As stocks endure their worst correction since 2011, and the battle between the Federal Reserve's doves and hawks rages on over a quarter-of-a-percentage-point rate hike, the much-anticipated August employment numbers made for a surprisingly mediocre report.
Nonfarm payrolls came in below consensus at 173,000. But private payrolls increased only 140,000, their smallest gain in five months. Compared with the average post-1960 recoveries, private-sector jobs are nearly 6 million below that long-run trend line.
The best parts of the report were a rise in average hourly earnings and a gain in aggregate hours worked. Putting the two together, labor-wage income over the past year is running at about 5 percent and, since there's no inflation, that could sustain real consumer spending. This is good news.
Yet earlier in the week the ISM Manufacturing report was soft. Inside that survey, new orders were especially soft. It's a sign that business-investment spending will remain the weakest part of the economic recovery.
All of which allows me to make my usual pleas: Can we please slash the corporate tax rate from 40 percent to 15 percent, allow full expensing of investment, stop the double tax on multinational profits, and be sure the small-business S Corporations can pay the new lower rate? A deep corporate tax cut would be the single most stimulative policy measure. It would turn a 2.5 percent growth economy into a 4-plus percent growth economy.
But back to the Fed. What are they going to do? No one knows. If it were up to me they would do nothing.
Commodity prices are falling. Treasury-market inflation expectations are shrinking. China is falling apart, and no one knows where the bottom is going to be. Meanwhile, the U.S. stock market slump may represent a markdown of future growth—not only in the U.S. but around the world. The highly touted second-half economic spring-back in America looks less and less likely.
So why should the Fed tighten?
Economist Michael Darda points out that corporate bond market credit-risk spreads are rising. That is, the difference between investment-grade bond yields and Treasury rates has widened enough to suggest not only slow growth now, but the threat of recession within in the next 12 to 18 months. It's a sobering point.
We know the Fed can't keep a zero target rate forever, but raising that rate now is more of a face-saving argument for Janet Yellen. Needless to say, that's not much of a reason to raise rates. In normal times, with zero inflation on the major price indexes alongside commodity deflation, these market-price indicators would suggest a Fed easing, not a tightening.
So much of the confusion stems from the fact that the Fed is still running a seat-of-the-pants policy based on the vagaries of monthly data points and daily stock market moves, when it should adhere to a market price rule (commodity indexes including gold, the exchange value of the , and Treasury bond spreads) that might really inform investors and govern Fed activity.
About a year ago, Paul Volcker—the best Fed chairman of our time—said this: "By now, I think we can agree that the absence of an official, rules-based, cooperatively managed monetary system has not been a great success." He was right.
For 20 years, former Fed luminaries like Volcker, Alan Greenspan (most of the time), Wayne Angell, Manuel "Manley" Johnson, and Robert Heller, successfully employed a market-price-rule discipline that held inflation down and helped drive prosperity up. (Lower tax rates also held inflation down and drove prosperity up.)
Unfortunately, the Fed has no such rule today. So I'll offer a compromise thought that might settle the will-they/won't-they confusion that reigns over financial markets. How about a one-eighth-of-a-point rate hike? We could call it one-eighth and done. That would allow for some Fed bravado, but it's so small it shouldn't cause any additional deflationary problems.
Right now, the actual fed funds target rate is 14 basis points, with a zero-to-25 basis point target range. A one-eighth rate hike would move that range to one-eighth-to-three-eighths percent. And with massive excess reserves, the funds rate would probably trade at the low end of the range—which is to say that it wouldn't really change at all. It's virtually a target-rate hike that's not really a rate hike.
If you tell me that's an unrealistic solution, I won't really disagree. Yet it might calm the obsessive monetary confusion that is so bothersome to the marketplace.
Of course, a rules-based policy would be a whole lot better.
Commentary by Larry Kudlow, a senior contributor at CNBC and economics editor of the National Review. Follow him on Twitter @Larry_Kudlow.