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5 things we learned from the startlingly weak job numbers

Fewer new jobs in May, but also fewer jobless; big rise in McMansion sales; Walmart taps Uber and Lyft for deliveries. These headlines and more from CBS MoneyWatch.
Fewer new jobs in May, but also fewer jobless... 01:06

Today's surprisingly weak government jobs report may not quite be the "bombshell" Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump thinks it is, but it did make a loud enough noise to startle the experts.

As Peter Boockvar, chief market analyst with research firm The Lindsey Group put it in assessing the anemic 38,000 jobs created in May, "Wow, that sucked." Forecasters had predicted 160,000 jobs.

Is the U.S. economic recovery fizzling? While there's reason to think we'll muddle along, the anemic May labor data are certainly a wake-up call. Here are five things we learned from the latest job figures:

Unemployment fell, but for the wrong reason. Although the nation's jobless rate declined sharply in May to 4.7 percent, from 5 percent the previous month, that was because many Americans opted not to look for work and weren't counted in the headline unemployment rate.

More tellingly, the labor force participation rate has fallen for two straight months, wiping out gains from earlier in the year. This measure of the percentage of working-age adults who are employed or looking for a job remains near its historical low.

Hiring is slowing -- a lot. Even factoring in the impact of last month's strike by Verizon (VZ) workers, the May payroll gains were the lowest since September of 2010, when the economy was still reeling from the financial crisis. And revisions to the pace of job creation in March and April show those months were also weaker than previously thought.

More concerning is that since February, when U.S. employers added a robust 233,000 jobs, payroll gains have declined every month. Between March and May, monthly employment growth has averaged 116,000, compared with 224,000 new jobs over the previous three months and 229,000 for all of 2015.

Of course, with the jobless rate below 5 percent, it's unrealistic to think the labor market will continue to expand at the same rate as earlier in the recovery. But continued monthly employment growth well south of 100,000 would be cause for concern.

Job growth is slowing across a range of industries. It's not only beaten-down energy companies, dented by the slump in oil prices, that are hurting. Construction, manufacturing, mining and business services companies all curtailed hiring in May. Employers also brought in fewer temporary workers -- which suggests business isn't strong enough to warrant hiring full-timers.

The bright spots? Health care companies have added nearly half a million workers this year, with ambulatory services, hospitals and nursing care facilities all seeing stronger hiring in May. Education jobs also increased.

Wage growth remains soft. Hourly earnings have ticked up in recent months, rising modestly in May to an annualized rate of 2.5 percent.

Still, that's nothing to write home about. If the job market was really as tight as the unemployment rate suggests, wages should be growing at rate of more than 3 percent, as they have in previous economic recoveries. The average number of hours employees work per week has also remained flat over the last 12 months -- that would be rising if wage growth was set to accelerate.

Prepare to hear more of the "R" word. First, the usual caveats after economic statistics zig when they were expected to zag. One month of data shouldn't be mistaken for a trend (although three easily could be) because the government's monthly job figures are volatile and subject to be revised in later months.

More important, key economic signals also point to an economy that's on solid ground, including healthy consumer spending as well as a low level of layoffs and jobless claims. Meanwhile, the labor market has previously slipped a disk during the recovery before getting back on its feet.

Another month or two of subpar job growth, however, will have economists and analysts nervously talking about the rising risk of recession. And for good reason.

When monthly job growth consistently falls short of its average during a recovery, the economy has often tumbled into recession within nine to 18 months, according to Barclays Research. Of late, payroll growth has fallen below its current expansion average in three of the past four months. Watch this space.

That shortfall comes amid other signs of a broader slowdown both in the U.S. and globally. Exhibit A: The U.S. economy expanded an anemic 0.8 percent in the first three months of the year. Although the second quarter is off to a better start, a number of forecasters now expect overall growth in 2016 of less than 2 percent, compared with GDP expansion of 2.4 percent over the past two years.

Said Mark Hamrick, senior economic analyst with, in a note: "Let's see if the economy has only been taking a breather or if something more serious is happening."

The question now is whether slowing job-creation in recent months indicates the U.S. is hitting a soft patch, as we did in early 2014 before bouncing back, or whether the economy is truly stuck in the mud.

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