Is a mild winter inflating February’s strong job growth?

March 8, 2013

It's certainly encouraging that the U.S. economy added 236,000 new jobs in February. But does that mean that hiring is about to accelerate? Or could it all just be a blip thanks to another unusually mild winter?


We've been seeing less of this. (AP)

After all, we've seen this before. Last February, the economy added a stunning 271,000 jobs. Rejoicing followed. Economists announced that a full-throttled recovery was finally here. And then ... it all fizzled. Job growth was weak in the spring and summer of 2012.

One theory for last year's bizarre jobs patterns is that a warm winter had "pulled forward" hiring. That is, because the first few months of 2012 were so warm, construction projects got underway that would have otherwise happened in the spring and summer. And a mild winter meant fewer snowstorms and other disruptions to the economy than usual. The forecasting firm Macroeconomic Advisers estimated that weather effects had artificially inflated February 2012 employment by 72,000 jobs.

So is that happening this time around? Let's look at some of the evidence for both sides of the debate:

Yes, February's jobs report is just a blip caused by weather: We don't have U.S. climate data for February 2013 yet, but the number of heating degree days for January was lower than average, according to the National Climatic Data Center. That's one hint that we've seen an unusually mild winter.

Another clue is that the number of people whose jobs have been disrupted by weather has been unusually low for the past three months. You can see that data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics here. About 237,000 people reported that they had jobs but couldn't get to work because of bad weather in February. That's well below the long-term average of about 313,000. And note that February 2012 had an unusually low number of winter weather disruptions too (around 171,000).

It's also notable that this February's strong jobs report was driven by strong performance in sectors that are tied to weather. Construction added 48,000 jobs, more than usual. Leisure and hospitality turned in strong performances. That's one sign, albeit tentative, that a mild winter might be driving some of the gains.

At least one economist is sounding a note of caution. Here's Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research: "The 236,000 new jobs reported for February are a good sign and better than generally expected, but there is the risk that this is being driven by unusually good winter weather. This could lead to a situation like we saw last year with very weak job growth in the spring as the result of hiring being pulled forward."

No, stop worrying, it's really a strong recovery: The flip side is that this jobs report was driven by strong gains everywhere, not just in construction. Professional and business services saw huge gains. Retail added 23,700 jobs. And so on. It's hard to chalk all that up to a mild winter.

And even when it comes to construction, it's worth looking at the long-term trends. Here's a great chart from Derek Thompson showing that construction has been on a steady upward swing for the past year. Last February, by contrast, construction was still fluctuating wildly:

That's one sign that a housing recovery is underway and pushing the economy forward. My colleague Neil Irwin wrote more about that yesterday.

In any case, we won't know for some time whether this month's report is the first sign of faster growth or just a mild-winter-induced blip. But, again, we got a similarly strong jobs report last February, and the weather theory turned out to be quite plausible.

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