May Jobs Report: Lowest Growth in Over Two Years

by: James Picerno

Friday's update on the job growth for May offered a dose of encouragement for the stock market bulls.

The consensus forecast called for a net gain of 135,000 non-farm jobs last month, according to The actual number exceeded the collective guess by a comfortable margin: a rise of 157,000 new jobs in the nation in May, the Bureau of Labor Statistics advised. Adding to the tally's shine is the fact that last month's gain nearly doubled April's lethargic advance of 80,000-the lowest in more than two years.

By recent standards, then, all looks well. The economy's ability to mint 157,000 jobs will be hailed as evidence that the gods of growth continue to hold the upper hand. Perhaps, although without knowing what the future will bring we can only look to the past for definitive clarity. On that score, there's reason to stay modestly cautious on the always precarious business of forecasting.

For those who are interested in a broader historical context, last month's 157,000 rise in non-farm payrolls is hardly stellar, welcome though it is after April's stumble. Crunching the monthly percentage change in non-farm payrolls for the past four years reminds us that last month's rise is no more than middling, and that's by a standard that's been steadily slipping for more than a year.

Indeed, the trailing 12-month average percentage change in monthly non-farm payrolls has been declining virtually nonstop since early 2006, as our chart below shows. Last month's 0.11% rise in new jobs exactly matches the average change for the past 12 monthly reports. Each and every investor must decide if such facts inspire confidence, despair or something in between.

Labor Statistics Chart

That said, there's a case to be made for embracing the in-between theory, which runs like this: if the economy can maintain 150,000 new jobs a month, something approaching a sweet spot in balancing growth and inflation containment may be at hand for the foreseeable future. The jury's wide open on which outlook will prevail, but at least we can agree about the road that's brought us this far.