3 reasons the disconnect between high unemployment and available job openings could continue long-term, according to Morgan Stanley’s wealth-management CIO

Lisa Shalett
Lisa Shalett, the chief investment officer of wealth management at Morgan Stanley.

  • Lisa Shalett analyzed the disconnect between robust hiring demand and elevated joblessness.
  • The Morgan Stanley wealth-management CIO named three factors that could make the disconnect persist.
  • They are accelerated retirements, a growing skills gap, and geographic imbalances in the labor pool.
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The number of job openings in the US reached a record high of 9.3 million in April. At the same time, the unemployment rate remained elevated at 5.8%, according to data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The disconnect between these figures has been the source of debate for many economists and market watchers.

Now, Morgan Stanley is shedding some light on why the US economy may be seeing such a dynamic.

In a blog post this week, Lisa Shalett, Morgan Stanley’s chief investment officer of wealth management, described three reasons behind the high levels of unemployment amid record available job openings. She detailed the challenges facing both employers and job seekers in today’s jobs market.

Shalett says job seekers are struggling with public-health concerns, the availability of childcare, and the seasonality of school reopenings, while also noting that some experts believe pandemic-related federal aid might dissuade some unemployed people from returning to work.

On the other hand, Shalett says employers are struggling to find talent, with some manufacturers even cutting shifts to avoid operating at a loss.

Shalett goes on to reveal three main reasons the disconnect between high unemployment and available job openings might linger.

Accelerated retirements

The first factor Shalett cited in her blog post was accelerated retirements. According to Morgan Stanley’s chief US economist, in the 12 months to February, the US retiree population jumped by 2 million.

Shallet said this trend couldn’t be explained by aging alone and might lead to a persistent gap between unemployment and job openings.

A widening skills gap

The second factor is a widening skills gap between what employers need and what employees have to offer.

The CIO said this suggested there was a tighter labor market than indicated by headline unemployment data, as companies compete for a smaller field of qualified workers.

A Beyond Skills survey of 1,000 executives across several sectors found that more than 60% of business leaders believed the events of 2020 had widened the skills gaps in their businesses, per City AM.

Geographic imbalances in the labor pool

Finally, Shalett highlighted “pandemic relocations” that had become permanent. She said resulting geographic imbalances in the labor pool had added to the disconnect between the number of jobs on offer and the number of job seekers.

Nearly 36 million people changed addresses in 2020, according to data from the US Postal Service. And a CBRE analysis found that “net move-outs from high-cost coastal cities increased.”

Shalett warned clients in her post that if these factors continued to foment a tighter labor market, it could cause inflationary pressure.

She said investors should watch average hourly earnings, total real income, and the Employment Cost Index for evidence of “sticky inflation.”

The CIO also recommended investors “emphasize security selection, with a focus on companies that have pricing power and levers to sustain profit margins in the face of growing headwinds.”

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25 states are moving to end unemployment benefits. 15 of them have lower than average vaccination rates.

sears vaccine
People pass walk by the Vaccination center at the Townsquare Mall in Rockaway, New Jersey on January 8, 2021. – Governor Murphy toured a vaccine “mega” site at a former Sears store in Morris County, where health officials hope to vaccinate more than 2,000 people per day in coming weeks once the vaccine arrives.

  • 25 states are cutting off extra federal unemployment benefits early.
  • That decision will impact about four million workers, and cause many to lose benefits completely.
  • Almost every state cutting benefits is still below pre-pandemic employment.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Half of all states in America are ending their participation in federal unemployment benefits early, leaving millions of workers with greatly reduced benefits – or no benefits at all.

Twenty-three of these states are still below pre-pandemic employment, while 15 have lower than average vaccination rates. That means that workers being pushed back into the workplace – especially in the service industry – may find themselves exposed to more unvaccinated customers.

It also means that more workers in those states are still actively looking for, but not finding, work, indicating that those states may not actually be ready to pull the plug on increased benefits.

