WASHINGTON – The momentum in the U.S. labor market flagged in March, new government data showed Friday, with the private sector and the government adding only 98,000 jobs as winter storms weighed on economic activity, the lowest gain in nearly a decade.
Economists surveyed by Bloomberg had expected 175,000 jobs to be added in the month.
“It was a disappointment,” said Beth Ann Bovino, chief economist at S&P Global Ratings. But the lower job gains in the month were likely due largely to temporary factors, like weather, she said. “Also it comes after strong job gains the prior few months and maybe businesses are taking a break.”
Other data released Friday morning showed a picture of a strong labor market, especially the unemployment rate, which fell to 4.5 percent from 4.7 percent the previous month. Average hourly earnings rose by 5 cents to $26.14, following a 7-cent increase in the previous month.
The professional and business services industry did much of the hiring in March, adding 56,000 positions. The mining sector and health-care sectors also grew strongly, while the retail industry shed 30,000 jobs as department stores and other physical retail outlets around the country shut their doors.
The Labor Department also revised its estimates for job creation in January and February, with the combined total falling by 38,000. Still, the nation has added 178,000 new jobs on average over the past three months, far above what economists say is the pace necessary to keep up with population growth.
Economists had widely expected the official jobs data for March to come in below those of January and February, when unseasonably warm weather buoyed many industries. In what was the second-warmest February on record, the construction industry added more jobs than it had in a decade.
In March, however, a cold snap and winter storm returned to dog the East Coast and Midwest, weighing on businesses and employment.
The labor force participation rate, which measures the proportion of the population that is employed or actively looking for work, held steady at 63 percent in March. The broadest measure of unemployment, which counts so-called discouraged workers who have given up looking for work and those who are employed part-time but would like to be full time, fell sharply in the month, to 8.9 percent.
Coming alongside a significant fall in unemployment claims in early April, these measures likely signal a tighter labor market, where many qualified people who want a job are able to find one, and companies have to work harder to find talent.
“Companies that are growing want to hire really good people, and when you have an unemployment rate under 5 percent, there’s a shortage of them,” said Tom Gimbel, chief executive of national staffing and recruiting firm LaSalle Network.
Yet the strength of the economy still varies significantly by region, with the unemployment rate ranging from less than 3 percent in some states to more than 6 percent in others, Jed Kolko, chief economist at job site Indeed, said in a note.
A survey of private-sector payrolls by payrolls processor ADP released Wednesday morning showed the U.S. adding 263,000 private-sector jobs in March, far exceeding expectations. But some economists, including Ian Shepherdson of Pantheon Macroeconomics, said that the ADP figures likely overstated the official data, since the ADP survey includes lagged data from the previous month.
The strength of the U.S. economy in recent months has helped persuade the Federal Reserve to continue taking its foot off the accelerator by gradually raising interest rates from the ultra-low levels of the recession. The Fed lifted its main interest rate on March 15, only the third such move in more than eight years.
Economists said March’s lower job numbers alone were unlikely to dissuade the Federal Reserve from hiking rates again, perhaps as soon as their two-day June policy meeting. Following the jobs report on Friday, investors saw a 63 percent chance of a rate hike in June.
Discussions from inside the central bank show that Fed officials are relatively confident they are nearing their goal of ensuring full employment for the U.S. economy, and are instead shifting their focus to restraining the threat of emerging inflation. Core inflation, which excludes volatile food and energy prices, remains below the central bank’s long run target of 2 percent, but it has inched closer in previous months, rising 1.8 percent from the year-ago period in February.
While economic data for the U.S. remains strong, some analysts caution that investors may already be losing patience with the White House’s ambitious economic promises, only 77 days into Donald Trump’s presidency.
U.S. stock markets surged following the election on expectations that President Trump would deliver on bold promises to buoy U.S. industry by slashing regulations and corporate taxes. But the White House has faced early obstacles introducing its health-care and tax plans into Congress, and much of the news cycle has been dominated by hearings about connections with Russia and infighting in White House leadership.
Meanwhile, Trump’s ambitious campaign promises related to reforming America’s trade strategy and rebuilding its infrastructure mostly have yet to materialize.
“After the surprise outcome of the presidential election, financial markets quickly priced expected action on a number of key campaign themes,” analysts from Goldman Sachs wrote in a note on Thursday. “But investors have become more skeptical since the inauguration, and over the last few weeks in particular the failure of (the Affordable Care Act) repeal and replacement has sharply undermined the perceived likelihood of major policy changes.”
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