The first employment report since Donald Trump began his presidency showed the U.S. labor market expanding at a healthy pace. Companies added 227,000 jobs in January, though wage growth was slower than many expected, a sign that the economy still likely has room to grow before almost all workers who want a job can find one.
Although the report was based on surveys conducted with households and businesses in the week of Jan. 12, while President Barack Obama was still in office, President Trump and his administration appeared to take credit for the strong showing. At a meeting with business leaders on Friday morning, Trump said his administration was “very happy” with the numbers, adding that there is “great spirit in the country right now.”
“I think that it’s gonna continue big league,” Trump said. “We’re bringing back jobs, we’re bringing down your taxes, we’re getting rid of your regulations. I think it’s gonna be some really very exciting times ahead.”
White House press secretary Sean Spicer went further in his afternoon briefing. “Today’s report reflects the consumer confidence that the Trump presidency has inspired,” he said.
On the campaign trail and after his election, Trump questioned the accuracy of the official unemployment rate, calling it “phony” and a “joke.” He also accused the Labor Department of doctoring its figures to cast a more flattering light on the Obama economy.
On Feb. 2, House Democrats sent a letter to President Trump asking whether he would consistently stand behind the monthly jobs data. When “independent analysis of the nation’s labor market is mocked, politicized, and baselessly attacked, it not only delegitimizes the [Bureau of Labor Statistics’] critically important work. It also erodes the public’s trust,” they wrote.
Since taking office two weeks ago, Trump has delivered a whirlwind of executive orders — banning entrants from seven majority-Muslim countries, freezing regulations and government hiring, and ordering federal agencies to loosen their enforcement of the Affordable Care Act, among other actions.
Later on Friday, Trump signed an executive order to ease financial reform regulations, known as Dodd-Frank, that were adopted to rein in Wall Street after the 2008 financial crisis. He also signed a separate presidential memorandum asking the Labor Department to review the “fiduciary rule,” which requires financial professionals to put their clients’ interests ahead of their own and which was to go into effect in April.
So far, business leaders and investors appear to be looking favorably on Trump’s pledges to slash taxes, reduce regulations and pump money into infrastructure though tax credits, hoping they will boost growth.
Tom Gimbel, founder and chief executive of the staffing and recruiting firm LaSalle Network, said he had seen expectations for Trump’s actions to benefit the business sector moderate somewhat in recent weeks. But overall, companies remain positive about the direction of the economy and the policy changes Trump vows to make.
“The CEOs, chief financial officers and heads of human resources that we’re talking to are still very bullish,” Gimbel said.
“If you’re a CEO, you may be licking your chops anticipating reduced regulations. But on the other hand, you’re looking over your shoulder wondering if you’re going to be the next target of a tweet,” said Mark Hamrick, senior economic analyst at Bankrate.com. The president has used his Twitter account to criticize companies such as defense contractor Lockheed Martin and General Motors.
Trump has inherited a relatively robust labor market, economists say. Companies are still vigorously hiring more than six years into the current economic expansion, and the unemployment rate has fallen to 4.8 percent, roughly in line with pre-financial crisis levels.
Yet the new administration still faces some challenges. One was highlighted by Friday’s jobs report, which showed wages rising only 2.5 percent in January compared with the year before, slower than the 2.8 percent growth seen in December. That surprised some analysts, who had expected minimum-wage increases that went into effect in 19 states in January to push up worker pay.
Scott Anderson, chief economist at Bank of the West, called the wage data “a bit of a disappointment. The Fed and economists have been thinking that since we’re starting to approach full employment, we would see more of an increase in wages. We think it’s coming — it’s just not quite here yet.”
Sluggish wage growth may reflect the kinds of jobs that were created last month, said Beth Ann Bovino, U.S. chief economist at S&P Global Ratings. Many of the new jobs were in the retail industry and other lower-paid sectors, which might have brought down average wages, she said.
Compared to other presidents in the last century, Trump is taking office at a time when the unemployment rate is relatively low, economists at Deutsche Bank said in a note released Jan. 27. Yet broader measures of unemployment and underemployment are actually higher for Trump than for many of his predecessors, they said.
The U-6 rate, which unlike the standard unemployment rate also includes people who have given up looking for work and those who are working part-time who would like to be full-time, was 9.4 percent in January, down from the financial crisis but still high by historical standards.
“That indicates there are still pockets around the country of individuals who are somewhat reticent to enter the labor force or find a job,” said Gregory Daco, head of U.S. macroeconomic forecasting at Oxford Economics.
Economists are waiting to see whether Trump’s policies can spark economic growth that would pull more of these sidelined workers back into the labor force.
Given the pace of government policymaking, economists say new measures introduced by the Trump administration seem unlikely to begin affecting the economy until late this year, at the earliest. That fact, combined with relatively tepid wage gains and inflation, could encourage the Federal Reserve to move more gradually when tightening monetary policy this year.
The Fed has said that the pace of rate hikes will hinge on the health of the economy, and it has indicated that it is closely watching whether tax cuts or spending increases under the Trump administration end up boosting economic growth or inflation.
At a meeting earlier this week, the Fed chose to leave its benchmark interest rate unchanged, following a rate hike in December. The central bank has indicated that it will make three rate increases in 2017, though futures markets suggest two rate hikes are more likely, with the greatest probability of moves in June and December.
Data released on Friday reinforced those expectations, said Kevin Logan, chief economist at HSBC. Expectations of a rate hike at the Fed’s next two-day meeting in March fell to just 4 percent as of midmorning Friday, according to CME Group, which monitors the futures market.
“At the margin, it lowered the expectation that the Fed would tighten three times,” Logan said. “Why? Without the wage pressure, inflation may stay below their target, and that gives them room to wait. It gives them breathing room.”