Even so, at least four million workers stand to see their benefits slashed or cut completely, according to an estimate from Andrew Stettner at the left-leaning Century Foundation. Overall, according to Stettner, 2.1 million workers on Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) and Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) – both federal programs – will completely lose their benefits.

People receiving those include newly eligible gig workers, who have not traditionally been able to receive benefits, and those who have been unemployed long enough to exhaust regular state benefits.

Governors have cited higher unemployment benefits as a disincentive for workers returning, although the story may be more complex. Some workers are rethinking what they want out of work completely, while others have found their industries irrevocably altered by the pandemic’s economic devastation.

All of the states moving to end their unemployment benefits are led by GOP governors. An economic research team at JP Morgan said in a note that it “looks like politics, rather than economics, is driving early decisions to end these programs.”

But one reason that workers may not be returning is continued COVID safety concerns. People over 55 and those with young children have been primary drivers of the drop in the labor force, according to a research note from UBS economists led by Andrew Dubinsky.

Vaccination rates are low in many of the states cutting benefits

In states moving to end their participation in federal unemployment benefits early, the population tends to be less vaccinated. Four of the five states with vaccination rates under 40% are opting out of federal UI.

Vaccination rates are lower in the states that are cutting benefits. Using CDC data from May 27, the average rate among those cutting states is 45.95%, while the rate is 55.14% among states continuing these benefits.

The following map shows the share of adults, aged 18 and older, in each state that are fully vaccinated as of May 27. States marked with an “X” are those cutting federal unemployment benefits.

Louisiana is the only one of the five states with vaccination rates of 40% or lower not cutting benefits. Only four of the 25 states cutting federal unemployment benefits have rates of at least 55%, while 14 states not cutting benefits have rates of at least 55%.

Some states ending benefits are close to pre-pandemic employment

Almost every state is still below pre-pandemic employment, but those cutting benefits seem to be closer to employment levels seen in Feburuary 2020.

The following map shows the percent change in employment from February 2020 to April 2021. States marked with an “X” are those cutting federal unemployment benefits.

Some of the largest employment gaps are in states not cutting benefits, such as Hawaii, New York, and Nevada. Twelve states not cutting benefits are at least 7.0% below their pre-pandemic employment. Alaska has the highest percent decline among the states cutting benefits at -6.9%, followed by Florida at -5.5%.

Some states cutting benefits seem to be closer to getting back to February 2020 employment, such as Montana and South Dakota. These two states are less than 2% below pre-pandemic employment as of April 2021. Utah and Idaho, two states that are soon cutting benefits, are the only states above pre-pandemic employment at 1.2% and 1.5% respectively.

Texas has an unemployment rate above the current national rate and is 3.4% below pre-pandemic employment as of April 2021. On May 17, Gov. Greg Abbott made the announcement that benefits would end come June 26. Texas is the largest state to announce an early termination of federal unemployment benefits.

Dina Jones, 54, is one of those unemployed Texans. She lives in the Houston metropolitan area, and is currently receiving PUA. That means that, come June 26, she will lose all of her benefits.

“We’re scrambling faster to try to find a job,” Jones told Insider, saying she’s overlooked for roles every single week. She added: “I do agree that we should all go to work and we should not be collecting from the government, but he [Abbott] dropped it so fast. People are going to be scrambling.”

A report from the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute (EPI) found that “nearly all the states cutting UI still have significantly fewer jobs than before the pandemic.” In Texas, for instance, nearly one million workers are “officially unemployed,” meaning that they’re actively looking for work but haven’t had luck yet.

Jones is one of them. She said she’s tired of being home all the time, and wants to work. But what stings is hearing Abbott say that that there are plenty of jobs out there, especially since they pay significantly lower than what she used to earn. She said she’s still getting rejected from jobs that pay half of her prior wage.

“What are you telling me, Governor Abbott, that I’m supposed to go to be a cashier?” she said. If she has to go take one of those lower-paying jobs, “I will come home and cry every day of the rest of my life.”

