Newsletter: Factory Ups and Downs, $20K for Health Insurance, and a Slow Urban Exodus

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President Trump shouldn’t get all the credit—or blame—for manufacturing job gains and losses, employer-provided health-coverage costs topped $20,000 this year, and millennials and younger Gen Xers are leaving big cities and heading for the suburbs. Anything else going on in world news this week? Here’s our economic coverage for Thursday.

Manufacturing Booms and Busts

Since President Trump took office, one of the manufacturing sectors with the fastest growing employment has been mining and oil-and-gas machinery, up 25%. One of the worst-off has been cut-and-sew apparel contractors, down 22%. Neither performance is because of Mr. Trump, Sarah Chaney and Anthony DeBarros write.

  • Mr. Trump has taken credit for the boom in factory jobs during his first two years in office, while critics blame him for a slowdown since January. There’s truth to both claims: The Republican-authored tax cut helped boost manufacturing last year, while the intensifying trade confrontation with China dampened growth this year.
  • But many other forces are also at work, including industry-specific issues or the rise and fall of technology and automation. Also at play: macroeconomic forces such as global growth, energy prices and the strength of the dollar—most of which go beyond the control of any president.
  • The energy example: U.S. manufacturing employment has become closely tied to oil activity. Two types of manufacturing jobs connected to energy—fabricated metal, and mining and oil and gas field machinery—tanked in 2015 and 2016 when oil prices fell, recovered in 2017 and 2018 as prices rose, and are losing momentum in 2019.

WHAT TO WATCH TODAY 

U.S. trade in goods for August is out at 8:30 a.m. ET.

U.S. jobless claims are expected to rise to 212,000 from 208,000 a week earlier. (8:30 a.m. ET)

Revised U.S. gross domestic product for the second quarter is expected to show no change from a prior estimate of 2% annualized growth. (8:30 a.m. ET)

European Central Bank President Mario Draghi speaks at the European Systemic Risk Board conference at 9:30 a.m. ET.

U.S. pending-home sales for August are expected to rise 1% from the prior month. (10 a.m. ET)

The Kansas City Fed’s manufacturing survey for September is expected to rise to minus 4 from minus 6 a month earlier. (11 a.m. ET)

The Dallas Fed’s Robert Kaplan speaks on North American trade and immigration at 9:30 a.m. ET, the St. Louis Fed’s James Bullard speaks at a forum for minorities in banking at 10:00 a.m. ET, Vice Chairman Richard Clarida and the San Francisco Fed’s Mary Daly speak at a “Fed Listens” event at 11:45 a.m. ET, and the Minneapolis Fed’s Neel Kashkari speaks in Billings, Mont., at 2:00 p.m. ET.

TOP STORIES

‘It’s a Crisis’

China was a savior of sorts for the U.S. hardwood lumber industry after the financial crisis last decade. Customers there kept buying oak and ash boards in large quantities, while construction and furniture production fell in the U.S. Now, after Beijing imposed retaliatory tariffs of up to 25%, exports of hardwood lumber to China have fallen 40% this year. The lower demand pushed U.S. hardwood lumber prices down and prompted companies to seek government assistance, Austen Hufford reports. “It’s a crisis the likes of which we just never had to deal with before,” said Matthew Gutchess, president of Gutchess Lumber in Cortland, N.Y.

Healthy Dose

The average total cost of employer-provided health coverage passed $20,000 for a family plan this year, up 5% from a year earlier, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation survey. The rate of growth in coverage costs, including those borne by employees, continued to outstrip rises in inflation and wages, squeezing workers despite a low unemployment rate that might encourage companies to sweeten their benefits, Anna Wilde Mathews reports.

Who Needs a House Out in Hackensack?

Large U.S. cities lost tens of thousands of millennial and younger Gen X residents for the fourth consecutive year. The latest drop was driven by a fall in the number of urban residents between 35 and 39 years old—the majority who leave are heading to suburbs. City officials say that high housing costs and poor schools are main reasons, Janet Adamy and Paul Overberg report.

The Elephant in the Room

Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the House would move ahead with an “official” impeachment effort—something that’s not really an economic issue. But it could have some economic repercussions: “U.S. political dysfunction will rise to new levels,” says Suttle Economics’s Phil Suttle. That means more political uncertainty for businesses, less likelihood the House will approve a revamped Nafta, and a tougher path for Congress to extend spending authority and avoid another shutdown. 

That doesn’t mean policy stalls. U.S.-China trade talks pick up next month, and Mr. Trump and Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Wednesday signed a trade-enhancement agreement that will lower agricultural tariffs in Japan, industrial tariffs in the U.S. and set new rules for digital trade between the world’s first- and third-largest economies. The U.S. and Japan kept the negotiations limited in scope to avoid the need for Congress to vote on the deal.

Safer Banks ≠ Safer Markets

In the decade since the global financial crisis the U.S. financial system in many ways is much safer, with banks far less likely to fail or need a taxpayer bailout. Yet in other ways it is also more brittle, as the channels that carry cash and securities between investors, banks and foreigners repeatedly clog in the face of stresses they once easily absorbed. The latest example is last week’s spike in interest rates on so-called repo loans, which are critical to the functioning of Wall Street. It follows “flash crashes” in Treasury bonds, foreign currencies and blue-chip stocks, and spikes in stock-market volatility. None has yet threatened the broader economy or markets. Yet a crisis or shock originating in the real economy could be amplified by a dysfunctional financial system, Greg Ip writes.

Argentina’s Economic Crises: Wash, Rinse, Repeat

Argentina faces a crisis. Again. Latin America’s third-biggest economy is repeating a pattern that has dogged it for over 70 years, running out of hard currency while grappling with high inflation and economic contraction, Santiago Pérez and Ryan Dube report.

  • The underlying problem is a country living beyond its means. The government routinely spends more than it makes through taxes and other income.
  • To make up the difference, Argentina often prints money that fuels inflation, borrows dollars from abroad, or both. Because it is a protectionist economy riddled with inefficient companies, it struggles to generate enough dollars through exports to pay its debts. Eventually, creditors demand higher interest rates, debt payments grow unsustainable and the whole thing crashes.

WHAT ELSE WE’RE READING

New York state in 2014 started raising its minimum wage toward $15 an hour. Pennsylvania held fast at the $7.25 federal minimum. What happened along the border between the two states? New York’s higher pay “appears to have had a positive effect on average wages but no discernible effect on employment,” New York Fed economists Jason Bram, Fatih Karahan and Brendan Moore write.

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