Job seekers wait in line at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. career fair held by the New York State department of Labor in New York, US, in this April 12 2012 file photo. Picture: REUTERS
Job seekers wait in line at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. career fair held by the New York State department of Labor in New York, US, in this April 12 2012 file photo. Picture: REUTERS

Washington — US hiring cooled by more than forecast in March following a strong February, while wages picked up and the unemployment rate remained the lowest since 2000, returning labour-market progress to a more sustainable pace that may keep US Federal Reserve policy makers on track for further interest-rate increases.

Payrolls rose 103,000, compared with the median estimate of economists for 185,000, after an upwardly revised 326,000 advance, US labour department figures showed on Friday. The jobless rate was 4.1% for a sixth month, bucking forecasts for a decline, while average hourly earnings increased 2.7% from a year earlier, matching projections.

The results follow strong hiring in 2017 and show an average pace of payroll growth this year that’s still sufficient to push down the unemployment rate, which is already below Fed estimates of levels sustainable in the long run. A pick-up in wages — which has remained elusive in this expansion — would support consumer spending, though some economists worry it may also spark inflation.

"The labour market is continuing to strengthen, and we haven’t seen a material shift in that," Sam Bullard, senior economist at Wells Fargo Securities, said before the report. Even when there’s a weak payroll number in one month, "the Fed and the markets are going to look through it".

At the same time, the spectre of a trade war with China is a wild card for the outlook, particularly after US President Donald Trump raised tensions by ordering his administration to consider imposing tariffs on an additional $100bn in Chinese imports.

The slowdown in payroll gains reflected reversals in construction and retail. Construction payrolls fell by 15,000 in March, the first decline since July, following a gain of 65,000 in February. Retailers cut 4,400 workers, following a rise of 47,300 in February.

Weather effect

The weather may have played a role, economists said before the report. Snowstorms in the Northeast probably restricted hours worked and kept people away from their jobs, and March may also have seen some payback after warmer temperatures boosted employment in February.

While the average workweek for all private employees was unchanged at 34.5 hours in March, hours edged down for production and non-supervisory workers, as well as those in manufacturing. A shorter workweek has the effect of boosting average hourly pay.

The participation rate, or share of working-age people in the labour force, decreased to 62.9% after jumping 0.3 percentage point to 63% in the prior month. The rate, still hovering near the lowest level since the 1970s, will continue facing downward pressure as older workers retire. At the same time, improving job prospects are helping attract many people from the sidelines.

Even with the smaller payroll gain, the report is largely in sync with the view of Fed policy makers that the labour market is tight. They see the unemployment rate reaching 3.6% at the end of next year.

The central bank raised interest rates in March by a quarter percentage point and investors expect at least two additional hikes this year. A June increase is seen as likely, but not a certainty.

Later on Friday, Fed chair Jerome Powell delivers his first economic-outlook speech since he took the helm in early February. He is scheduled to speak at 12.30pm local time in Chicago.

Payroll pace

Economists estimate that monthly payroll gains even below 100,000 will be sufficient to keep pushing down the unemployment rate, which is derived from a separate labour department survey of households. Revisions to prior reports subtracted a total of 50,000 jobs from payrolls in the previous two months, according to the figures.

The solid run of hiring and bigger after-tax pay cheques will help sustain growth in consumer spending, which is, nonetheless, projected to cool in the first quarter following the strongest quarter in three years.

Average hourly earnings rose 0.3% from the prior month following a 0.1% gain, in line with economists’ estimates, the report showed. The advance in the 12 months until the end of March followed a 2.6% rise in the year until the end of February. A separate measure, average hourly earnings for production and non-supervisory workers, increased 2.4% from a year earlier.

Worker pay probably also benefited as the 15th of the month, payday for many people, fell within the government’s survey week that includes the 12th.

Employers continue to hire to meet demand, and remain reluctant to let go of existing employees amid a shortage of qualified workers. Weekly unemployment claims are hovering near the lowest level since 1973.

The breakdown of data across industries showed manufacturing added 22,000 jobs. That’s consistent with other reports showing strength in factory activity. Service providers increased payrolls by 87,000 workers.