That big May jobs letdown may just be part of the 'new normal' for the labor market

Key Points
  • May's nonfarm payrolls report was a big letdown, but may just be part of a new jobs market.
  • Average monthly gains in 2019 have been just 164,000, compared with 312,000 in 2018.
  • "We would expect the new normal for the market to have lower jobs added each month," said Daniel Zhao, chief economist Glassdoor.
Sub-assembly worker Nate Poort works on transformers at RoMan Manufacturing in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Rebecca Cook | Reuters

May's nonfarm payrolls number may have fallen short of expectations on Wall Street, but could well just be part of a world where 200,000 new jobs a month is just a memory.

Some seemingly anomalous spurts aside, trends so far in 2019 suggest a late-cycle market where employment could be rising closer to 100,000-150,000 a month rather than the stimulus-fed 2018 trend that saw gains average 223,000.

The year so far has averaged 164,000 after the anemic 75,000 increase last month. January (312,000) and April (224,000) featured outsized gains, but the other three months followed a lower trend line more characteristic of moderating gains that may give some pause to policymakers as they chart the way forward.

Five experts break down the disappointing May jobs report

Not that there's anything particularly ominous about a step lower. The jobs market is still expanding, and the relatively mute 3.1% annual wage gains suggest an economy that still has some slack, though diminished from recent years' indications.

"We would expect the new normal for the market to have lower jobs added each month," said Daniel Zhao, chief economist at job search and review site Glassdoor.

Manufacturing weakness

Zhao gets an on-the-ground look at how the market is unfolding by watching the trends in job postings for an economy where openings outnumber available workers by about 1.6 million.

"At Glassdoor, the interesting thing that we are seeing is that the growth in job openings has slowed down quite a bit from 2018, and that's a forward-looking indicator that employment growth also will slow as employers aren't hiring as many people," Zhao said. "One good example started in late 2018 when we saw job openings' growth decline on Glassdoor or even turn negative for manufacturing."

Indeed, the sector has seen just 5,000 new jobs added over the past three months, according to Labor Department data released Friday.

On Wall Street, talk has turned increasingly to expectations for interest rate cuts from the Federal Reserve.

Looking at the May numbers, Bank of America Merrill Lynch economists observed that it was"hard to find good news in this report and clearly points to a slowdown in activity."

"The more worrying sign came from the service-providing sector which only added 82k workers, well below the 158k job gains per month seen in the prior 6 months," the bank said in a note.

"It's possible that American businesses are finally having trouble sailing into the headwinds caused by President Trump's trade wars," Michael Farren, research fellow at George Mason University's Mercatus Center, said in a statement. "One data point does not a trend make, but employment growth has had a bumpy ride so far in 2019."

Companies are adapting

Still, with the numbers positive, few if any seem ready to write off the jobs market yet.

Irina Novoselsky, CEO of CareerBuilder, another jobs forum, pointed out that employers are more willing to start hiring underqualified workers and then training them. A survey the site conducted found that half of all human relations managers say they are having a hard time finding applicants with the right skills, "so employers are increasingly using data- and technology-driven HR capabilities to find strong talent in unexpected places."

From a policy perspective, such developments might keep the Fed on hold until officials can get a fuller picture.

Andrew Hunter, senior U.S. economist at Capital Economics, said the central bank may prefer to wait until the monthly jobs gains average closer to 100,000 before taking any action.

"But with economic growth on track to slow to only around 1.5% annualized in the second quarter and the trade war with China set to become a more serious drag, that may not be far off," Hunter said.