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April’s dismal jobs report shows the 2019 economy is not coming back and that’s a problem

bartender
The US is reopening to a reshaped economy where consumer spending is recovering faster than jobs.

  • The US economy only added 266,000 jobs in April, far less than economists’ predictions of 1 million.
  • While leisure and hospitality showed the biggest gain, they were still far below pre-pandemic norms.
  • The jobs report signals that the reopened economy won’t look like 2019’s for a long time.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

April’s jobs report is a big yikes.

The US economy only added 266,000 nonfarm payrolls last month, the Bureau of Labor Statistics announced Friday. That’s way less than 1 million, the median estimate for payroll gains by economists surveyed by Bloomberg. While it was the fourth consecutive month of payroll increases, it was the smallest since September.

As a Morgan Stanley note from economist Robert Rosener’s team stated, “The expected ‘string’ of strong jobs reports has started to look more like a modest trail of crumbs.”

In the process, unemployment has risen again, albeit slightly from 6% to 6.1%, it was the opposite direction of the forecasted decline to 5.8%.

Job growth was strongest in the leisure and hospitality sector, adding some 331,000 payrolls. More than half of this increase was linked to hiring in food services and bars, offsetting declines in other sectors such as temporary help services.

The staggering numbers indicate that while the economy is still set to come roaring back to life this year, it won’t look anything like it did in 2019, and jobs may not come back at nearly the same rate as consumer spending ramps up.

Consumer spending recovering faster than jobs

The US economy is on the verge of a glow-up. Vaccines are increasingly finding their way into arms, big cities are reopening, and Americans are sitting on $2.6 trillion in excess savings, between three stimulus checks and a decline in discretionary spending.

They’re already swiping their cards on things like outdoor activities, transit, restaurants, clothes, and beauty as they prepare for what Insider reported is shaping up to be a “hot vaxx summer.” Economists expect this to continue, predicting that a lockdown lift will see the biggest boomtime in a generation.

But the return of consumers to the economy hasn’t yet been matched with blowout job growth, which is putting the predicted post-pandemic boom in a new light. The US is still down roughly 9.8 million jobs from its pre-pandemic peak. While relaxing restrictions is expected to help narrow this gap within the incoming months, April’s payrolls spark concern over how easy these gains will be.

The disruption to the experience economy is still taking its toll. Leisure and hospitality may have seen the most job gains in April, but employment in certain industries of this sector still hasn’t reached pre-pandemic levels.

Hallmarks of the 2019 economy that suddenly went on pause last year – the payrolls of motion picture and sound recording industries, travel arrangement and reservation services, performing arts and spectator sports, and accommodation – were all still at least 25% below where they were before the pandemic. Hollywood and travel may not look the way they once did on the jobs front – or not for years, meaning job gains will have to come from somewhere else.

Reopening to a reshaped economy

Experts have been warning of millions of jobs permanently lost to the pandemic, Insider’s Ben Winck reported.

Countries will need to “think well in advance” of what a post-pandemic economy will look like so as to add jobs where they’re going to be, Kristalina Georgieva, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, said in a Thursday video conference. Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell also noted that millions of Americans will struggle to find work as they acclimate to a permanently changed labor market.

“The real concern is that longer-term unemployment can allow people’s skills to atrophy, their connections to the labor market to dwindle, and they have a hard time getting back to work,” he said in the conference. “It’s important to remember we are not going back to the same economy, this will be a different economy.”

However, some experts remain optimistic. Jason furman, former top economist to former president Barack Obama, said on MSNBC Friday that he expects hiring to pick up during the summer. “I think we’re gonna see a hot summer in the labor market,” he said.

Lockdown lifts are just beginning and vaccinations are still rolling out. That is all to say: it’s still early on. But that we’re in the first stages of a recovery means that the 2019-vintage experience sector of the economy won’t snap back instantaneously, and that other industries are still grappling with the worker effects of not having properly estimated demand for goods during the pandemic.

