Austerity vs. the housing recovery: Which is a bigger deal for jobs?

March 7, 2013

Friday morning, when the Labor Department puts out its February jobs report, it will be the latest window into the fundamental clash that is key to understanding the United States economy in 2013.

It pits on one hand the positive factors from the private sector driving the U.S. economy ahead, particularly a surging housing market but also rising stock prices and consumers who have made great progress in reducing their debt burdens. And on the other hand is a federal government that is tightening fiscal policy—through tax increases included in the fiscal cliff deal at the end of 2012, spending cuts in the debt ceiling deal of 2011, and now the sequester of immediate spending cuts that started March 1.


What will Friday's big report show? (Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)

The question for 2013 is which of these forces will prove more powerful; the answer will determine whether the U.S. economy can finally break out of its sluggish growth pattern of the past three years (or, conversely, if it slows down even more or even falls into recession).

In that sense, the February jobs report, and every other one in the coming months, is a referendum on this question of which force buffeting the economy is more powerful.

The good news is that all signs so far are pointing to a solid jobs market in February, despite the fiscal retrenchment. The Labor Department said Thursday that only 340,000 people filed new applications for unemployment insurance benefits last week. Over the last four weeks, the number has averaged 349,000—which is the lowest level since March 2008. That’s right: Half a decade ago.

Payroll processing firm ADP said Wednesday that private employers added 198,000 jobs in February and revised up its January estimate to 215,000. If the official government numbers out Friday match those levels, it will be a positive surprise.

Analysts are expecting the Labor Department numbers to show 163,000 net jobs added in February, little changed from the 157,000 reported in January. The unemployment rate is forecast to remain unchanged at 7.9 percent.

The February report will not reflect the direct effects of sequestration, which didn’t go into effect until March 1. But if government agencies and contractors held back on hiring in February in anticipation of the sequester going into effect, it could show up in weakness in a handful employment categories. Federal government employment excluding the post office has already been on a downward trend, shedding 4,400 jobs in January. Some categories of employment that include many private-sector  government contractors could start to see downward pressure as well, including “management and technical consulting services,” (which contributed 11,500 new jobs in January).

Similarly, retailers have reported that by February they were starting to feel the pinch from the 2 percentage point increase in the payroll tax that went into effect Jan. 1. If that also led them to cut back on workers, then there could be a reversal of the 32,600 jobs that the retail sector added  in January.

That’s the bad news about the ways that the age of austerity might be evident in the new jobs numbers. On the flip side, the strengthening in the private sector could come through as well. That would be most evident in construction employment, which notched a nice 28,000 gain in January and has a recovering housing market at its back. The housing rebound could also show up in categories like wood products manufacturing (somebody has to make all that lumber from which houses are built, and the sector added 900 jobs in January) and real estate (somebody has to sell the houses once they’re built—and that sector added 5,000 jobs).

We may have to wait to see just what economic damage is done by the sequester. But the big release Friday morning will give a sense of what, in this battle over the future of the economy, is winning.

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