Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Job gain despite winter blast lifts economic hopes

WASHINGTON — Brutal winter weather snarled traffic, canceled flights and cut power to homes and factories in February. Yet it didn't faze U.S. employers, who added 175,000 jobs, far more than the two previous months.

Modest but steady job growth has become a hallmark of a nearly 5-year-old economic rebound that remains sluggish yet strikingly resilient. The economy has been slowed by political gridlock, harsh weather and global crises. Those disruptions have hampered growth but haven't derailed it.

Though the unemployment rate rose to 6.7 percent from a five-year low of 6.6 percent, it did so for an encouraging reason: More people grew optimistic about their job prospects and began seeking work. The unemployment rate rose because some didn't immediately find jobs.

Friday's report from the Labor Department suggested that a long-hoped-for acceleration in growth and hiring still hasn't occurred. But that might not be all bad: Households have pared debt and have avoided the excessive spending and borrowing that have undercut explosive economies in the past. And moderate but consistent hiring still means more people have money to spend.

Total U.S. credit card debt is still 14 percent lower than before the Great Recession began in December 2007, according to the Federal Reserve.

"A modest expansion may very well last longer than one that bursts out with big increases in spending and debt," David Berson, an economist at Nationwide Financial, said.

Some economists also suggested that having endured harsh weather, the economy may be poised to pick up in coming months.

"If not for poor weather conditions, job growth would have been stronger," said Michelle Meyer, an economist at Bank of America Merrill Lynch.

The figures were a welcome surprise after recent economic data showed that severe weather had closed factories, lowered auto sales and slowed home purchases. Along with a sharp increase in wages last month, the jobs report indicates that some employers are confident that consumer spending will pick up in coming months.

The severe winter appeared to have less effect on hiring than most economists had feared. Construction companies, which usually stop work in bad weather, added 15,000 jobs. Manufacturing gained 6,000 for a second straight month. Government added 13,000 jobs, the most in six months.

Despite February's solid overall gain, the monthly average of 129,000 jobs that employers have added from December through February marks the weakest three-month stretch since mid 2012. It's down from a 225,000 average for the previous three months.

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