April’s jobs report was a strong signal that recovery won’t be as simple as going back to the economic playbook from the before times. Instead of seeing an economy restored to what it once was, we might see an economy reshaped into something new.

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The economy added almost 1 million jobs in March, but 14.3 million people are still jobless

Coronavirus movie theater
Moviegoers shop at concessions before the movie “Godzilla vs. Kong” on the reopening day of the TCL Chinese theatre during the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Los Angeles, March 31, 2021.

  • The March jobs report trounced forecasts, but some unemployment gauges show a steep climb ahead.
  • The “real” unemployment rate used by Fed Chair Powell and Treasury Secretary Yellen fell to 8.7% from 9.1%.
  • The measure includes misclassifications and workers who dropped out of the labor force since February 2020.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The March jobs report was a hugely positive surprise.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics said Friday that 916,000 nonfarm payrolls were added last month. That compares to the 660,000 expected by economists surveyed by Bloomberg and an upwardly revised gain of 468,000 jobs in February. The headline unemployment rate fell to 6%, matching the consensus forecast.

The data signals that the $1.9 trillion stimulus passed in March and gradual reopening drove a strong rebound for the labor market. Leisure and hospitality businesses – those hit hardest by the pandemic and related lockdowns – counted for one-third of the month’s additions. Construction firms added roughly 110,000 payrolls after hiring contracted during the prior month’s harsh storms.

Still, alternative metrics show there’s plenty of progress to be made before the economy fully retraces its pandemic-era losses. Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen have touted a “real” unemployment rate that includes workers that have been misclassified as having a job while they’re on pandemic-related furloughs and Americans who dropped out of the labor force since February 2020.

By Insider’s calculations, that rate fell to 8.7% in March from 9.1%. That level suggests 14.3 million Americans are still jobless.

Separately, the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ broader read of nationwide unemployment remains at worrying highs. The U-6 rate – which includes Americans employed part-time for economic reasons and workers only marginally attached to the labor force – dipped to 10.7% from 11.1%.

The rate of job growth seen in March still pushes a full recovery well into the future. Even if the US continues to add 916,000 jobs every month, it would take until January 2022 to lift employment back to levels seen before the pandemic.

“Today’s report confirms that labor market conditions are rapidly heating up but reaching broad-based and inclusive full employment will be a multi-year process,” Lydia Boussour, lead US economist at Oxford Economics, said in a note.

The White House is already teeing up its next booster for US job growth. President Joe Biden revealed a $2.3 trillion spending plan on Wednesday. The so-called American Jobs Plan includes funds for restoring roads and bridges, building affordable housing, and installing a nationwide broadband network, among other projects. The proposal should create millions of union jobs over the next eight years, according to the president.

“Now it’s time to rebuild,” Biden said during his announcement, adding: “Wall Street didn’t build this country. You, the great middle class, built this country, and unions built the middle class.”

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March began the economic reopening, but its jobs report will hint at how fast things are getting back to normal

Orange County coronavirus
The Promenade in Laguna Beach on Tuesday.

  • The March payrolls report will preview just how fast the US labor market might recover.
  • Data on Friday will likely show strong gains because of stimulus, vaccinations, and reopening.
  • Economists see the report kicking off a period of growth averaging 1 million payrolls a month.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

After months of either meager gains or unexpected losses, March is poised to be a turning point for the US labor market’s recovery.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics will publish its nonfarm payrolls report for March on Friday at 8:30 a.m. ET, providing the most detailed look at how hiring fared throughout last month. The backdrop is promising. March had warmer weather, and a faster rate of vaccinations led some states to partially reopen for the first time since the winter’s dire surge in cases. Coronavirus case counts started to swing higher at the end of the month but largely stayed at lower levels.

Democrats’ $1.9 trillion stimulus plan was also approved early last month and unleashed a wave of consumer demand and aid for small businesses. Sentiment gauges surged to one-year highs, and Americans strapped in for a return to pre-pandemic norms.

