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Trump’s job growth nightmare: His first year could be slower than Obama’s last

Economic expansion in the United States may be slowing down — rather than just beginning, as President Trump hopes. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

President Trump is touting data on the economy, telling his supporters that things are getting better for American workers. Not all professional forecasters share that enthusiasm, though, and many of them believe that this is about as good as it is going to get.

According to the average forecast among analysts surveyed by Bloomberg News, U.S. employers combined will add 165,000 workers to their payrolls a month this year, on net. That would be the slowest pace for hiring since 2010. Under President Barack Obama last year, the economy produced an average of 187,000 jobs a month.

When the Bureau of Labor Statistics publishes its monthly report on hiring Friday morning with figures for June, data on the labor market will be available for the first half of the year. Through May, the average pace was 162,000 new employees a month.

That is slower than not only last year, but also the year before, when the economy added 226,000 jobs a month on average. In 2015, the monthly pace averaged 250,000. Recent employment data is always subject to substantial revisions, however, and many economists believe that the agency does not adequately account for unpredictable weather in late winter in early spring. Unexpected storms or warmth can dampen the economy.

The more modest forecasts indicate that many economists believe the labor market is nearing its limits. When unemployment was widespread after the 2008-2009 financial crisis, plenty of people were available when businesses went looking for workers. The fact that many of those people now have jobs, combined with the aging population, will make hiring slower and costlier, economists say.

“The economy is doing good,” said Scott Brown, chief economist at investment firm Raymond James. “In fact, it’s probably doing as good as it can.”

Trump, though, is touting the numbers as evidence of his successful stewardship.

“Really great numbers on jobs & the economy!” the president wrote on Twitter Monday. “Things are starting to kick in now, and we have just begun!”

Economists said that given that the president has only been in office for a few months, it is unlikely that his policies have had an effect on the economy so far.

Political decisions can have important consequences over the long run, but economic policy — such as choices about taxes and investments in research, education and infrastructure — rarely produce substantial short-term benefits.

“The president or whoever’s in charge of the White House and Congress don’t have that much influence about the current state of the economy,” Brown said. “It’s really more long term in nature, but typically, the president gets all the credit or all the blame.”

Trump, meanwhile, has not yet signed legislation for any of his three major economic priorities, which include restructuring the tax system, rebuilding the country's physical infrastructure and undoing the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.

Many businesses and households have become more confident in the state of the economy as a result of Trump's promises, said Brian Wesbury, the chief economist at First Trust Advisors in Wheaton, Ill. He expects that Trump's economic policies will eventually pick up the pace of hiring, and that the president could sign a tax cut for corporations as soon as later this year.

All the same, Wesbury cautioned, Trump's enthusiasm might be premature.

“It hasn’t gotten any worse, but it’s hard to say that things have improved dramatically yet,” said Wesbury, who believes that payrolls will expand by an average of 180,000 to 200,000 positions a month over the course of this year as the economy accelerates.

Other economists are more wary. Blu Putnam, the CME Group's chief economist, noted that Trump's policies on trade could increase prices and reduce opportunities for manufacturing workers who rely on imported components.

He also argued that there is little room for the economy to expand. With the unemployment rate at just 4.3 percent in May, it may be more difficult for employers to find workers even when they have openings.

If so, then the economic expansion may be slowing down — rather than just beginning, as Trump hopes. Putnam expects an average of just 113,000 new jobs a month over the year.

That could be good for ordinary households. If businesses must compete with one another to hire and retain employees, then they are more likely to give their workers a raise. Yet there is little agreement among economists about if — or when — the recovery will finally yield noticeably better wages and salaries.

“We're going to be running out of workers to hire,” said Mike Frantantoni, chief economist at the Mortgage Bankers Association.