Job growth slowed in January, according to ADP. It wasn’t a cataclysmic slowdown, but it’s enough to keep the debate about recession risk bubbling. U.S. nonfarm private sector employment increased by a seasonally adjusted 170,000 last month, according to the ADP Employment Report. That’s down from the 292,000 gain in December. It’s clear that the labor market is still expanding, and that’s one more favorable trend for the optimists. But the magnitude of the downshift is hardly a clear signal of hope about the future. At the very least, the outlook for the business cycle is a bit more hazy in the wake of this report.
As the chart below shows, today’s ADP update implies that the Labor Department’s official estimate of nonfarm payrolls for January will also deliver mildly disappointing news. The consensus forecast for Friday’s update from the government for private payrolls anticipates a mild 168,000 rise vs. 212,000 reported for December, according to Briefing.com.
For the moment, at least, it’s tempting to see the latest numbers as confirmation that the sluggish but still-positive revival in the labor market rolls on. “The job market continues to grow at a moderate pace,” says Jonathan Basile, a senior economist at Credit Suisse. “We’re on a gradually improving path for the labor market.”
By that reasoning, nothing much has changed for payrolls. The pace still isn’t great, but an economy that’s minting 170,000 jobs a month is high enough to cast some doubt on the idea that a recession is imminent if not here already. But analysts who think that a downturn is now a high risk can also point to history in search of support. Using the Labor Department’s private nonfarm payrolls database as a guide, net job growth above 150,000 isn’t usually associated with the onset of a recession. But “usually” leaves room for debate, especially these days. Indeed, in December 1969, for example, when the business cycle peaked, private nonfarm payrolls rose by 123,000. And at the peak in November 1973, on the eve of the worst recession since the 1930s, private job creation was a robust 246,000. Of course, the fall of 1973 witnessed the start of the Arab-Israeli war and the arrival of an oil embargo, an event that pushed the U.S. economy into recession. History doesn’t repeat, but sometimes it rhymes. Is the trouble in the Middle East these days a worrisome trend? And there’s always the festering crisis in Europe to consider. Lots of potential risk factors hang in the air as the U.S. appears to muddle through.
If there’s another recession lurking, job creation will soon falter. We’ll also see signs of trouble in other economic indicators. For the moment, however, there’s enough a statistical support to argue both sides of this probability coin. Someone is wrong, of course, and it’s likely that the data will soon tell us who’s misreading the trends.