Consensus estimates suggest March had the strongest payroll gains in six months. Economists surveyed by Bloomberg said they expected nonfarm payrolls to climb by 660,000, which would be nearly double the 379,000 gain seen in February. The unemployment rate is forecast to dip to 6% from 6.2%.

Some on Wall Street are even more optimistic. March’s release should kick off a “series of extremely strong jobs reports” with payroll additions averaging 950,000 a month through the second quarter, Bank of America economists led by Michelle Meyer said in a note. Unemployment will likely sink to 4.7% by the summer and sink another 0.2 percentage points by the end of 2021, they said.

“It’s hard to keep up with this economy,” the team added. “We think consumer spending is about to take off given the one-two punch of stimulus and reopening.”

UBS holds a similarly encouraging outlook. Economists led by Seth Carpenter see the sharp acceleration in economic activity driving just as strong a jump in hiring. Payroll growth is forecast to average 1 million throughout the second and third quarters as the economy reopens. With roughly 10 million jobs still lost to the pandemic, such a growth rate would recover more than half the country’s missing payrolls.

The bank also said it expected the unemployment rate to decline to 3.6% by the end of 2023, with the drop slowed by a swiftly rising rate of labor-force participation.

Data previewing the headline report showed job growth breaking out of its middling trend. The US private sector added 517,000 jobs in March, according to ADP’s monthly employment report. Though the reading landed just below the median estimate of 550,000, the increase was the largest seen since September and marked a third straight gain.

Separately, weekly jobless claims trended lower through the month, albeit at a sluggish pace. Claims rose to 719,000 last week, according to Labor Department data published Thursday. While that was an increase from the prior week’s total, claims still dropped 3.5% month over month. And the previous week’s reading was revised to 658,000 from 678,000, marking the lowest reading since the pandemic first slammed the labor market.

The Friday report will also highlight whether the recovery is evening out or if a K-shaped trend is growing worse. Unemployment rates for minorities continued to lag those for white Americans in February, and the bulk of early hires were for high-income workers. Preservation of the trend in March’s data could signal that those hit hardest by the pandemic will be some of the last to recover.

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Fed lifts estimates for US economic growth and employment as vaccination speeds up

Federal Reserve
  • The Fed boosted its estimates for economic growth in its projections since December.
  • US GDP is forecasted to grow 6.5% this year, up from the prior estimate of 4.2%.
  • The Fed also sees the unemployment rate sinking to 4.5% by the end of 2021.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Federal Reserve policymakers boosted their projections for the US economic recovery on Wednesday as new stimulus and vaccine rollouts pave the way for a summer reopening.

The Federal Open Market Committee’s median estimate for 2021 gross domestic product growth rose to 6.5% this year, and 3.3% for 2022. That compares to the previous forecasts of 4.2% and 3.2%, respectively. The unemployment rate is now expected to dip to 4.5% this year, an improvement from the prior forecast of 5%.

The FOMC released its quarterly summary of economic projections following the second day of its March meetings. The central bank elected to hold interest rates at historic lows and maintain its pace of asset purchases at $80 billion in Treasurys and $40 billion in mortgage-backed securities per month.

The estimates are the first to be published since December, and therefore are the first to include the impact the $900 billion stimulus package passed late last year, the $1.9 trillion plan signed earlier this month, and the improved pace of vaccination. The developments have all been viewed as major boons to the economic rebound and prompted several economists to lift their own growth forecasts.

The nation’s fight against the coronavirus has also shifted significantly since the December FOMC meeting. Daily case counts surged to a peak above 300,000 in early January but have since tumbled to around 50,000 as distancing measures and vaccination curbs the pandemic’s spread.

New stimulus has been criticized by Republicans for risking runaway inflation through the recovery. Fed officials have countered such concerns in recent weeks. Jerome Powell has repeatedly said that, although reopening and stimulus can produce a quick jump in inflation, the effect will likely be temporary and give way to a similarly sharp decline.

