April Employment Up, Q1 Consumer Spending Weak

Financial FAQs

Total nonfarm payroll employment increased by 211,000 in April, and the unemployment rate fell to 4.4 percent from 4.5 percent in March, reported the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics today. Job gains occurred in leisure and hospitality, health care and social assistance, financial activities, Business and Professional Services, and government.

Both the unemployment rate, at 4.4 percent, and the number of unemployed persons, at 7.1 million, changed little in April, says the BLS. But over the year the unemployment rate has declined by 0.6 percentage point, and the number of unemployed has fallen by 854,000.


Graph: Marketwatch

That is progress, and probably why the Federal Reserve will raise rates again in June. It said in its FOMC press release of this week’s meeting that it left a key borrowing rate unchanged and dismissed a weak first quarter GDP growth as temporary, meaning it is still on track to raise interest rates at a gradual pace.

“The [Federal Open Market Committee] views the slowing in growth during the first quarter as likely to be transitory,” the statement said. Job gains were described as “solid,” as were the fundamentals underpinning the continued growth in consumer spending. Business fixed investment “firmed,” the central bank noted.

The number of persons employed part time for economic reasons (sometimes referred to as involuntary part-time workers) declined by 281,000 to 5.3 million in April. These individuals, who would have preferred full-time employment, were working part time because their hours had been cut back or because they were unable to find full-time jobs. Over the past 12 months, the number of persons employed part time for economic reasons has decreased by 698,000, a good sign.

That may be due to very strong growth in both the service and manufacturing sectors. The 16 non-manufacturing (service) industries reporting growth in April include Construction, Retail, Healthcare, Real Estate, Finance & Insurance. The only industry reporting contraction in April is Agriculture, Forestry, Fishing & Hunting.


Graph: Econoday

And in manufacturing 16 of the 18 industries reported growth in April. All parts of the survey registered above 50 percent, meaning most sectors were expanding, signaling continued growth. “The New Orders Index registered 57.5 percent, a decrease of 7 percentage points from the March reading of 64.5 percent,” said the ISM Manufacturing report “The Production Index registered 58.6 percent, 1 percentage point higher than the March reading of 57.6 percent. The Employment Index registered 52 percent, a decrease of 6.9 percentage points from the March reading of 58.9 percent.”

So, business activity is still growing in most of the U.S. economy. Then why doesn’t’ this translate to higher economic growth? Q1 GDP expanded at just 0.7 percent, while Q4 2016 GDP growth wasn’t much better at 2.0 percent. The culprit was lower consumer spending in Q1.

There was a drop in exports, and increase in imports. In other words, consumers bought more from overseas that it produced in the U.S. So, consumers are spending, but it doesn’t help domestic production, and hence GDP growth, so that consumer spending rose just 0.3 percent for the most embarrassing annualized pace since 2009, said Econoday.


Unemployment is unusually low and consumer confidence unusually high making the results difficult to explain. The effect of seasonal adjustments are exaggerated during the winter and may very well be holding back the results. Yet even for a first quarter, this one was slow.

Harlan Green © 2017

Follow Harlan Green on Twitter: https://twitter.com/HarlanGreen

About populareconomicsblog

Harlan Green is editor/publisher of PopularEconomics.com, and content provider of 3 weekly columns to various blogs--Popular Economics Weekly and The Huffington Post
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