When it comes to reading the economy, there are two camps these days: those who see growth stalling as trade turmoil unnerves businesses and consumers, and those who see growth continuing to chug along at a modest pace.
The latest jobs report, released Friday, had something to buttress each side’s point of view.
For optimists, the reaction was “phew.” After a week of data signaling weaker manufacturing and services that stoked recession fears, the Labor Department said employers added 136,000 workers in September and the unemployment rate fell to 3.5 percent, the lowest since Diana Ross & the Supremes last had a No. 1 hit (“Someday We’ll Be Together,” December 1969, to be exact).
For pessimists: The payroll expansion was the smallest since May, and job creation has slowed to an average of 161,000 a month this year compared with 223,000 in 2018. Hourly wage growth, at 2.9 percent over last year, was more sluggish than in previous months.
“The employment report was mixed,” Eric Rosengren, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, said Friday in an e-mail. It’s not clear whether the muted job growth reflects increasing difficulty in finding workers, “or a more general slowing of the economy,” he wrote.
Call Rosengren a guarded optimist. Risks to the economy are increasing, he said in an interview on Thursday, but not enough in his mind to warrant the two quarter-point interest rate cuts that the majority of his colleagues on the Federal Reserve’s policy committee have approved since the end of July.
Rosengren and his counterpart at the Kansas City Fed opposed both those reductions, while the president of the St. Louis Fed pushed for a half-point cut in September.
“The data has come in weaker of late,” Rosengren said in the interview, pointing to twin reports this week from the Institute for Supply Management. The ISM’s manufacturing index declined in September to its lowest level since the start of the recovery in mid-2009, while its services index posted its weakest reading since August 2016.
That data, along with Friday’s job report, reinforced investors’ expectations that the Fed will lower rates again after its next meeting, on Oct. 29-30. The prospects of another cut calmed stock investors after a couple of bad days earlier in the week. The Dow Jones industrial average rose 373 points, or 1.4 percent, to close at 26,574.
Rosengren declined to say how he’ll vote at the upcoming meeting. “My preference is to sit, watch, and wait to see how the data come in,” he said.
It’s important to keep in mind that no one on the policy-making Federal Open Market Committee expects a recession. Their median forecast, last updated in September, before the latest data, is for the economy to expand by 2.2 percent this year and 2 percent in 2020.
“If we end the year at 2 percent I would be happy,” Rosengren said.
The split between Rosengren and most of his colleagues is over the severity of the threats to the economy. The biggest risk is the fallout from the US tariff fight with China, which has already hurt business investment and manufacturing, and could spill over to consumer spending, the engine driving about 70 percent of economic output.
Rosengren expects China — and the Brexit mess — to work out in ways that don’t significantly harm the US economy.
“An important area I will be looking at closely is whether the consumer continues to spend enough to offset the weakness generated by trade and geopolitical concerns,” he said Friday.
The Fed officials who back lower rates are less sanguine, and want to ease credit as insurance against waning growth. But Rosengren said that kind of protection has its own costs. Reducing interest rates, especially with inflation below the Fed’s 2 percent target, may encourage excessive borrowing by companies and households, and inflate prices for assets such as stocks and real estate.
“I’m more worried about financial stability” than his colleagues, he said.
It’s unusual for the Fed to preemptively lower rates when the economy is growing. The central bank did so in 1998, amid the Asia and Russia debt crises, and in 1987, after the October stock market crash. Both events failed to inflict extensive damage to the economy, and the Fed ended up reversing the cuts.
Rosengren made clear he’ll support aggressive action if evidence of a steeper slowdown emerges. Given the risks that accompany too much cheap money, “I want to know for sure that it’s needed.”
He also dismissed concerns that with rates already low, further cuts won’t do much good in the face of a recession. The central bank can drop rates to zero, resume buying government bonds to pump cash into the economy, and make clear it will continue both steps as long as needed.
“That combination is really powerful,’’ he said.