It's been a tale of two recoveries the past few months. The jobs numbers said the economy was still strong, but all the other data said it wasn't. So you'd either think we were in the middle of one of the best years since the late 1990s if you only looked at the booming jobs reports, or in the middle of the same, slow slog we've been stuck in since the recession ended if you looked at consumer spending or durable goods orders. Well, after the economy added a disappointing 126,000 jobs in March, it's only looking like one recovery now. A weaker one.
It was pretty bad news all around. It wasn't just that the economy added 126,000 jobs in March when we'd been expecting 245,000. It was also that we lost 69,000 jobs in revisions to previous months. These tend to mark turning points in the economy. So the depressing message is that things weren't as good as we thought they were. Now, despite all this, the unemployment rate was unchanged at 5.5 percent, but, again, this wasn't cheery news. It was because the labor force shrank by 96,000. The total number of hours people worked also fell. About the only silver lining—and it might not be much of one—is that wages increased 0.3 percent. But you have to squint really hard to see any kind of pattern in the two-steps-forward, two-steps-back wage growth that we've had the past year or so. Over the last 12 months, wages have still only risen 2.1 percent.
But why is the recovery slowing down? Blame the cold weather and the strong dollar. Construction shed 1,000 jobs in March after adding an average of 38,000 the previous three months, probably because winter storms kept crews inside. And manufacturing also lost 1,000 jobs after adding an average of 13,000 the three before that, as the big run-up in the dollar has started to make our exports less competitive overseas. So some of this weakness will melt away as the snow does, but the part that's due to the stronger dollar might not. That depends, though, on whether markets still think the Federal Reserve will start raising rates this year—which they don't now that the recovery seems to be slipping. It's a paradox where the economy only looks strong enough to raise rates if people think the Fed won't do so. But as soon as it looks like the Fed really will raise rates, then the economy stumbles and it has to put those plans off.
As always, though, it's worth taking a longer-term view. Even with the slowdown, the economy has still, as you can see below, added an average of 197,000 jobs the last three months. That's not bad. It just isn't great either. Although, on a less optimistic note, it has been trending down since the end of last year when it was as high as 338,000. The clock might be turning back a little on Morning in America.
Now you should never worry too much about a single bad jobs report. The numbers are just too noisy for you to extrapolate much from any one. But it's harder to dismiss when all the other data has been disappointing too. It's pretty clear that the recovery has down-shifted at the start of the year, but it's a lot harder to tell how long this will last. As in, impossible. Maybe the economy will bounce back once temperatures do. And maybe the Fed will put off raising rates. Or maybe not.
Who knows if this is a dip or just a blip.