Economy Watch: Employment Metrics Not Bad in March

The increase in U.S. jobs in March (up 192,000) was welcome news to those worried that something more deleterious than cold weather had hit the economy during the winter.

By Dees Stribling, Contributing Editor

The increase in U.S. jobs in March (up 192,000) was welcome news to those worried that something more deleterious than cold weather had hit the economy during the winter. On the other hand, March didn’t represent a stellar improvement in jobs. For one thing, the gains in February were revised upward from 175,000 to 197,000, or about the same as March (though of course March itself could be revised upward next month). January’s number was bumped up from 129,000 to 144,000, so on the whole wintertime hiring wasn’t as bad as previously estimated.

Most categories of employment saw some kind of net increase during March, or at least broke even, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. For instance, professional and business services added a net of 57,000 positions during the month, which is roughly in line with the average monthly gains for that category over the last 12 months. Other gainers for March included healthcare (up 19,000), as well as construction, also up 19,000 positions.

Employment in government was little changed in March. A decline of 9,000 jobs in federal government was mostly offset by an increase of 8,000 jobs in local government, excluding education. Over the past year, as the sequester has squeezed federal government coffers, employment by the federal government has dropped by a net of 85,000 jobs.

The BLS also reported on Friday that the number of long-term unemployed (27 weeks or more) didn’t move much in March, coming in at 3.7 million, but is down by 837,000 since March 2013. The long-term unemployed account for 35.8 percent of the total U.S. unemployed population.

Also in March, 2.2 million people were “marginally attached” to the labor force, about the same as this time last the year. The marginally attached don’t have jobs, but they want them, and had looked for a job sometime in the prior 12 months. This group doesn’t officially count as unemployed because they haven’t looked for work in the four weeks preceding the survey. Among the marginally attached, there were 689,000 “discouraged workers” in March, down slightly from a year earlier. Discouraged workers aren’t currently looking for work because they believe no jobs are available for them.

The headline news based on the March report is that the economy has finally replaced all of the jobs lost since the onset of the Great Recession, with the total number of private-sector payroll positions reaching 116.09 million, just passing the most recent peak of January 2008. Of course, the U.S. population has grown since then, but on the other hand, the demographics of baby boom aging are driving down the workforce participation, and so is the trend of younger people staying in school longer.

Oil imports continue to decline

The Energy Information Agency reported on Friday that U.S. total net crude oil imports fell during 2013, even though the share of imports last year from the United States’ top three foreign oil suppliers—Canada, Saudi Arabia and Mexico—was the highest in at least four decades. These three countries provided almost three out of every five barrels of oil imported into the U.S. market last year.

U.S. net crude oil imports in 2013 declined 10.2 percent to 7.6 million barrels per day, the lowest level since 1996, as rising domestic crude oil production cut into the volume of imports needed to meet refinery demand. The overall decline in U.S. net imports has led to an increasing concentration of net imports from the three aforementioned oil-producers, who supplied 61 percent of oil imports in 2013, up from 55 percent the year before and their biggest share since at least 1973.

These oil industry macro-trends aren’t keeping retail gas prices from creeping up recently. According to AAA, the average for a gallon of regular gas was $3.577 on Sunday, compared with $3.484 a month ago. The current price is nearly where it was a year ago—$3.611—and in some high-price states (such as California, Illinois, Florida and New York) gas consumers are now seeing gas at more than $4 a gallon.

Wall Street slid more than usual on Friday, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average off 159.84 points, or 0.96 percent. The S&P 500 lost 1.25 percent and the Nasdaq was down a sizable 2.6 percent.

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