Hiring Came in Like a Lamb During March. What We Learned During the Week of April 3 – 7

Employers hired fewer workers during March and the trade deficit contracted in February. Here are the 5 things we learned from U.S. economic data released during the week ending April 7.

#1The pace of hiring slowed sharply in March. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that nonfarm payrolls grew by a seasonally adjusted 98,000 during the month, the fewest number of jobs created in a single month since last May. Some of the slowdown could be linked to this year’s moderate winter weather, which prompted some employers to take on workers earlier than usual. But it is also worth noting that January and February job gains were revised downward by a combined 38,000 jobs. Private sector payrolls grew by 89,000 during the month (down from a 221,000 increase in February), with the gain split between 61,000 jobs in the service sector and 28,000 jobs in the goods-producing side of the economy. Industries with the greatest number of new jobs were professional/business services (+56,000), health care/social assistance (+16,700), manufacturing (+11,000), and mining/logging (+11,000). Meanwhile, retailers shed 29,700 jobs from their payrolls during March. The average workweek held steady during the month at 34.3 hours (March 2016: 34.4 hours). Average weekly earnings grew by $1.71 during March to $896.60 (+2.4 percent versus March 2016).

A separate survey of households painted a somewhat more robust picture of the labor market, including showing the unemployment rate had dropped by 2/10ths of a percentage point to 4.5 percent (its lowest reading in nearly ten years). While 145,000 people entered the labor force during the month (to 160.2 million), the labor force participation rate held firm at 63.0 percent. The median length of unemployment grew by 3/10ths of a week to 10.3 weeks (March 2016: 11.4 weeks) while the count of “involuntary” part-time workers declined by 151,000 to 5.553 million (March 2016: 6.120 million). Finally, the broadest measure of labor underutilization dropped to another post-recession low of 8.9 percent, down 3/10ths of a percentage point from February 2017 and 9/10ths of a percentage point from March 2016. This same measure peaked during the last recession back in April 2010 at 17.1 percent.Labor-Underutilization-2005-2007-040717

#2The trade deficit reversed the previous month’s sharp increase in February. The Census Bureau and Bureau of Economic Analysis reports that exports edged up $0.4 billion to $192.9 billion (+6.7 percent versus February 2016) while imports slowed by $4.3 billion to $236.4 billion (+4.5 percent versus February 2016). As a result, the trade deficit contracted by $4.6 billion to -$43.6 billion. The goods deficit shrank by $4.6 billion to -$65.0 billion (-1.0 percent versus February 2016) while the services surplus edged up by less than $0.1 billion to +$21.4 billion (+6.9 percent vs. February 2016). The former declined in part because of a sharp $3.1 billion drop in imports of imported consumer goods (including cell phones and automobiles). The U.S. had its largest goods deficits with China (-$31.4 billion), the European Union (-$12.0 billion), and Mexico (-$6.2 billion).

#3New factory orders increased for the seventh time in eight months. Per the Census Bureau, new orders for manufactured goods grew 1.0 percent during February to a seasonally adjusted $476.5 billion. This was up 7.3 percent from a year earlier. Like we saw with the preliminary data released a week earlier, much of the increase in new orders was because of a sharp increase in orders for civilian aircraft (+47.5 percent) resulted in a 4.4 percent increase in transportation equipment orders. Net of transportation goods, new orders were up 0.4 percent for the month and 7.5 percent from their February 2016 pace. Durable goods orders expanded 1.8 percent during the month while those of nondurables advanced 0.2 percent. The 12-month comparables for the two were +5.3 percent and +9.2 percent, respectively. Shipments grew for the 11th time in 12 months, with a 0.3 percent increase to $480.0 billion. Unfilled orders just barely ended their three-month losing streak with less than 0.1 percent increase to $1.115 trillion. Inventories expanded for the seventh time in eight months with a 0.3 percent gain to $630.0 billion.

#4Purchasing managers indicate slightly slower economic growth in March. The Purchasing Managers Index (PMI) from the Institute for Supply Management declined by a half point to a seasonally adjusted 57.2. This was the seventh straight month in which the measure was above a reading of 50.0, indicative of an expanding manufacturing sector (although the decline from February suggests slower growth). Three of the five PMI components fell during the month: production (down 5.3 points to 57.6), inventories (down 2.5 points to 49.0), and new orders (down 6/10ths of a point 64.5). Rising were components measuring employment (up 4.7 points to 58.9) and supplier deliveries (up 1.1 points to 55.9). Seventeen of the 18 tracked manufacturing industry sectors reported growth during the month, led by electrical equipment/appliances, printing, and furniture. The press release noted that respondents from all 18-tracked industries reported an increase in new orders.

The headline measure from the ISM’s Report on Business-Nonmanufacturing (NMI) shed 2.4 points during March to a seasonally adjusted reading of 55.2. While this was the NMI’s lowest reading since last October, this was the 87th straight month in which the measure remained above a reading of 50.0. Only one of the NMI’s four components grew during the month:  supplier deliveries (up a full point to 51.5). Declining were components associated with business activity/production (down 4.7 points to 58.9) employment (down 3.6 points to 51.6), and new orders (down 2.3 points to 58.9). Fifteen of 18 tracked industry expanded during the month, led by the management of companies, utilities, and wholesale trade. The press release noted that a “majority of respondents’ comments indicate a positive outlook on business conditions and the overall economy,” but that there also were “several comments about the uncertainty of future government policies on health care, trade and immigration, and the potential impact on business.”

#5Strength in the housing sector pulled up construction spending during February. The Census Bureau reports that the value of construction put in place grew 0.8 percent during February to a seasonally adjusted annualized rate (SAAR) of $1.193 trillion. This was 3.0 percent above the annualized value of construction put into place a year earlier. Private sector spending also expanded at a 0.8 percent rate to $917.3 billion (+6.9 percent versus February 2016), as a 1.8 percent jump in private sector residential spending more than counterbalancing a 0.3 percent drop in nonresidential construction spending. The former included gains in new single-family and multifamily construction spending of 1.2 percent and 1.8 percent, respectively. Public sector construction spending increased 0.6 percent during February to an annualized $275.5 billion. Despite the gain, public sector spending was off 8.0 percent from a year earlier.

Other U.S. economic data released over the past week:
Jobless Claims (week ending April 1, 2017, First-Time Claims, seasonally adjusted): 234,000 (-25,000 vs. previous week; -37,000 vs. the same week a year earlier). 4-week moving average: 250,000 (-7.5% vs. the same week a year earlier).
Vehicle Sales (March 2017, Total Light Vehicle Sales, seasonally adjusted annualized rate): 16.62 million vehicles (-5.5% vs. February 2017, -0.3% vs. March 2016).
Consumer Credit (February 2017, Outstanding Consumer Credit Balances-net of real estate, seasonally adjusted): $3.792 trillion (+$15.2 billion vs. January 2017, +6.3% vs. February 2016).
Wholesale Trade (February 2017, Wholesale Inventories, seasonally adjusted): $594.2 billion (+0.4% vs. January 2017, +3.2% vs. February 2016).
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The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of Kevin’s current and previous employers. No endorsements are implied.

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