Why the August Jobs Report Adds Up to a Weak Economy

September 25, 2023
Vance Ginn
Federal Reserve, Inflation, Interest Rates, Jobs Report, Unemployment Rate

This commentary was originally published at EconLib here. It is being republished with permission from the author.

Americans say the economy is the most important problem facing the country. But major headlines covering the latest jobs report for August do their best to downplay this concern. The New York Times’ headline covering the news was, “August Jobs Report: U.S. Jobs Growth Forges On,” but the economic reality is far less cheerful. 

Sure, the jobs report beat the consensus estimate by economists. But that high-level look at the data fails to address underlying issues keenly felt by many Americans that are apparent with more scrutiny. And these problems won’t be over unless policies out of D.C. substantially and quickly improve.

Last month, 187,000 jobs were added, according to the payroll survey, compared with the anticipated 170,000. But the jobs added in the prior two months were revised lower by a cumulative 110,000 jobs, bringing the net jobs added in August to just 77,000. This extends an ongoing trend of downward revisions over the last several months.

According to the household survey, the unemployment rate, a weak indicator of the labor market’s strength, jumped substantially from 3.5% to 3.8%. Coupled with news of slow wage growth of just 0.2% last month, there is growing concern among Americans trying to make ends meet. 

We know the higher unemployment rate isn’t from too few jobs available. The number of job openings has been nearly double that of those unemployed for a long time, though decreasing quickly. Instead, the higher rate suggests a sluggish economy in which there are more unemployed or ghost job openings from companies that do not intend to hire but want to gauge interest and competition.   

There is some good news. The labor force increased by 736,000, which raised the participation rate to 62.8% in August. This is the highest rate since February 2020, just before the shutdowns in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

More people entering the labor force and higher participation rates appear promising. However, the increase in the labor force was a combination of 222,000 more people employed, with the other 514,000 people becoming unemployed. And diving deeper, 4.2 million more adults remain not in the labor force compared with February 2020. 

Many of these individuals have been unemployed for years, so obtaining employment could be difficult due to a lack of productivity signals in their resume on top of employers dealing with a stagnant economy.

The rise in the unemployment rate, lackluster wage growth, and the possibility of unfilled job openings all point to a weak labor market. Add in ongoing stagflation, as too-high inflation continues, and Americans are rightly concerned about the future. 

Some blame the Federal Reserve for this weakness because of its fight to bring down inflation after creating it. However, Milton Friedman debunked this tradeoff between lower inflation and a higher unemployment rate decades ago. Specifically, there’s no long-run tradeoff between the two, so the Fed must focus on the single mandate of price stability instead. 

The Fed has been working to combat inflation by hiking its interest rate target to a multi-decade high of 5.5% and slowly reducing its bloated balance sheet. This is why you’ve seen car loan and mortgage rates soar to multi-decade highs. These higher rates significantly disrupt the new car and housing markets. 

But this is the resulting bust after the artificial post-pandemic “boom” as new money moves throughout the economy and manipulated interest rates create malinvestments. We felt the higher inflation rate last year from the Fed’s actions of close to 9%, and now it’s about one-third of that rate, but this remains about 50% higher than its 2% flexible average inflation target.

The Fed has stated that it may raise interest rates further. And I believe that it will be forced to raise its target rate to about 6% before this hiking cycle is over. But just raising this rate won’t be enough to curb inflation for long if Congress’ deficit spending remains unchecked. This will force the Fed to monetize it to avoid putting more pressure on Congress to get their irresponsible fiscal house in order.

President Biden and Democrats in Congress made this situation worse with the passage of the misnamed Inflation Reduction Act, which is likely to cost about four times the initial $300 billion estimate over a decade. Their wasteful spending, along with Republicans’ excessive spending before them, has led to a fiscal crisis, the most significant national threat. 

Congress will unlikely make the needed reforms to the primary drivers of the deficit of mandatory spending programs like Social Security and Medicare because of rent-seeking in politics. This will likely result in the Fed not sufficiently cutting its balance sheet to stop inflation. Rather, the Fed will probably choose to increase its balance sheet, putting more inflationary pressure on the economy when that’s the last thing it needs.

A vital measure of the economy known as real gross domestic output, the real average of gross domestic product and gross domestic income, has declined in three of the last six quarters. While I don’t want there to be a hard landing, this is the situation that central planners by Congress spending and taxing too muchPresident Biden regulating too much, and the Fed printing too much have left us. 

There will be efforts by the government to correct these government failures, but we shouldn’t double down on past mistakes. Let’s learn from these failures and remember the most recent lesson in the 1980s: President Reagan cutting regulations, Congress passing tax cuts (but spending too much), and Fed Chairman Paul Volcker cutting the balance sheet. 

Initially, the cuts to the Fed’s balance sheet contributed to soaring double-digit interest rates, and the economy suffered a double-dip recession. However, afterward, the economy was able to heal from the prior hindrances of past presidents, congressional members, and the Fed, resulting in a long period of economic prosperity, which is often called the Great Moderation.  

What we have today is an economy where the government is growing, and markets aren’t as much. This must be reversed. When workers, entrepreneurs, and employers are free to engage in voluntary transactions, competition thrives, innovation flourishes, and resources are allocated efficiently.

Moreover, free markets promote consumer choice and personal freedom. When government interventions, such as wasteful spending, excessive regulations, and high taxes, are removed, markets can function more efficiently and respond dynamically to changing economic conditions.

Striking the right balance between constitutionally limited government functions and preserving the freedom of markets is crucial for achieving a vibrant and prosperous economy.

Rising unemployment, stagnant wages, and the specter of inflation require a multifaceted approach. Raising interest rates hasn’t been enough. The government must focus on responsible fiscal and monetary policies, including reducing government spending, addressing burdensome regulations and taxes, and substantially cutting the Fed’s balance sheet. 

Americans are still suffering, and there is no time to waste in aggressively assessing these measures that cause economic strain so that people can get back to flourishing instead of merely “making it.” 

This commentary was originally published at EconLib here. It is being republished with permission from the author.

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