Daniel Gross

Friday’s Economic Data Dump Wasn’t All Bad News

There's more to economic data than the jobless numbers. And on a day like today, thank heavens that's the case. The awful May jobs payroll report dominated headlines, drove the political narrative and caused stocks to fall by about two percent on Friday. The number — 69,000 jobs created — was uncomfortably close to zero and quickly led many analysts to claim the U.S. economy was approaching stall speed.

But there was plenty of other news to digest. It was all pretty much non-tragic. Some of it was even good.

At 8:30 a.m., the same instant that the Bureau of Labor Statistics delivered the buzzkill jobs report, the Commerce Department reported on personal income and spending for April. The result: Personal income rose .2 percent in April from March, and the March figure was revised upward to a gain of .4 percent. The savings rate dipped down to 3.4 percent. In other words, in April, Americans earned more than they did in March, and they spent a higher chunk of those earnings than they did in March.

Signs of Growth

Construction spending rose .3 percent in April from March, and was up 6.8 percent from April 2011, led by a strong increase in residential construction spending.

Later in the morning, the Institute for Supply Management published its May report on manufacturing business. Any reading over 50 indicates expansion in the manufacturing sector. It came in at 53.5, down from 54.8 in April, but still solidly in positive territory. The new orders component of the index rose significantly.

Throughout the day, auto sales trickled in. Auto sales are an extremely important metric. Cars are the biggest retail industry and the biggest manufacturing industry in the U.S. They represent big-ticket purchases that require the extension of significant credit. And by and large, the figures for May 2012 were positive. Chrysler reported that sales were up 30 percent from a year ago, while GM's sales rose 13 percent and Ford's rose 11 percent. Foreign-based auto companies staged even more dramatic increases. Toyota's sales were up 90 percent in May 2012 from May 2011 (a month in which its sales were heavily impacted by the tsunami), while Honda's rose 47 percent. It's likely the pace of car sales in May from April.

Construction spending, income, and car sales all speak to real, measurable activity in the economy. The data are all consistent with growth — not impressive growth, but growth nonetheless. Macroeconomic Advisers, which plugs every bit of new incoming data into its existing model and continually updates its projections, said today that, after the flurry of data this week, it believes the U.S. economy is growing at a 2.4 percent rate in the current quarter. That's faster than the rate of growth in the first quarter.

So, yes, the jobs number was poor. And it shouldn't be ignored. There is a crisis of unemployment in this country and our policymakers aren't doing anything about it. But the jobs report was something of an outlier among Friday's flurry of economic data. In and of itself, the addition of 69,000 jobs in a month does not signify that the economy has lost the capacity to grow, or even that it's slowing down.

Daniel Gross is economics editor at Yahoo! Finance.

Follow him on Twitter @grossdm; email him at grossdaniel11@yahoo.com.

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