The FOMC’s latest estimates reflect such an outlook. Members see personal consumption expenditures inflation – the Fed’s preferred price-growth gauge – reaching 2.4% in 2021, up from the previous 1.8% estimate. Inflation will then fall to 2% in 2022 and reach 2.1% the following year.

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The US could return to full employment in 2022 due to stimulus boost, Yellen says

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Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen.

  • The US could reach full employment in 2022 thanks to Democrats’ stimulus plan, Sec. Yellen said.
  • The relief package can “really fuel a very strong economic recovery,” Yellen told MSNBC.
  • Yellen also dispelled concerns of the $1.9 trillion package sparking rampant inflation.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

One of the slowest-recovering sections of the US economy can return to pre-pandemic health as early as next year, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said Monday.

That would be the labor market.

While business output and retail sales have all trended higher in recent weeks, job growth continues to lag behind the overall recovery. Friday’s jobs report, while stronger than expected, still shows roughly 10 million Americans out of work. Weekly jobless claims remain at elevated levels. And the “real” unemployment rate, which measures people who have stopped looking for work, stands at around 9% after Friday.

Yellen sees the stimulus changing that, telling MSNBC that the $1.9 trillion stimulus plan moving through Congress will play a critical role in boosting demand and reinvigorating job creation.

“We expect the resources [in the bill] to really fuel a very strong economic recovery,” Yellen said. “I’m anticipating, if all goes well, that our economy will be back to full employment – where we were before the pandemic – next year.”

Senate Democrats approved the new relief package on Saturday, and the House is expected to vote on the last version before President Joe Biden signs it on Tuesday. Biden is overwhelmingly likely to be able to sign it into law before expanded unemployment benefits expire on March 14.

To be sure, “full employment” is different from the “maximum employment” target sought by the Federal Reserve. The central bank has indicated it won’t rein in its ultra-easy monetary policy until wage growth improves and the unemployment rates for minorities and low-income groups fall.

Yellen also dispelled concerns that inflation would run rampant as new stimulus hits households. Direct payments and the unemployment-insurance supplement included in the measure are likely to lift consumer spending and, in turn, lead businesses to raise prices. Republicans have argued the relief plan will lead the economy to overheat, but the Treasury Secretary isn’t concerned.

“I really don’t think that is going to happen,” Yellen said.”We had a 3.5% unemployment rate before the pandemic and there was no sign of inflation increasing.”

The comments come as Treasury yields hover at their highest levels since February 2020. Expectations for strong growth and higher inflation have led investors to dump government bonds and shift cash to sectors best positioned to thrive through the economic recovery.

The rapid leap in Treasury yields jostled markets and caught the Fed’s attention. Central bank officials have so far only made soft comments regarding the sell-off, but some on Wall Street are preparing for the Fed to further clarify its inflation expectations when policymakers meet on March 17.

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The ‘real’ February unemployment rate is closer to 9% after adding dropouts and misclassifications, analysis shows

Northgate Mall empty hall
  • While the February jobs report showed unemployment dipping to 6.2%, the “real” rate is much higher.
  • Fed Chair Powell and Treasury Secretary Yellen said in early 2021 the real rate is closer to 10%.
  • When accounting for misclassification and dropouts, Insider calculates the true rate at roughly 9.1% after February.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

February labor-market data published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics pegged last month’s unemployment rate at 6.2%. The true state of the economy is likely gloomier.

Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen emphasized before the BLS report that the “real” unemployment rate likely stands closer to 10%. Such an unofficial measurement ropes in workers suspected to have been misclassified as having a job even though they’re actually on a COVID-19-related furlough and people who have stopped looking for work and dropped out of the labor force since last February amid the crisis.

Those populations are left out of the government’s benchmark U-3 unemployment reading – the number that stood at 6.2% after February. By Insider’s calculations, the “real” unemployment rate touted by Powell and Yellen stands at roughly 9.1% for the same period.

