U.S. Job Openings See Uptick

Light peeks through in the job market; U.S. exports are at an all-time high; and oil and commodities continue to slide.

By Dees Stribling, Contributing Editor

The U.S. Department of Labor said on Wednesday that job openings rose nationwide by 99,000 during March to about 3.12 million, which is the highest total since September 2008, the month the economic panic really got under way. That’s considerably better than the most recent jobs-opening trough in the summer of 2009, when the total was 2.1 million, but not nearly as healthy as the month the recession officially started (December 2007), when there were 4.4 million openings.

A number of industries posted upticks in job openings, according to Labor, including the expected ones such as manufacturing, retail and the healthcare industry. But there were a few surprises as well, such as an increase in construction openings, up to 67,000 in March from 55,000 in February. Curiously, state and local government positions also increased from 260,000 to 278,000 month-over-month. Other businesses, especially in the broad category of professional and business services, saw declines in openings.

Labor keeps track of job openings through its Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey (helpful acronym: JOLTS). It also tracks monthly “separations” (people being shown the door or quitting a job), which totaled 3.83 million in March, as well as hires, which totaled just over 4 million in March.

Exports at record Level, but imports even higher

The United States is now exporting more goods and services than at any point in its history–$172.7 billion in March alone, a record, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce on Wednesday. That’s a 4.6 percent increase compared with February, as international demand and a relatively weak dollar buoy exports to pre-recession levels.

Exports were broadly higher, especially in two categories: foods, feeds and beverages; and industrial supplies. Records were also set in export volume to large parts of the world, such as to Canada and Latin America, as well as to the European Union.

Higher exports counts as good news, but less-good news is the fact that even record exports can’t put the kibosh on the U.S. trade deficit, which grew to $48.2 billion in March as imports swelled 4.9 percent to $220.8 billion, also according to Commerce on Wednesday. That’s the widest trade deficit since June 2010, and the high price of commodities in March, especially oil, are much to blame.

Oil and commodities slide again

But those high prices might not last much longer. Tired of paying around $4 a gallon for gas, U.S. consumers are staying off the road more these days, as evidenced by the latest report from the Energy Information Administration on Wednesday, which said that U.S. demand for gas was down last week, and moreover that the four-week moving average of gasoline demand was 221,000 barrels per day below the same period last year. EIA has lowered its estimate of U.S. demand for gasoline for the rest of the year.

Perhaps coincidentally, oil dropped below $100 a barrel on Wednesday as well. That might have inspired another downward slide in other commodities, as the Reuters-Jefferies CRB index, a benchmark for commodities prices worldwide, was down 3 percent on the same day. Silver got an especially sound thrashing, dropping 7.7 percent for the day, while gold lost 1 percent.

Wall Street wasn’t very happy about things on Wednesday, either. The Dow Jones Industrial Average skidded 130.33 points, or 1.02 percent, while the S&P 500 was hammered to the tune of a 1.11 percent loss and the Nasdaq experienced a 0.93-percent loss.