For President Trump’s first two years in office, an unexpected rebound in manufacturing jobs helped bolster his claims that he was restoring the United States’ battered industrial sector. Now, that surge may be nearing its end — in part because of his own trade policies.
American manufacturers have added nearly half a million jobs since Mr. Trump took office, including for the past 19 months in a row. That streak, the longest since the mid-1990s, could hit 20 when the government releases March hiring data on Friday.
But concerns are mounting about how long that strength can continue. Employment growth for the sector in February, at 4,000 jobs, was the weakest in more than a year, and data from the payroll processing firm ADP on Wednesday showed the number of factory workers falling in March. Major automobile manufacturers have been cutting jobs; General Motors drew Mr. Trump’s ire last month when it idled a factory in Lordstown, Ohio, and eliminated 14,000 positions.
American manufacturers are being battered from all sides: by tariffs that are driving up their costs, by cooling growth in China and Europe that is hurting demand for their exports, and by the waning effects of the tax cuts and government spending increases that pumped up growth last year. Data from the Commerce Department on Tuesday showed that orders for capital goods, a key measure of business investment, fell in February and has trended down since last summer.
“We should expect to see manufacturing growth slow quite significantly,” said Andrew Hunter, an economist at Capital Economics, a research firm.
American factories aren’t grinding to a halt. A closely watched survey from the Institute of Supply Management hit a three-year low in February but rebounded somewhat in March. Recent data from China suggests that the government’s efforts to stimulate the economy there are beginning to have an effect. And financial markets rallied Wednesday on hopes that the United States and China could be nearing a trade deal. Strong economic underpinnings — low unemployment, rising wages, high levels of consumer confidence — make an outright collapse in manufacturing unlikely.
Still, businesses are becoming more cautious, which could spell trouble for the broader economy.
At Gradall Industries, an Ohio manufacturer of excavators and other heavy equipment for the manufacturing industry, orders have been strong this year, according to Michael A. Haberman, the company’s president. But business in China is down sharply, tariffs are driving up costs, and Mr. Haberman has given up on the infrastructure spending package he hoped would spur demand for Gradall’s equipment.
“Obviously, Europe’s not doing that well, and China is clearly in a slowdown, so there has to be a concern,” he said.
Faced with that uncertainty, Mr. Haberman wavered before making a long-needed investment in a new robot welder earlier this year. He eventually went ahead with that purchase, but he has postponed other investments — lasers for steel cutting, new machining equipment, additional robot welders.
“You need certainty if you’re going to spend that kind of money,” he said. “And I don’t think anybody feels very comfortable.”
Any slowdown poses a political risk for Mr. Trump, who ran for office on promises to bring jobs back from China and Mexico and who has repeatedly promoted the sector’s growth as evidence that his policies are working. “I guess I found the MAGIC WAND,” Mr. Trump wrote on Twitter in January.
Most economists say credit for the recent rebound in manufacturing lies less with Mr. Trump than with global forces beyond his control. Manufacturing underwent what amounted to a mini-recession in 2015 and early 2016, caused by low energy and commodity prices that hurt the energy and agriculture sectors. By mid-2016, those trends were starting to reverse, just as major economies around the world were beginning to expand in sync for the first time in a decade.
Business confidence did rise after Mr. Trump’s election. And the Republican tax cuts passed in late 2017 were intended to give companies an incentive to invest, although there has been little evidence of that so far. The tax cuts, along with increases in government spending, also provided a short-term lift to the economy that benefited manufacturers along with other companies.
But those forces are fading. Economic growth cooled in late 2018 and is likely to slow further this year, in part because American exporters are likely to see less demand from customers overseas. China’s economy has lost momentum in recent months, and Britain’s protracted negotiations on leaving the European Union are taking a toll in Europe. Recent data from Germany, Europe’s largest economy, suggests the country is flirting with recession.
Mr. Trump’s trade policies are contributing to the sector’s woes. Tariffs on steel and aluminum imposed last year led to increased employment at American steel plants, but raised costs for companies that use the metals. Mr. Trump’s slow-moving trade war with China has raised costs, disrupted supply chains and created uncertainty for American importers and exporters alike.
Winnebago Industries, the Iowa-based maker of motor homes, gets most of its steel and aluminum from American suppliers. But that has not spared the company from the effects of tariffs, which have driven up prices for domestic and imported metals alike. Tariffs on Chinese goods have led to higher prices for electrical components, lighting fixtures, tires and other parts the company imports.
So far, Winnebago has largely been able to pass those costs on to customers, said Michael Happe, Winnebago’s chief executive. But he isn’t sure how long that will last. Higher interest rates are already making financing more expensive, and stock market volatility could give customers pause.
Winnebago announced in February that it would close a plant in Junction City, Ore., and move production to an existing factory in Iowa. Mr. Happe said the decision, which will eliminate more than 200 jobs in Oregon, was not entirely because of economic forces. But he said evidence that growth was slowing was a significant factor.
“Certainly as the headwinds stack up and get a little bit stiffer, we pay more attention to that and we’re probably even more careful, more disciplined, more methodical about determining when and how much to spend on our future,” he said.
So far, there is little evidence of a renewed wave of factory layoffs. If anything, companies are complaining they cannot find enough workers to fill the jobs they have available.
United Grinding, a Swiss maker of machine tools for the aerospace and other industries, has seen slowing growth in Europe and Asia. But the United States has so far escaped a similar fate, said Steve Jacobson, who runs the company’s Ohio-based American subsidiary.
“North America is still the shining star,” he said. “Even though we hear a lot about the slowdown, we don’t see the slowdown yet across any part of our business.”
Still, the company is stepping up its marketing efforts to guard against any falloff in demand. United Grinding’s business depends on other manufacturers having the confidence to keep investing — and confidence can turn quickly. If one company decides to delay a big purchase, that can have a ripple effect.
“Then 10 more people wait, and then 20 more people wait, and then lo and behold, we have a slowdown,” he said. “I look at it as more of a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
It isn’t clear whether blue-collar voters will hold Mr. Trump responsible for a slowdown. Leo Gerard, the president of the United Steelworkers Union, said his members appreciated the president’s decision to impose tariffs on foreign steel. And even in industries hurt by the tariffs, many workers say they support Mr. Trump’s get-tough approach to trade talks with China.
But Mr. Gerard said workers had been rattled by the closure of G.M.’s Lordstown plant. And despite two years of job growth, Mr. Gerard said, the bigger picture for American manufacturing has not changed: The trade deficit is growing, companies are still shifting jobs to Mexico, and even Carrier — the Indiana furnace maker — has not added the jobs that Mr. Trump promised with great fanfare in 2016.
“We don’t see any growth or expansion at Carrier,” Mr. Gerard said. “The president is the president, and he didn’t stop what G.M. is doing.”