Other gauges used by BLS paint a similarly bleak picture. The U-6 rate – which includes Americans marginally attached to the labor force and those employed part-time for economic reasons – held at 11.1% in February, according to the Friday release. The gauge peaked at 22.9% in April 2020 but still has plenty of room to fall before reaching the pre-pandemic reading of 7%.

To be sure, the jobs report wasn’t all bad. By some measures, it was a sign of major improvement. Nonfarm payrolls grew by 379,000, handily exceeding the median economist estimate of 200,000 payrolls. The hospitality and leisure industries accounted for 355,000 of those new jobs, a signal that the sectors hit hardest by the virus and related lockdowns are steadily improving.

The diffusion index – which tracks how many sectors added jobs versus those cutting payrolls – returned to positive territory, signaling job gains are broadening. The labor-force participation rate held steady at 61.4% after declining the month prior.

The data underscores recent commentary from Fed Chair Powell on his economic outlook. There remains “a lot of ground to cover” before the US comes close to reaching the Fed’s maximum-employment goal, the central bank chief said. And while the unemployment rate remains a key indicator, other gauges are critical for judging the overall health of the labor market, he added. 

“Yes, 4% would be a nice unemployment rate, but it would take more than that to get to maximum employment,” Powell said.

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US economy adds 379,000 payrolls in February, smashing forecasts as virus cases tumble

Fishing store
  • The US added 379,000 jobs in February, beating the consensus estimate of 200,000 additions.
  • The reading marked a second straight month of labor-market expansion and an increase from January.
  • The unemployment rate dropped to 6.2% from 6.3%, putting it lower than forecasts.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

The US labor-market recovery accelerated in February as daily COVID-19 cases swiftly declined and the pace of vaccinations improved.

Businesses added 379,000 payrolls last month, the Bureau of Labor Statistics announced Friday. Economists surveyed by Bloomberg expected a gain of 200,000 payrolls.

The increase follows a revised 166,000-payroll jump in January. The labor market has now grown for two straight months after contracting in December as virus cases surged.

The US unemployment rate fell to 6.2% from 6.3%, according to the government report. Economists expected the rate to stay steady at 6.3%. The U-6 unemployment rate – which includes workers marginally attached to the labor force and those employed part-time for economic reasons – remained at 11.1%.

The labor-force participation was also unchanged at 61.4%. A falling participation rate can drag the benchmark U-3 unemployment rate lower, but such declines signal deep scarring in the labor market.

The bigger picture

Jobless-claims data and private-payrolls reports offer some detail as to how the labor market fared through February, but the BLS release paints the clearest picture yet as to how the coronavirus pandemic has affected workers and the unemployed.

Roughly 13.3 million Americans cited the pandemic as the main reason their employer stopped operations. That’s down from 14.8 million people in January.

The number of people saying COVID-19 was the primary reason they didn’t seek employment dropped to 4.2 million from 4.7 million.

About 22.7% of Americans said they telecommuted because of the health crisis. That compares with 23.2% in January.

Roughly 2.2 million Americans said their job loss was temporary, down from 2.7 million the month prior. The number of temporary layoffs peaked at 18 million in April, and while the sum has declined significantly, it still sits well above levels seen before the pandemic.

Filling the hole

The Friday reading affirms that while the economy is far from fully recovered, the pace of improvement is picking up, most likely tied to the steady decline in daily new COVID-19 cases. The US reported 54,349 new cases on the last day of February, down from the January peak of 295,121 cases. Hospitalizations and daily virus deaths have similarly tumbled from their early-2021 highs, according to The COVID Tracking Project.

All the while, the country has ramped up the distribution and administration of coronavirus vaccines. The US has administered more than 82.6 million doses, according to Bloomberg data. The average daily pace of vaccinations climbed above 2 million on Wednesday and has held the level. At the current rate, inoculating three-quarters of the US population would take roughly six months, but the Biden administration has a rosier outlook.

