Employers Slammed on the Brakes: March 4 – 8

The U.S. economy had its worst month for job creation in a year and a half in February. Here are the five things we learned from U.S. economic data released during the week ending March 8.

#1Job creation slowed to a crawl in February. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that nonfarm employers added a mere 20,000 workers to their payrolls in February, the fewest jobs added in a single month since September 2017 (then caused by hurricanes disrupting economic activity). Over the past three months, payroll gains have averaged 186,000. Private sector employers added 25,000 workers, split between a 57,000 increase in the service sector and a 32,000 job loss in the goods-producing side of the U.S. economy. Among the industries reporting job gains were professional/business services (+42,000), health/social assistance (+22,500), and wholesale trade (+10,900). Dragging down the payrolls report was the 31,000 jobs lost in construction (following a 53,000 gain in January) and an unchanged count of workers in leisure/hospitality following January’s 89,000 gain. The same report finds average hourly wages growing by 11 cents to $27.66 (up 3.4 percent over the past year) and average weekly earnings increasing by $1.02 to $951.50 (up 3.1 percent over the past year).

A separate survey of households paints a better employment picture, including showing that the unemployment rate declined by 2/10ths of a percentage point to 3.8 percent—the measure has stayed within a tight band between 3.7 percent and 4.0 percent over the past year. While 45,000 people left the labor market during the month, the labor force participation rate remained at 63.2 percent. Labor force participation among adults aged 25 to 54 lost a tenth of a percentage point to 82.5 percent, just off from its highest point since April 2010. The count of part-time workers seeking a full-time opportunity dropped to a post-recession low at 4.310 million while the broadest measure of labor underutilization (the “U-6” series) declined to its lowest point since 2001 at 7.3 percent.labor force participation 2008-18 030819

#2The trade deficit widened in 2018. The Census Bureau and the Bureau of Economic Analysis report that export activity slowed by $3.9 billion in December to $264.9 billion (virtually unchanged from December 2017) while imports accelerated by $5.5 billion to $264.9 billion (+3.1 percent versus December 2017). This left the goods and services trade deficit at -$59.8 billion, its largest since 2008. The goods deficit grew by $9.0 billion to -$81.5 billion while the services surplus shrank by $0.5 billion to +$21.8 billion. The trade deficit for all of 2018 totaled -$621.0 billion, up 12.5 percent from 2017 and the equivalent to 3.0 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product (GDP). The 2017 trade deficit of -$552.3 billion was the equivalent to 2.8 percent of that year’s GDP. Export activity grew $118.5 billion in 2018 to $1.672 trillion while imports were $2.563 trillion (up $292.2 billion from their 2017 total). 

#3The service sector expanded more robustly in February. The NMI, the headline index from the Institute for Supply Management’s Nonmanufacturing Report on Business, jumped three full points to a reading of 59.7. This was the NMI’s 109th straight month with a reading above 50.0, the threshold between an expanding and contracting service sector. Three of the NMI’s four components improved during the month: new orders (up 7.5 points), business activity/production (up 5.0 points), and supplier deliveries (+2.0 points). The component tracking employment shed 2.6 points during the month. All 18 nonmanufacturing sectors expanded during February, led by transportation/warehousing, management of companies/support services, and wholesale trade. While staying “most optimistic,” survey respondents were “concerned about the uncertainty of tariffs, capacity constraints and employment resources.”

#4Construction spending slowed in December. The Census Bureau places the seasonally adjusted annualized value of construction put into place at $1.293 trillion, representing a 0.6 percent drop from November but still a 1.6 percent advance from a year earlier. Private sector construction spending also slowed 0.6 percent in December to an annualized rate of $991.2 billion (+0.8 percent versus December 2018). Private residential construction spending slumped 1.4 percent while nonresidential spending edged up 0.4 percent. Public sector construction spending suffered a matching 0.6 percent drop during the month to an annualized $296.0 billion (+4.8 percent December 2017).

#5New home sales rebounded in December. The partial federal government shutdown delayed report on December new home sales found the annualized count of transactions grew 3.7 percent during the month to 621,000 units. While this was the best month for the Census Bureau data series since last May, new home sales remained 2.4 percent below the year-ago pace. Sales grew during the month in three of four Census regions during December, with the Midwest being the negative outlier. There were 344,000 new homes available for purchase at the end of December, up 3.0 percent for the month and 17.0 percent from December 2017 and the equivalent to a 6.6 month supply. The former was dragged down by declines in exports of petroleum/crude oil and aircraft while the latter blossomed because of increased imports of computers/accessories and consumer goods.

Other U.S. economic data released over the past week:
Jobless Claims (week ending March 2, 2019, First-Time Claims, seasonally adjusted): 223,000 (-3,000 vs. previous week; -7,000 vs. the same week a year earlier). 4-week moving average: 226,250 (+0.7% vs. the same week a year earlier).
Monthly Treasury Statement (January 2019, Federal Government Budget Surplus/Deficit): +$8.7 billion. First 4 months of FY19: -$310.3 billion (76.6% larger than the deficit from the first 4 months of FY18).- New Home Starts (January 2019, Privately-Owned Housing Starts, seasonally adjusted annualized rate): 1.230 million (+18.6% vs. December 2018, -7.8% vs. January 2018).
Productivity (Q4 2018, Nonfarm Labor Productivity, seasonally adjusted annualized rate): +1.9% vs. Q3 2018, +1.8% vs. Q4 2017.
Consumer Credit (January 2019, Outstanding Non-Real Estate Backed Debt, seasonally adjusted): $4.035 trillion (+$17.0 billion vs. December 2018, +5.0% vs. January 2018).
Beige Book

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

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