Private payrolls increased by 95,000 in March, but the net gain is the smallest since last June, the Labor Department reports. Today's update represents a sharp slowdown from February's revised 254,000 advance. Even more troubling is the hefty deceleration in the year-over-year trend: private payrolls rose by just under 1.8% for the year through March — the slowest pace in nearly two years.
Today's payrolls report raises more questions than it answers, starting with the obvious one: Is the number du jour a warning sign for the economy? It's too early to say for sure, but in the wake of yesterday's discouraging news for weekly jobless claims and the sluggish rate of increase for last month's print on the ISM Manufacturing Index, the March macro profile so far looks mixed.
By contrast, February data was relatively strong on a number of fronts. It's anyone's guess how, or if, that tailwind will influence the full boat of March numbers once the final reports are in. Meantime, the state of macro looks wobbly, based on the numbers so far.
That said, it's too early to say if we've reached a turning point for the business cycle. A market-based reading of the macro trend still looks positive. It may be tempting to declare otherwise, but without a broader set of data points for March to review, there's still more mystery than clarity. What is clear is that the remaining updates for March deserve close attention, starting with next Friday's update on retail sales, scheduled for release on April 12. Next week's jobless claims number will be closely watched, too, for an early hint at how the labor market is faring in April.
For now, the macro trend in March looks a bit shaky relative to February's robust trend. The critical question is whether the numbers we've seen so far are a sign of things to come or just noise? No one really knows at this point, but clarity is coming… one economic release at a time.