipated, though they were not weak enough to indicate that the recovery has been derailed.
“Job growth in August was respectable though not spectacular,” said Harry Holzer, former chief economist at the Labor Department and a professor at Georgetown University.
The food service industry — that is, bars and restaurants — did much of the hiring last month, adding 34,000 positions. Financial services grew by 20,000 jobs, with particular growth in securities, commodity contracts and investment. The health-care industry expanded by 14,000 positions, though that was less than half the sector’s average monthly gain over the past year.
On Wall Street, all three major indexes moved higher on Friday, each gaining roughly 0.4 percentage points. Investors may be betting that the Federal Reserve will be reluctant to hike its benchmark interest rate in the wake of the surprisingly soft data. The value of the U.S. dollar dropped to its lowest level in a week when the data was released but finished the day moderately higher.
“There is scope for the Fed to be patient,” said James Marple, senior economist at TD Economics.
But despite August’s weaker-than-expected results, America’s job market has been one of the bright spots in the recovery. Since the start of the year, job growth has outpaced the performance of the broader economy, which has averaged a tepid annual growth rate of less than 1 percent. Some analysts point to a steep — but hopefully temporary — decline in inventories as one of the chief culprits. But others worry that weak investment among businesses will prove more persistent and potentially depress growth for years to come.
The manufacturing industry, which includes energy producers, has been under particular duress, pummeled by the decline in oil prices and the stronger U.S. dollar. It shed 4,000 jobs in August, according to government data. Since employment peaked in 2014, the industry has lost 223,000 jobs.
In addition, a closely watched index from the Institute for Supply Management released this week showed the sector contracted in August after expanding for the past five months. The index has averaged just 50.2 over the past year, the lowest 12-month reading since the economy was climbing out of the Great Recession in 2010, according to research from Deutsche Bank.
The mixed data creates a complicated picture for the Fed as it debates when to resume withdrawing its support for the recovery. The central bank is charged with fostering maximum employment and stable prices, and in December, it raised its benchmark interest rate amid signs that the economy was picking up steam. It has yet to move again, though officials have hinted that the moment may be drawing closer.
In a speech last week, Fed Chair Janet Yellen said she believed the case for a rate hike had “strengthened,” but she did not commit to a specific date. The central bank’s top officials will convene in Washington later this month, and the Atlanta Fed's president, Dennis Lockhart, said in a recent interview that he believes a “serious discussion” over whether to act would likely be warranted.
“I’m not calling at this stage for a rate hike. I’m not even sure I will support it,” Lockhart told The Washington Post. “But I’m calling for a discussion if what we see now persists until mid-September.”
Traditionally, an improving job market leads to higher wages for workers and, eventually, higher prices throughout the economy. Some analysts — including some Fed officials — have argued that the recovery is nearing that tipping point, if it hasn’t reached it already. That would mean the Fed should raise rates again soon to avoid an overheating economy in the future.
But the recovery from the Great Recession has confounded many experts and raised fundamental questions about the nature of inflation and the factors driving economic growth. The government data released Friday showed gains in workers’ wages were tempered in August. Average hourly earnings rose 3 cents to $25.73, up about 2.4 percent over the past year.
In addition, despite strong job growth throughout the year, the unemployment rate has remained around 5 percent. Kevin Logan, chief U.S. economist at HSBC, said the data in August would likely not be enough to convince the Fed to raise rates this month.
“This is certainly not compelling, even by their own logic,” said Kevin Logan, chief U.S. economist at HSBC.
Another potential complication could be the U.S. presidential election. Though the Fed’s interest rate decisions are independent of the political process, many analysts believe officials would be loath to rock the boat before the vote in November. An analysis by Tara Sinclair, chief economist at job site Indeed.com and a professor at George Washington University, found that the Fed has hiked rates in the two months before a presidential election only once in the past 70 years.
Dissatisfaction with the recovery has been a central theme of Republican nominee Donald Trump’s campaign. In previous speeches, he has called the unemployment rate “a hoax” and argued for a radical rethinking of America’s free trade agreements.
“The August jobs report shows the stagnant Clinton-Obama economy fails to deliver the jobs Americans desperately need,” said David Malpass, Trump’s senior economic adviser.
Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton has pushed for increasing the minimum wage and spending on infrastructure to create more jobs. In an interview, Labor Secretary Thomas E. Perez said added immigration reform to the list and argued that those policies together could help push the jobless rate down even further.
“The formula for getting down to 4 percent [unemployment] is a pretty straightforward formula,” he said. “Mustering the political will is a different story.”
But no matter who wins the White House, many economists are hoping that gridlock in Washington will break long enough for the new administration to pass policies that will boost growth.
“We would expect a looser fiscal [policy] to be pursued from next year, almost independent of the election outcome,” said Joe Quinlan, a head of strategy at U.S. Trust.