U.S. Payrolls Rise Less Than Forecast In May But 1-Yr Gain Ticks Up

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by: James Picerno

Employment at US companies increased 147,000 in May (in seasonally adjusted terms), according to this morning's update from the Labor Department. The rise is below expectations, based on Econoday.com's consensus forecast for a 173,500 jump in payrolls. The advance also represents a downshift from April's 173,000 increase. But the softer monthly comparison was offset by a slightly stronger year-over-year change. On balance, today's release suggests that the labor market remains on track for moderate if unspectacular growth in the near term.

The weaker monthly increase is a bit disappointing, but monthly data is noisy. On several occasions in recent years, we've seen big changes, up and down, that appeared to break with the trend, inspiring a major rethink on the outlook for the labor market. With the benefit of hindsight, however, the lesson is that one or even two dramatic shifts in the month-to-month comparisons tend to be unreliable benchmarks for macro analytics.

By contrast, the annual trend offers more dependability, and on that score, today's results imply that moderate growth remains intact. Private payrolls increased 1.77% in May vs. the year-earlier level, up slightly from April's 1.66% advance.

Looking at the latest annual change in context with recent history suggests that the labor market is stabilizing at a rate that, while lower than a few years ago, is still healthy and arguably sustainable for the near term. As I've been discussing for much of the past year, the decelerating annual rate of growth in payrolls has been worrisome… if it continued. Based on today's report, it's tempting to conclude that the downshift has run its course, at least for now.

"Job growth is a little disappointing, but enough to continue tightening the labor market," says Michael Feroli, chief US economist at JPMorgan Chase. "This doesn't change the overall story of an economy that generally seems to be growing above trend and reducing slack."

Indeed, several indicators point to an expanding labor market, including yesterday's weekly update on initial jobless claims, which is considered a leading indicator for payrolls and for the economy overall. Although new filings for unemployment benefits jumped more than forecast, rising 13,000 to a seasonally adjusted 248,000, that's still close to a multi-decade low. Also, note that the ADP Employment Report for May reflected a much stronger rate of expansion - a net change of 253,000, which translates to a 2.1% year-over-year increase, the best rate in a year.

Again, one number, good or bad, should be viewed cautiously. But when you consider all the updates on the labor market released this week, the general takeaway is that a moderate growth trend remains intact.

Add to that the evidence that recession risk remains low, based on a broad set of indicators, and it's clear that the US economy is still expanding at a healthy pace.

That doesn't mean that everything is perfect - far from it. Wage growth is still weak and there is elevated political risk, courtesy of a radical realignment of US policy objectives via the Trump administration. But if we focus on the numbers in hand at the moment, the labor market - and the economy overall - still look poised to expand at a respectable rate.

"Generally speaking the labor market remains healthy, and even with today's report, it's still well ahead of what we need to generate, as far as job growth, just to keep with demographics," concludes Russell Price, senior economist at Ameriprise Financial Services.