U.S. job growth increased moderately in September, with the unemployment rate dropping to near a 50-year low of 3.5%, which could assuage financial market concerns that the slowing economy was on the brink of a recession amid lingering trade tensions.
The Labor Department’s closely watched monthly employment report on Friday, however, showed monthly wage growth was unchanged and manufacturing payrolls declined for the first time in six months, and the retail sector continued to shed jobs.
The report came on the heels of a string of weak economic reports, including a plunge in manufacturing activity to more than a 10-year low in September and a sharp slowdown in services industry growth to levels last seen in 2016.
With signs that the Trump administration’s 15-month trade war with China is spilling over to the broader economy, continued labor market strength is a critical buffer against an economic downturn. The U.S.-China trade war has eroded business confidence, sinking investment and manufacturing.
Nonfarm payrolls increased by 136,000 jobs last month, the government said. August data was revised to show 168,000 jobs created instead of the previously reported 130,000 positions.
The initial August job count was probably held back by a seasonal quirk related to students leaving their summer jobs and returning to school. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast payrolls would increase by 145,000 jobs in September.
Regardless of the continued moderate employment growth and sharp drop in the jobless rate, economists expect the Federal Reserve to cut interest rates at least one more time this year, given the trade policy uncertainty.
Washington announced this week tariffs on aircraft, other industrial products and agricultural products from the European Union as part of a World Trade Organization penalty award in a long-running aircraft subsidy case. Trade experts expect the EU will impose tariffs on U.S. goods next year over subsidies for Boeing BA.N.
The U.S. central bank cut rates last month after reducing borrowing costs in July for the first time since 2008, to keep the longest economic expansion in history, now in its 11th year, on track. Growth estimates for the third quarter range from as a low as a 1.3% annualized rate to as high as a 1.9% pace. The economy grew at a 2.0% pace in the second quarter, slowing from a 3.1% rate in the January-March period.
Steady job growth last month came despite the Institute for Supply Management’s (ISM) measure of manufacturing employment tumbling to more than a 3-1/2-year low. In September, the ISM’s gauge of services industry employment fell to its lowest reading since February 2014.
September’s job gains were below the monthly average of 161,000 this year, but still above the roughly 100,000 needed each month to keep up with growth in the working-age population. The two-tenths drop in the unemployment rate from 3.7% in August pushed it to its lowest level since December 1969.
Despite the tight labor market, average hourly earnings were unchanged last month after advancing 0.4% in August. In the 12 months through September, wages increased 2.9% after rising 3.2% in the 12 months through August.
The average workweek held steady at 34.4 hours in September. Hiring is slowing across all sectors, with the exception of government, which is recruiting for the 2020 decennial census.
Private payrolls increased by 114,000 jobs in September after rising by 122,000 in August. Manufacturing shed 2,000 jobs last month, the first decline since March, after hiring 2,000 workers in August.
Factory employment growth has slowed from last year’s brisk pace. Manufacturing has ironically borne the brunt of the Trump administration’s trade war, which the White House has argued is intended to boost the sector. Factories have also been cutting overtime for workers.
Government employment increased by 22,000 jobs in September after surging by 46,000 in August.