February Job Openings and April Consumer Sentiment

KEY DATA: Openings: -176,000; Hires: -67,000; Quits: +19,000/ Sentiment: -3.6 points

IN A NUTSHELL: “The labor market may be strong, but it does have its ups and downs.”

WHAT IT MEANS: The disappointing, but not overly surprising March jobs numbers raised some questions about whether economic growth has moderated recently. Adding a little uncertainty to the situation was the report on job openings and labor turnover, the so-called JOLTS report. This was one of past Fed Chair Yellen’s favorite releases, but it is not clear if current Chair Powell shares the same view. Regardless, job openings shrank in February. Reductions in restaurant, construction and wholesale trade more than offset expanding need for workers in finance and local government. Hiring moderated as well. Now that may seem weird given the huge number of jobs added in the monthly payroll report, but the two don’t have to work in concert because total payrolls are the difference between total new hiring and job reductions. Regardless, for me, the most important number is the quit rate, which reflects the willingness of workers to leave their jobs. While the number of people willingly leaving positions rose, when adjusted for total employment, the quit rate remained constant. Thus, the churn that in the past would force firms to bid for labor is still not rising sharply.

The University of Michigan’s Consumer Sentiment Index moderated in early April, which is hardly a surprise. As noted in the report, a fairly significant proportion of the respondents mentioned the tariff/trade war talk and it doesn’t look as if they think it will be a positive for the economy. Views on current conditions and future activity were both down, reflecting the uncertainty. Finally, it looks as if the index may have peaked and is on a downward trend. Over the year, the sentiment index is and its components are either barely up, or in the case of expectations, actually down. That is not good news for future consumer demand,.

MARKETS AND FED POLICY IMPLICATIONS: While the JOLTS report doesn’t say that labor market conditions are firming, the level of most of the components indicates that conditions remain extremely tight. Though a sentiment decline that is the result of political issue may not have a lasting impact on the economy, with consumer debt levels high and the savings rate low, weakening consumer confidence could affect spending more than normal. The surge in household confidence helped maintain consumer spending and added to the willingness to take on debt. Sentiment is still high, but a continued softening could cause growth to slow. Meanwhile, back in Washington, who knows what will happen next. Really, re-entering the TPP? Wasn’t it supposed to be a total disaster? Coincidentally, at a client meeting on Wednesday, I mentioned that the real purpose of TPP was to isolate China and force it to make concessions. I thought it was a better strategy, even given the faults in the agreement, than tariffs and trade wars. I had no idea that Trump would ask his economic advisor and trade rep the next day to look into possibly joining TPP. But now that he did, maybe we can look at the agreement through less political lenses and see it for its strengths, not just its weaknesses.