Two notable headlines were birthed on the week ending on March 9:
“United States February job growth a mere 20,000” and
“Bull market’s 10th anniversary marked on March 9”.
The Friday morning report on the 28-day month was disappointing, coming in at a slim 20,000, way below expectations of a 100,000 gain and a sign that the job market might be beginning to cool.
Wages gained 3.4% in the last year, the best annual gain since April 2009 when the United States was in the Great Recession.
Hiring has been strong in recent months so economists did not panic. Many of them did not see the disappointing number as a signal of an imminent recession.
But there are acknowledgments that the lackluster February figure is a sign that growth might be slowing.
The partial government shutdown and ongoing trade tensions appear to be weighing on consumer spending.
Hiring was slow in every industry except healthcare and white collar businesses.
Construction lost 31,000 jobs and leisure and hospitality, which is normally a driver of growth, was unchanged.
Some experts said that this could be the result of brutal weather in February across the country, including a deep freeze in much of the Midwest.
On the plus side, wages are now growing well above the cost of living. Inflation has been just 1.6% in the last year, according to the Commerce Department.
“If the party was over, we wouldn’t see those wages coming in so strong,” Beth Ann Bovino, chief U.S. economist at S&P said. “A lot of the weakness in hiring looks like it was due to seasonal factors like very cold weather.”
The unemployment rate for Americans who didn’t graduate from high school fell to 5.3% in February, the lowest level since the Labor Department began tracking the statistic in the early 1990s.
Bovino said it’s another sign that the job market is still strong enough that people who were on the sidelines are still searching for jobs and finding work again after years of struggle.
The bull market’s rise to glory was slowed by dismal China data, a dovish about-face by the European Central Bank and the lackluster U.S. jobs report. These factors left stock market investors feeling the weight of the world on their shoulders during the early part of the month, sending Wall Street equities on a five-day skid on rising fears that a global slowdown could derail a bull market that celebrated its 10th anniversary.
For some investors, however, the pullback is less about deteriorating fundamentals and more about a recalibration of overly optimistic expectations.
“In my mind, this is more of an issue that there’s nothing to fear but fear itself,” Putri Pascualy, managing director of Paamco, an Irvine-California-based institutional investment firm, said.
Stocks are still sporting strong gains for the year to date, with the S&P 500 and Dow up more than 9% and the NASDAQ up 11.7%, marking a strong rebound from a sharp end-of-year sell-off.
But, the reality is: what happens next is truly anybody’s guess.