STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
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There is a rhythm to our political news and our economic news right now, and a big part of that rhythm is the monthly jobs report. The latest unemployment news shapes our understanding of the economy and of this election year. And today is the day for the latest unemployment numbers Over the past three months, job growth has averaged close to 250,000 net new jobs per month .
NPR's John Ydstie joins us to talk about what to expect from today's report. Hi, John.
JOHN YDSTIE, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.
INSKEEP: Analysts expecting strong growth to continue?
YDSTIE: Well, there's some signs it will. For instance, first time claims for unemployment this week were actually down to levels not seen in four years. But actually, the consensus from surveys of economists done by news organizations is that job growth was a little slower in March. The estimate is that about 200,000 net new jobs were created, and that's very close to the estimate reported by the payroll processing firm ADP earlier this week.
INSKEEP: So if those estimates prove to be correct, what would the reason be that the job growth would be a little less strong?
YDSTIE: Well, one thing is that it goes along with a slowdown in growth that economists have predicted. At the end of last year, the economy was growing at about a three percent annual rate. The view is that growth in the first part of this year is running closer to a two to two and a half percent rate, meaning job growth might be a little slower too.
The other thing economists are factoring in is the much warmer than usual winter weather we've had. It may have abnormally boosted hiring. And since the Bureau of Labor Statistics adjusts the job growth numbers to smooth out seasonal differences, the job growth and the health of the job market may have been overstated in the past several months. And now economists are expecting the monthly numbers to drop off just a little bit.
INSKEEP: I want to understand that. Warm winter weather would have normally boost hiring because what? More people would be out doing construction jobs...
YDSTIE: Exactly. Exactly.
INSKEEP: ...that kind of thing. Or people just feel better when it's a sunny day...
YDSTIE: Feel better, they go out and shop. Someone might hire a clerk at a store or something like that.
INSKEEP: OK. Now, of course the other important headline number we'll get today is the formal unemployment rate. You were talking about the net new jobs but then there's the percentage rate. Is that expected to go down from the 8.3 percent that it was last time around?
YDSTIE: Well, the consensus is it's going to stay about where it's been, 8.3 percent for the last couple of months. And that's got people a little bit worried, especially a person named Ben Bernanke. What the Fed chairman is worried about is that we've had this big drop in the unemployment rate from nearly 10 percent in November of 2010, down to 8.3 percent at the beginning of this year.
Now, that's a period when the economy wasn't growing fast enough to bring the unemployment rate down that quickly, under the normal economic rules of thumb. The rule of thumb is that the economy would have had to grow at almost a full percentage point above its potential to do that - so somewhere in the three percent annual rate. But growth over that period was actually well below that.
INSKEEP: OK. So what they're saying is that the improvement in the employment picture the last few months doesn't seem to make sense based on the larger economy. How could that have happened?
YDSTIE: Well Chairman Bernanke thinks it might have been a reversal of something that happened when the financial crisis hit back in 2008. Employers panicked and fired more workers than you would have expected, giving(ph) the drop in growth. So now the Fed thinks maybe employers have hired a lot of those folks back just to get to where they think their workforce needs to be and that once that's over, which it may be already, job growth will drop off and the unemployment rate is going to come down much slower.
INSKEEP: Meaning that there's still a concern about how do you get down to seven-point-something, six-point-something, a little closer to normal.
YDSTIE: Exactly. This seems to be the Fed chairman's fear and it's certainly not good news for the close to 13 million people who are still actively looking for work.
INSKEEP: That's NPR economics correspondent John Ydstie. John, thanks very much.
YDSTIE: You're welcome.