Economy Watch: Retail Gains Jobs, Construction Loses Them

In reporting a net gain of 146,000 jobs in November, the Bureau of Labor Statistics also noted that some industries hired quite a bit, while others saw job losses.

By Dees Stribling, Contributing Editor

In reporting a net gain of 146,000 jobs in November, the Bureau of Labor Statistics also noted on Friday that some industries hired quite a bit, while others saw job losses. For instance, employment increased in retail trade, professional and business services and health care was up. By contrast, construction lost a net of 20,000 jobs in November, and manufacturing saw declines in food and chemicals, but gains in car making and wood products that more-or-less cancelled each other out.

The BLS household survey put the national unemployment rate at 7.7 percent in November, down from 7.9 percent in October. The last time the rate was so low was about four years ago, when it was headed upward fast. But the relative improvement in the headline number is still in contrast to the U-6 number, which counts people who have given up looking for work and those working part-time but who want full-time jobs, as well as more conventionally unemployed people (which isn’t a secret; the BLS publishes it, too). As of November, the U-6 was 14.4 percent, down from 15 percent a year ago.

Somewhat unexpectedly, the BLS numbers didn’t show Hurricane Sandy having much of an impact on employment. The bureau issued a statement on the subject that noted: “Hurricane Sandy made landfall on the Northeast coast on October 29th, causing severe damage in some states. Nevertheless, our survey response rates in the affected states were within normal ranges. Our analysis suggests that Hurricane Sandy did not substantively impact the national employment and unemployment estimates for November.”

Railroad traffic mixed in November

The Association of American Railroads reported on Friday that intermodal traffic in November saw an increase for the 36th straight month, totaling more than 934,500 containers and trailers, up 1.2 percent compared with November 2011. On the other hand, the number of carloads of goods shipped by rail (about 1.13 million) was down year-over-year in November by 4 percent.

Factor out coal and grain shipments, and the number of carloads of goods shipped by rail was actually up 5.5 percent in November compared with a year earlier. “Coal and grain together account for almost half of non-intermodal U.S. rail traffic, so they are obviously very important to railroads,” AAR senior vice president John T. Gray noted in press statement.

“But coal and grain carloads often rise or fall for reasons that have little or nothing to do with the economy,” he continued. “Other commodity categories like autos, lumber, and crushed stone, sand and gravel that are more highly correlated with economic growth have been growing.”

Consumer sentiment drops sharply

The preliminary Reuters/University of Michigan consumer sentiment index for December, which was released on Friday, showed an unexpected large decline to 74.5, compared with the final November reading of 82.7. Economists had actually expected the index to edge up a little, considering the relatively good employment situation and recent improvements in the housing market (and lower gas prices, thrown in for good measure).

Yet consumers seem to be a bit more nervous these days. The last time sentiment dropped so much so quickly was during the impasse over the debt ceiling—and now there seems to be an impasse over the fiscal cliff, so it’s possible that a repeat of that uncertainty is one of the main downward drivers of the index.

Wall Street ended the day mixed on Friday. The Dow Jones Industrial Average was up 81.09 points, or 0.62 percent, and the S&P 500 gained 0.29 percent. The Nasdaq was down 0.38 percent.

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