Today's non-farm payroll report for March was U-G-L-Y. Former Obama advisor Austan Goolsbee called it a "punch to the gut." Experts were already predicting bad things, but this was way worse than anyone expected. So is everything going to be okay, or is Cyprus starting to look like the better place for a retirement home?
GIGANTIC MISS: JUST 88K NEW JOBS businessinsider.com/the-march-jobs…— Joseph Weisenthal (@TheStalwart) April 5, 2013
Based on what we're seeing from economics watchers across the spectrum, there are basically four standard reactions to choose from. Whatever cause you think is most responsible for the disaster not only says a lot about your worldview, but also helpfully provides a course for action.
1) Blame the sequester. The first and most obvious response is to assume that when every government agency slashes their budgets, the economy tanks. Some would argue that it's way too soon for those effects to be seen in the labor market, but people did see it coming a mile away and may have already been factoring it to their plans. You better hope that new Obama budget proposal actually goes somewhere. (Of course, if it's not the sequester and that's still coming after us, then we're in big trouble.)
Smoking gun behind the weak report is in the hand of the payroll tax hike, not sequestration.— Annie Lowrey (@AnnieLowrey) April 5, 2013
2) Blame the payroll tax. For two years, Americans had been enjoying a 2 percent break in payroll taxes—the money that comes right out of your paycheck and straight to the Treasury. On January 1 of this year, the holiday expired and now the ripple effect has come home to roost. Honestly, this is the most likely culprit. There's no denying that the effect of the tax change was direct and immediately. People simply don't have as much disposable income to spend, dropping demand across the whole economy and forcing businesses to slow down their growth. Everyone knew this would happen, but they let the tax expire anyway. The "silver lining" attitude for this angle is that the payroll tax simply went back to where was pre-recession and businesses just need a little more time to adjust.
3) Blame the weather. March weather really sucked this year, right? No one wants to go to work in cold and snow. Pray for sunshine.
4) It's not that bad. After hearing the number CNBC economist Steve Liesman said, "I'm not sure if I'm sitting on the edge of the windowsill I would jump." Not exactly a ringing endorsement, but definitely a reminder to not panic.
Unemployment rate more important than number of new jobs. I'll keep saying it. #teamdemographics— Conor Sen (@conorsen) April 5, 2013
The good news is that unemployment rate actually went down to 7.6 percent, lower than it's been at any point since Obama took office. Critics will counter that the reason it went down is because the size of the work force (the number of people who are actively looking for jobs) shrank to its lowest level in a generation. That usually means things are so bad that people are giving up on even trying to find work. The counter-counter argument to that is "demographics." Labor force participation is going down and will continue to go down every month for the foreseeable future because baby boomers are retiring. We just don't have as many workers as we used and and that's the way its going to be.
Some other check marks in the report's favor: Every jobs report for the several months has been revised upward in the following month's report, so the number might not be as bad as we think. Summer's coming, which might help get things moving again. There's no election this fall, which means we might actually get a budget this year. (Although that also means no campaign jobs to fill.) Oh, and these numbers aren't that accurate anyway.
Overall, the report still looks like a disaster and a flashing neon sign that says another recession is right around the corner. But it's only one month's data and it's too soon to tell if March is just a blip in a volatile economy or the only warning we're going to get before certain doom. See you next month.