Don't blame President Trump for a wicked slowdown in March job growth. Or the Federal Reserve.
Yes, it's true that the central bank raised short-term interest rates by another 25 basis points, taking them to a range of 0.75 to 1%, and signaled that they would continue to climb. And it's also true that the GOP's failure to repeal Obamacare raised doubts about the ability of Trump, a political novice, to quickly deliver the tax cuts and economic stimulus he promised while campaigning.
Both developments, however, came too late in the month to have much impact, said Ryan Sweet, director of real time economics at Moody's Analytics. The Labor Department's surveys generally occur around the 12th, and the Fed's monetary policy committee didn't announce the rate hike until March 15, while the unpopular Republican health-care bill wasn't pulled until a week after that.
The more likely culprit for employment gains of just 98,000 -- less than half the growth in January and February -- is the weather, Sweet said.
"January and February were unseasonably warm and had very few storms, so when weather turned more seasonally normal in March, that likely dampened some hiring," he said. It may have curbed payroll growth by as much as 100,000 jobs, Joe Lavorgna, a Deutsche Bank economist, estimated in a note to clients.
Further, "a late Easter may have weighed on retail unemployment," Sweet noted in a telephone interview.
The spring holiday, which typically brings a surge in shopping for clothes and shoes at retailers from Nordstrom to Ralph Lauren , doesn't arrive until April 16 this year. Industry employment dropped by 30,000 last month as chains such as J.C. Penney closed stores and slashed positions.
Sweet's assessment of the slowdown echoed concerns from economists a month ago that relatively strong gains in an usually warm February, when jobs at construction firms such as KB Home grew by 59,000, might curb expansion later in the year. That was borne out, with construction payrolls increasing by only 6,000 in March.
Despite the weak hiring number, however, the unemployment rate declined to 4.5%, the lowest since May 2007, and trend growth -- the average over three to six months -- remains at about 180,000.
That's more than enough for the Fed's monetary policy committee to continue raising short-term interests toward a historically normal level, he said, after keeping them near zero for a full seven years after the 2008 financial crisis. Further hikes could boost revenue for lenders such as JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo , which typically benefit from passing on increases more quickly to borrowers than to depositors.
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"This is a wash for the Fed," Joseph Song, an economist with Bank of America, said in a telephone interview. Fed Chair Janet Yellen has previously suggested 75,000 to 125,000 new jobs each month would keep the unemployment rate level, he noted. The March figure is roughly the midpoint of that range.
"The number they'll focus on more is the unemployment rate," Song added. "It's somewhat of an eye-popping number for them," he explained, since the central bank has estimated a level of 4.8% would represent full employment in the U.S.
If the March slowdown is a temporary blip because of the weather, April may see gains of as much as 200,000, said Deutsche Bank's LaVorgna, who predicts two more 25 basis-point rate hikes from the Fed this year.
"The trend is more important for the Fed," Sweet said. "The odds are very high that they're going to raise rates at the June meeting," since average gains are "running more than enough to continue to chip away at any slack that's left in the job market."
(What will move markets this quarter and how should investors position themselves ahead of time? Jim Cramer sat down with four of TheStreet's top columnists recently to get their views. Click here to listen to his latest Trading Strategies roundtable with them and read their advice for stocks, bonds, forex and gold.)