March Employment Report Shows Growth — But Disappointing Numbers

Apr 3, 2015
Originally published on April 3, 2015 4:13 pm

Editor's note: This story was updated following the 8:30 a.m. ET release of the employment report.

The pulse of the U.S. job market was revealed Friday morning, when the government released employment data for March. Employers added a disappointing total: just 126,000 jobs.

Prior to March, it had been quite a run for the U.S. job market. The economy had added more than 200,000 jobs every month, maintaining a level of job creation that hasn't been seen since a 13-month run back in 1994-95.

Economists had predicted that the economy would add 245,000 jobs in March. They also predicted the unemployment rate would remain at 5.5 percent — and indeed it did, holding steady at that rate in the new report.

Not long ago, Federal Reserve policymakers suggested that when the rate reached that level they could begin raising interest rates. But economist John Canally of LPL Financial says the Fed has adjusted its thinking for a variety of reasons.

First, he says, inflation is running below the 2 percent level that the Fed thinks is optimal for a healthy economy. That's because wage growth is lagging behind the increase in employment figures.

Canally adds: "What the Fed wants to see, or hopes to see, is that all this growth in the job market will eventually begin to push up wages. And then wages are a prerequisite to get any kind of inflation to stick. So until you get some wage inflation, you're not likely to get very much overall inflation in the economy."

Wage growth has been very slow during this recovery, about half its normal rate. That suggests employers aren't having to compete very hard to attract workers. And it may indicate that the current 5.5 percent unemployment rate understates the number of people seeking jobs.

Also, low labor force participation rates suggest a lot of workers remain on the sidelines. And there are 6.5 million part-time workers who want full-time jobs.

Until data on wages, participation and part-time work improve further, Canally thinks the Fed will be reluctant to raise interest rates.

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And now for some disappointing economic news. The government says U.S. employers added far fewer jobs to their payrolls last month than expected. As NPR's John Ydstie reports, job creation was just half of what analysts had predicted. Among the reasons was bad weather.

JOHN YDSTIE, BYLINE: The U.S. economy created just 126,000 jobs in March. That follows 12 straight months of increases over 200,000, the best showing in 20 years. Economist John Canally of LPL Financial in Boston says bad weather during the past couple of months contributed to the weak job growth. That caused weak hiring in construction and retail, hotels and restaurants.

JOHN CANALLY: But you also have to say that the West Coast port strike had an impact because manufacturing is weak. But also the stronger dollar had an impact because we saw weakness in export-oriented jobs.

YDSTIE: The big decline in oil prices also contributed to the weak showing. Oil-drillers have been shutting down rigs as the oil glut has cut prices in half over the past nine months. Last month, employment in the mining sector, which includes oil drilling, fell by 11,000. Layoffs reported by oil companies are even higher. Canally says he doesn't believe this clunker of a report reflects the new trend in job creation. He thinks the pace remains around 200,000 a month. But he says the weak number in today's report will give the Federal Reserve something to think about as it considers when to begin raising interest rates.

CANALLY: You know, if the Federal Reserve was thinking about raising rates as soon as June, they're probably not going to because this report suggests that the labor market is not making as much progress as they would have thought.

YDSTIE: Canally says there were a couple of bright spots in this report. The unemployment rate remained at 5.5 percent, and the pace of wage increases accelerated a bit. John Ydstie, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.