Array of “Soft” Economic Reports to Please Any Wonk

Mar 4, 2010
This article is part of a series called News & Trends.

If you are wonky about economic indicators and labor market stats, this is your lucky week. No fewer than than three reports came out today; one came out Monday; a fifth — the highly anticipated monthly unemployment report — is due out Friday morning.

Today’s reports, considered a help wanted seriesharbinger of the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ unemployment report, are decidedly positive in that “less bad” way we’ve been seeing since late summer.

The most authoritative of the reports came from the Federal Reserve, which reported in its so-called Beige Book that “economic conditions continued to expand” in February, despite severe snowstorms that held back activity.

The book,  a summary of economic conditions in the 12 Fed districts, said consumer spending increased, though the snowstorms had a limiting effect. Loan activity was “soft,” said the Fed. “Most Districts indicated that banks remained cautious about lending.”

Not surprisingly, the Fed reported an uptick in hiring or a slowdown in layoffs in some of the federal reserve districts, but “labor markets generally remained soft throughout the nation, which resulted in minimal wage pressures.”

Outplacement firm Challenger, Gray, & Christmas confirmed the layoff slowdown in its monthly report. The firm said U.S. employers announced in February the fewest job cuts in some three years. Employers announced 42,090 job reductions last month, the least since July 2006, and down 77 percent from the 186,350 of February 2009.

“Employers have shifted away from downsizing and are poised to start adding workers,” CEO John A. Challenger said in today’s release of the numbers. “It may be a couple of more months before hiring begins to surge.”

Surge might be an optimistic term. Most labor economists expect hiring to grow only slowly. That belief got some props Monday from The Conference Board’s Help Wanted OnLine Data Series. The series reports the number of new and total jobs posted online each month. For February, The Conference Board said the number of job postings declined by 66,900. According to the data, 3.957 million jobs were advertised during the sample period in February.

A similar analysis by Monster — the Monster Employment Index — is to be released Thursday.

The ADP National Employment Report, based on the payrolls for the millions of workers ADP processes every month, shows nonfarm, private employment dropped by 20,000 workers in February. Another smallest here; the reduction was the lowest in two years.

The ADP report often varies widely from the official BLS report due to the inclusion of government employment and variances in methodology. In the summary, ADP notes that it expects the BLS report to show a larger workforce reduction than its own because of the adverse weather.

These up and down reports, so widely reported in general consumer media, may in part explain one more survey result. Last week’s release of the Consumer Confidence Index showed a sharp drop in February. The Index dropped 10.5 points from the adjusted January number and is now at 46.0.

Says the report: “Those saying jobs are ‘hard to get’ rose to 47.7 percent from 46.5 percent, while those saying jobs are ‘plentiful’ decreased to 3.6 percent from 4.4 percent.”

This article is part of a series called News & Trends.
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