Economy Watch: Jobs Report Weak, But Not All Bad

March's jobs report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics was a disappointment for a number of reasons, beyond mere lackluster U.S. job growth for the month itself.

By Dees Stribling, Contributing Editor

March’s jobs report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics was a disappointment for a number of reasons, beyond mere lackluster U.S. job growth for the month itself. Over the 12 months before March, for instance, the economy created an average of 169,000 jobs a month, a mediocre number by itself, but March 2013’s net increase of 88,000 didn’t even rise to the level of mediocre.

Retail employment took a sizable hit in March, down by 24,000 jobs all together according to the BLS, after adding an average of 32,000 a month during the prior six months (all figures are seasonally adjusted, so the holiday season isn’t the reason for the growth). In March 2013, job declines occurred in clothing and clothing accessories stores (down 15,000), building material and garden supply stores (down 10,000) and electronics and appliance stores (down 6,000).

The official unemployment rate did tick down 0.1 percentage points in March to 7.6 percent, which is the lowest level since the rate was on its way up in 2009. But the recent improvement was mainly a function of people leaving the workforce for one reason or another. The BLS said that civilian labor force declined by 496,000 over the month, and the labor force participation rate decreased by 0.2 percentage points to 63.3 percent.

There were a handful of positives in the jobs report, however. The number of the long-term unemployed people was down to 4.61 million in March, compared with 4.8 million in February. By the BLS definition, someone is long-term unemployed when he or she has been out of work 27 weeks or more, but is still looking for a job. The total number of long-term unemployed accounted for 39.6 percent of all unemployed people.

Also, in the public sector, only the post office lost employees in the March. In fact, state and local governments added a net of 7,000 positions during the month, contrary to recent trends in hiring. Sequestration promises more public-sector job cuts at the federal level, but the impact hasn’t been fully felt yet.

Other economic indicators mixed

In other economic indicators reported on Friday, total February U.S. exports were $186 billion, while imports were $228.9 billion, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. That resulted in a trade deficit of $43 billion, down from $44.5 billion in January.

The Association of American Railroads said that intermodal traffic in March 2013 totaled about 933,200 containers and trailers, up 0.5 percent compared with March 2012. Carloads originated in March 2013 totaled about 1.117 million, down 0.5 percent, but take out coal and grain and carloads were up 3.4 percent. Rail traffic continues to mirror the wider economy: not bad, but not that great either.

Over the weekend, the FDIC reported the fifth bank failure of 2013, Gold Canyon Bank in Gold Canyon, Ariz., which is east of metro Phoenix. At this rate, it will be a slow year for bank failures. Last year, some 51 banks went belly up, and 91 did in 2011, but the worst year among recent years was 2010, when 157 institutions failed.

Wall Street was down on Friday after the release of the jobs numbers, but not precipitously so. The Dow Jones Industrial Average lost 40.86 points, or 0.28 percent, while the S&P 500 lost 0.43 percent and the Nasdaq was off 0.65 percent.

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