The Unemployment Rate Drops Below 4%: April 30 – May 4

Employers continued to add workers while the unemployment rate fell to its lowest point since 2000. Here are the five things we learned from U.S. economic data released during the week ending May 4.  

#1The unemployment rate dropped to a 17.5 year low, but job creation lags a bit. The Bureau of Labor Statistics has nonfarm payrolls growing by a good, but not great 164,000 during April (seasonally adjusted), following increases of 135,000 and 324,000 in March and February. Private sector employers added 168,000 workers during the month, split by 49,000 jobs in the goods-producing side of the economy and 119,000 in the service sector. Industries adding the most workers to their payrolls during April were professionals/business services (+54,000), health care/social assistance (+29,300), manufacturing (+24,000), leisure/hospitality (+18,000), and construction (+17,000). The average workweek remained at 34.5 hours while average hourly earnings added four cents to $26.84. As a result, average weekly earnings grew by $1.38 to $925.98 (+2.8 percent versus April 2018).

Based on a separate household survey, the unemployment slipped by 2/10ths of a percentage point to 3.9 percent, its lowest point since December 2000. Taking some of the steam from this news was that 239,000 people left the labor force during the month, resulting in the labor force participation rate slipping by 1/10th of a percentage point to 62.8 percent. Falling by the same amount was the labor force participation rate for adults aged 25-54 (to 82.0 percent). The median length of unemployment jumped by 7/10ths of a week to 9.8 weeks (April 2017: 10.3 weeks). The BLS’s broadest measure of labor underutilization (the U-6 series) hit another post-recession low with a 2/10ths of a percentage point decline to 7.8 percent.Unemployment Rate 1998-2018 050418

#2The Fed stays put in May, likely to act in June. The policy statement released following this past week’s meeting of the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) continued to characterize economic growth as “moderate” and job gains as “strong.” Further, while household spending had “moderated,” business investment continued to grow “strongly.” Finally, core inflation measures continued to approach the Fed’s two-percent target. The FOMC voting members voted unanimously to keep the fed funds target rate between 1.5 and 1.75 percent, a rate the committee considers to be “accommodative.” The statement notes that conditions likely will “warrant further gradual increases” in its short-term interest rate target. The general consensus has the next rate hike at its June 12-13 meeting.

#3Personal spending rebounds in March. The Bureau of Economic Analysis reports that real personal consumption expenditures (PCE) rose 0.4 percent on a seasonally adjusted basis during the month following declines in both January and February. Real spending on durable goods jumped 1.1 percent while expenditures for nondurables and services each gained 0.3 percent. As prices were flat during the month, nominal PCE also grew 0.4 percent during the month. The increased spending was prompted a 0.3 percent gain in both nominal personal income and disposable income. After adjusting for inflation, real disposable income grew by 0.2 percent. Funding the difference was the 2/10ths of a percentage point drop in the savings rate to +3.1 percent. Over the past year, real PCE has increased 2.4 percent while disposable income has gained 1.7 percent.

#4Aircraft exports prompt a sharp narrowing of the trade deficit in March. Per the Census Bureau and Bureau of Economic Analysis, exports increased by $4.2 billion during the month to $208.5 billion (+8.8 percent versus March 2017) while imports slowed by $4.6 billion to $257.5 billion (+8.9 percent versus March 2017). As a result, the trade deficit contracted by 15.2 percent during the month to -$49.0 billion, which was still 9.5 percent larger than that of a year earlier. The goods deficit shrank by $7.5 billion to -$69.5 billion while the services surplus expanded by $1.3 billion to +$20.5 billion. The former was boosted by increased exports of civilian aircraft (+1.9 billion), foods/feeds (+$1.0 billion), and industrial supplies/materials (+$0.9 billion) and decreased imports of capital goods (-$3.6 billion), consumer goods (-$0.9 billion), and crude oil (-$0.5 billion). The U.S. had its biggest goods deficits with China (-$35.4 billion), the European Union (-$12.4 billion), and Mexico (-$7.0 billion).

#5Factory orders grew for the seventh time in eight months during March. The Census Bureau estimates new orders for manufactured goods increased 1.6 percent during the month to a seasonally adjusted $507.7 billion (+8.1 percent versus March 2017). Transportation goods—and, in particular, civilian aircraft—were a major reason for the increase. Net of transportation goods, factory orders increased 0.3 percent during the month and was 6.6 percent ahead of its year-ago pace. Durable goods orders jumped 2.5 percent during March while those for nondurables gained 0.5 percent. Shipments increased for the 15th time in 16 months with 0.4 percent growth to $502.8 billion. Non-transportation goods shipments gained 0.2 percent. The value of manufacturers’ unfilled orders gained 0.8 percent to $1.154 trillion (its sixth increase in seven months) while inventories expanded 0.3 percent to $677.3 billion (its 16th increase over the past 17 months). 

Other U.S. economic data released over the past week:
Jobless Claims (week ending April 28, 2018, First-Time Claims, seasonally adjusted): 211,000 (+2,000 vs. previous week; -31,000 vs. the same week a year earlier). 4-week moving average: 221,500 (-9.3% vs. the same week a year earlier).
Productivity (Q1 2018-preliminary, Nonfarm Labor Productivity, seasonally adjusted): +0.7% vs. Q3 2017, +1.3% vs. Q1 2017).
ISM Report on Business-Manufacturing (April 2018, PMI (Index (>50=expanding manufacturing sector)), seasonally adjusted): 57.3 (-2.0 points vs. March 2018).
ISM Report on Business-Nonmanufacturing (April 2018, NMI (Index (>50=expanding service sector)), seasonally adjusted): 56.8 (-2.0 points vs. March 2018).
Construction Spending (March 2018, Value of Construction Put in Place, seasonally adjusted annualized rate): $1.285 trillion (-1.7% vs. February 2018, +3.6% vs. March 2017).
Vehicle Sales (April 2018, Light Vehicle Retail Sales, seasonally adjusted annualized rate): 17.17 million units (-1.8% vs. March 2018, +0.8% vs. April 2017).
Pending Home Sales (March 2018, Index (2001=100), seasonally adjusted): 107.6 (+0.4% vs. February 2018, -3.0% vs. March 2017).

The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of Kevin’s current employer. No endorsements are implied.

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