On its 50th day in office, the Trump administration is claiming credit for better-than-expected jobs growth in the US economy.
Official February data shows 235,000 new jobs were generated during the month, helping to lower the national unemployment rate to 4.7 per cent.
Even allowing for the fact that February is a traditionally strong month for hiring, the figure for the first full month of President Donald Trump’s term in office was higher than forecast and higher than the 180,000 job average for the preceding three months.
Weakness in the retail sector was more than offset by strong recruitment in manufacturing, construction and mining — sectors the President had always targeted in his pitch to voters.
Economists attribute an expectation of tax cuts and deregulation promised by Mr Trump, but not yet delivered, for a general rise in business sentiment measured over several indices, including stock markets.
Questioned about attributing the first month’s figure to Trump economic policy, White House press secretary Sean Spicer acknowledged “numbers are going to go up and down”.
“I don’t believe I have ever seen the number of CEOs and businesses come out and talk about investments, and continuing investments, and expansion of investments, or hiring, based on the vision and agenda of an administration as they have with this one,” he said.
‘Tens of thousands of new jobs’
Mr Spicer’s comments drew on a report card published by the White House, titled President Trump’s First 50 Days of Action listing what it regards as achievements since inauguration on January 20.
The administration credits cooperation with the private sector for delivering “tens of thousands of new jobs”, along with “withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership” negotiations, declarations supporting gas pipeline projects and red-tape reduction as factors behind an apparent lift in confidence.
“When you talk to the economists, when you talk to business leaders, they have confidence in the President’s agenda that it will yield a more favourable business climate to hire more Americans”, Mr Spicer said.
Although the February jobs data included sluggish average wage growth of just 6 cents and a labour market participation rate — those seeking work — of just 61 per cent, the overall result will raise the level of certainty in markets that the Federal Reserve will go ahead with a flagged increase in official interest rates next week.
Chairwoman Janet Yellen had already flagged her intention to shift rates into a band between 0.75 per cent and 1 per cent.
“We realise that waiting too long to scale back some of our [monetary policy] support could potentially require us to raise rates rapidly some time down the road, which in turn could risk disrupting financial markets and pushing the economy into recession,” Ms Yellen told a conference in Chicago last week.
Mr Trump’s team makes no attempt to hide its enthusiasm over the February employment numbers, but Mr Trump was not always a believer in its accuracy.
As monthly data emerged in campaign year 2016, Mr Trump often trashed the figures, especially when they were good.
“Don’t believe those phony numbers when you hear 4.9 per cent or 5 per cent — the number’s probably 28 per cent, 29 per cent, as high as 35 per cent,” he said of the unemployment data at a rally in January 2016.
In May he called the 5 per cent unemployment rate a “hoax”.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 8, 2017
Now in office, the White House had anticipated the President’s quotes to be revisited in the daily press briefing.
“I talked to the President prior to this and he said to quote him very clearly; ‘They may have been phony in the past but it’s very real now’,” Mr Spicer told reporters.
White House ‘excited’
In fact, Mr Spicer was so excited when the jobs figures came out, he inadvertently tripped over an arcane rule meant to restrict official commentary within one hour of release.
Twenty-two minutes after the Labor Department published the numbers, the press secretary tweeted it was “great news for American workers”.
The rule dates back to the Ronald Reagan era and was intended “to preserve the distinction between the policy-neutral release of data by statistical agencies and their interpretation by policy officials” and to avoid affecting “financial and commodity markets”.