Freezing Weather Put A Chill On Economy, Housing Market?
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Let's turn now to the latest jobs numbers. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says that the economy has added 175,000 jobs last month. That is more than analysts were expecting. And that came in spite of some freezing weather across the country that some experts thought might put a chill on job growth. We wanted to hear more, so we've called once again Marilyn Geewax. She is a senior business editor here at NPR. Marilyn, welcome back.
MARILYN GEEWAX, BYLINE: Hi, Michel.
MARTIN: So just tell us the news. What did we learn today about employment?
GEEWAX: It was a pretty good day. Most economists had been thinking that job growth would be maybe 150,000, and it came in at, you know, a good bit more than that - 175,000. So it's a pretty sharp acceleration from what we had seen in December and January. Those were pretty slack months. So there's more optimism now about the underlying strength of the economy. And we also saw a little bit of wage growth.
MARTIN: I was going to ask you about that...
MARTIN: ...Because that's a subject you've talked with us about before that even when the economy's adding jobs that wages...
MARTIN: ...Don't seem to be moving at all.
GEEWAX: Now I don't want to suggest that people are running out to buy champagne here. It's up 2.2 percent. But that's the first time I've seen in a while where it's really ahead of the inflation rate - so great. If people are getting a little bit of a raise and employers are adding more workers given how bad the weather's been this winter, it's pretty encouraging.
MARTIN: Well, tell me more about the weather if you would. I mean, a lot of people on the East Coast and in the southeast have been affected by cold weather in this part of - where we are. We just had an unusual snow for this time of the year. Has that had any effect?
GEEWAX: It did show up in these numbers. People didn't lose their jobs because of it, but they did lose hours. There were nearly 7 million people who say they usually work full-time, but they got cut to below 35 hours. And that was because a lot of the cases they lost a day of work. For example, a week ago here in D.C., the place where I get my haircut was closed for a day. Well, now in terms of how - what is the big economic impact? My hair was still growing. I still needed to get it cut. So I just shifted to a different day. So the workers...
MARTIN: But the people who work that day - let's say the person...
MARTIN: ...Who normally cuts your hair was scheduled to work that day, she or he didn't get paid that day. And if you made...
MARTIN: ...An appointment for Thursday or the next day...
GEEWAX: Right, right.
MARTIN: ...And that person wasn't scheduled, they aren't going to get paid for that day.
GEEWAX: So people did lose some work, but there's some help there that, let's say, you worked in a place where maybe you were in a factory or you're stocking shelves or something. You lost a day of work, but maybe this week you're getting some overtime. So just how it all comes out in the wash, it probably about evens out. But there's some negative impact there. But maybe not as bad as people were thinking because it'll sort of smooth out over time.
MARTIN: Well, it may not feel like it I know where you are, but we are heading into spring, which is traditionally a big time for selling houses.
GEEWAX: I've heard of that season.
MARTIN: Yes, exactly. We've heard that it does exist. Apparently in some places it does get warm. But is there any sense of optimism - or what's the picture for the housing sector?
GEEWAX: Yes, even in this jobs report, there were reasons to have some optimism about housing. Construction continued to add jobs. And you would think that almost nobody would've been adding construction jobs. But there they were. In residential construction, they were up about 3,400 jobs. So there's this hope that maybe there's a lot of pent-up demand out there and mortgage rates have ticked down a little bit.
They're about 4.25 percent, and it had been about 4.5 percent on 30-year mortgages. So if mortgage rates are a little bit easier, construction has continued, so maybe more houses will come onto the market. Those are reasons to be optimistic. And of course, the time for most home shopping, usually April and May are really strong months for that. People want to be able to move in the summertime when the kids are out of school. So people are out there shopping soon. So these are good indications. And even the idea that home prices are rising for buyers, there's some good news even in that.
MARTIN: Why is that?
GEEWAX: Well, if you're a buyer, you want to have something to buy.
MARTIN: You need some choice.
GEEWAX: You need some choices. And a big problem we've had is low inventories. That is, people haven't been putting their houses on the market because they've been, what they call, underwater. That is, you owe more on your mortgage than you could sell the house for in recent years. Well, who wants to move and end up owing the bank, you know, on your old mortgage. That's a pretty terrible scenario. So people have been holding off, hoping that house prices would rise. And now they have enough to allow people to soften up and move. So you'll see more inventory.
MARTIN: All right. Let's keep an eye on that. Marilyn Geewax is a senior business editor for NPR. She was with us in our Washington, D.C. studios. Marilyn, thank you once again.
GEEWAX: Oh, you're welcome.