U.S. hiring slowed dramatically in May, a government report showed Friday, casting a cloud over a labor market that has been one of the brightest spots of President Donald Trump's economy.
Nonfarm payrolls rose by 75,000 in May, down from 224,000 the prior month, the Labor Department reported Friday. Economists surveyed by the data provider FactSet had estimated a gain of 182,500, on average. Typically the economy needs to create about 100,000 jobs a month to keep pace with growth in the working population.
The Labor Department also made a sharp downward revision of 75,000 jobs to the labor-market figures reported for March and April.
The monthly employment report represents one of the earliest and most reliable indicators of how the economy is performing, so the disappointing jobs growth reported for May could add to recent signs that U.S. output is decelerating as the initial impact fades from Trump's $1.5 trillion of tax cuts in late 2017.
"Today's labor report is evidence of a slowing economy," said Charlie Ripley, senior investment strategist at the money manager Allianz Investment Management.
Economists from Wall Street to the Federal Reserve have warned that Trump's intensifying trade war with China has dampened confidence among households and businesses -- a factor that usually leads to lower spending and investment in future growth. A recent study from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York estimated that U.S. consumers could face roughly $800 a year in elevated costs because of the recent tariff increases imposed on Chinese imports by the White House.
Fed Chair Jerome Powell said this week that top officials at the central bank were "monitoring" the impact of the trade tiff as they prepare to vote at a June 18-19 meeting on whether any changes are warranted to the benchmark U.S. interest rate. The Fed often cuts interest rates to stimulate the economy during a recession, and sometimes does so just because the chances of a steep slowdown are rising.
Currently, the official rate is set in a range from 2.25% to 2.5%, and the market for futures contracts on federal funds indicates that traders now see roughly 30% odds that the central bank will reduce the range at this month's meeting. That's up from about 17% on Thursday, before the new employment figures were released.
Indeed, in the topsy-turvy logic of markets the S&P 500 index rose 0.8% in New York trading on Friday because of the perceived likelihood of a Fed rate cut, or "ease" in the jargon of monetary policy.
"These data make it easier for the Fed to ease either this month or next, if the trade tensions intensify," Ian Shepherdson, chief economist at the forecasting firm Pantheon, wrote in a note to clients.
The labor market has been one of Trump's biggest bragging points on Twitter and in TV interviews, a fair claim after he promised to create "jobs, jobs, jobs" when campaigning for the tax cuts. The U.S. unemployment rate has fallen to 3.6%, a half-century low.
A scarcity of workers can be a double-edged sword for the economy, though, since businesses usually have to raise wages to keep and attract workers, a dynamic that tends to produce higher inflation in consumer prices.
According to Friday's report, the recent slack in the jobs market may have reduced some of those inflationary pressures.
Average hourly earnings were essentially unchanged in May at $27.83. Wall Street economists had projected a seasonally adjusted increase of 0.1%.
In the 12 months through May, wages rose 3.2%, unchanged from the annual rate as of April.