The president on Tuesday announced the US would have enough vaccine doses for every adult by the end of May. While distributing the shots will most likely last beyond May, the new timeline marks a two-month improvement to the administration’s previous forecast.

Still, other data tracking the labor market points to a sluggish rebound. Initial jobless claims totaled 745,000 last week, according to Labor Department data published Thursday. That was below the median economist estimate of 750,000 claims but a slight increase from the previous week’s revised sum of 736,000. Weekly claims counts have hovered in the same territory since the fall as lingering economic restrictions hinder stronger job growth.

Continuing claims, which track Americans receiving unemployment benefits, fell to 4.3 million for the week that ended February 20. The reading landed in line with economist projections.

Other corners of the economy are faring much better amid the warmer weather and falling case counts. Retail sales grew 5.3% in January, trouncing the 1% growth estimate from surveyed economists. The strong increase suggests the stimulus passed at the end of 2020 efficiently lifted consumer spending in a matter of weeks.

All signs point to another fiscal boost being approved over the next few days. Senate Democrats voted to advance their $1.9 trillion stimulus plan on Thursday, kicking off a period of debate before a final floor vote. President Joe Biden has said he wants to sign the bill before expanded unemployment benefits lapse March 14. The new package includes $1,400 direct payments, a $400 supplement to federal unemployment insurance, and aid for state and local governments.

The bill isn’t yet a done deal. Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin forced a reading of the entire 628-page bill on Thursday, as Republicans seek to at least drag out its passage into law. Not a single Republican senator voted to advance the bill Thursday.

A process known as “vote-a-rama” will start after the 20 hours of debate and give Republicans the chance to further impede a final vote by introducing potentially hundreds of amendments to the bill.

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California, Hawaii, and Nevada saw the largest jumps in unemployment last year, government data shows

FILE PHOTO: An employee routinely sanitizes server trays at a reopened restaurant after restrictions to prevent the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) are eased in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, U.S., June 8, 2020.  REUTERS/Emily Elconin/File Photo
Restaurants are reopening in Michigan.

  • Nevada, California, and Hawaii had the largest unemployment spikes in 2020, new BLS data shows.
  • Nebraska, Utah, and South Dakota saw their unemployment rates rise the least.
  • Employment-population ratios sank to all-time lows in 15 states including Illinois and Virginia.
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The coronavirus sparked the worst unemployment crisis in nearly a century, but the damage differs significantly state by state, according to new data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The nationwide unemployment rate averaged 8.1% throughout 2020 as the pandemic fueled a massive leap in unemployment before giving way to a now-meandering recovery. Yet that overall figure fails to capture massive disparities at the state level.

For one, four states saw average annual unemployment rate above 10% last year. Nevada faced the bleakest downturn, with unemployment averaging 12.8% in 2020. Hawaii and California followed with averages of 11.6% and 10.1%, respectively.

New York – the epicenter of the nation’s first COVID-19 outbreak – saw unemployment average 10% in 2020, according to the Wednesday report.

Conversely, some states’ labor markets saw negligible upticks in unemployment. Nebraska fared the best, with its own rate of 4.2% nearly halving the nationwide figure. Close behind were South Dakota and Utah with average rates of 4.6% and 4.7%, respectively.

Gaps also emerged in states’ employment-population ratios. The metric is a popular alternative measure of unemployment since it counts Americans who dropped out of the labor force.

The ratios fell to record-lows in 15 states, supporting fears that the economic fallout is among the worst ever seen in the US. Nevada, Hawaii, and Rhode Island suffered the biggest declines of the group. The national ratio fell to 56.8% from 60.8% last year.

Mississippi and West Virginia posted the lowest ratios of 50.6% and 50.3%, respectively. To be sure, the readings weren’t the lowest in history for either state. Nebraska ended the year with the highest employment-population ratio of 66.7%.

Overall, 23 states boasted ratios higher than the national figure. Yet all 50 states and the District of Columbia saw their employment-population ratios decline from levels seen in 2019.

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