Economy Watch: Job Openings Up Since Early 2012

The Bureau of Labor Statistics' JOLTS said that there were 3.7 million job openings on the last business day of January, little changed from the last business day of December.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ JOLTS—which always follows closely on the heels of the month employment situation report—said on Tuesday that there were 3.7 million job openings on the last business day of January, little changed from the last business day of December. JOLTS is unusually snappy for a government acronym: Job Openings and Labor Turnover Summary.

However, the number of job openings is up 8 percent year-over-year compared to January 2012. Openings rose in January 2013 in professional and business services, but decreased in health care and social assistance; none of the BLS’ other categories budged much during the month.

The hires rate (3.1 percent) and separations rate (3 percent) also were little changed in January, according to the BLS. But the bureau’s quits rate (a subset of separations) perhaps illustrates the state of the job market better than hires or separation, since quits are voluntary separations initiated by the employee and thus a measure of workers’ willingness or ability to leave jobs. In January, the quits rate was unchanged at 1.6 percent. The quits rate edged up for total private jobs in January, but was unchanged for government jobs.

Gas prices edge down, at last

The weekly U.S. average retail gasoline price (for regular) fell in early March for the first time since mid-December, according to the U.S. Energy Information Agency on Tuesday.  The March 11 average was $3.71 per gallon, down $0.07 per gallon from February 25.

Mostly the price of gas has been up in recent months, something that few Americans have failed to notice. The U.S. weekly average (regular) retail gasoline price increased from $3.25 per gallon on Dec. 17, 2012, which was the low for all of 2012, to $3.78 per gallon on Feb. 25, 2013, which was the highest nominal retail price ever during the month of February, according to the EIA.

The EIA expects that lower crude oil prices will result in monthly average regular gasoline prices staying near the February average of $3.67 per gallon over the next few months, with the annual average regular gasoline retail price declining from $3.63 per gallon in 2012 to $3.55 in 2013 and $3.38 in 2014. That would ease some of the energy-price pressure on consumers and perhaps encourage spending on other goods and services. But the agency also notes that energy-price forecasts are highly uncertain and the current values of futures and options contracts suggest that prices could differ significantly from the forecast.

Small business a bit more optimistic

The NFIB reported on Tuesday that its Small Business Optimism Index increased 1.9 points in February to 90.8. That’s an improvement over the last several reports—and may hint that small businesses are a bit more willing to hire than before—but the index remains on par with the 2008 average and below the trough of the 1991-92 and 2001-02 recessions, according to the organization.

Wall Street ended the day on Tuesday mixed, but barely. The Dow Jones Industrial Average gained 2.77 points, or a scant 0.02 percent, while the S&P 500 was down 0.24 percent and the Nasdaq lost 0.39 percent.