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Business & Economy

February jobs report: Just what the doctor ordered

A jobs sign hangs above the entrance to the US Chamber of Commerce building in Washington, DC.
A jobs sign hangs above the entrance to the US Chamber of Commerce building in Washington, DC.

A real recovery in the U.S. jobs market is definitely building up a head of steam, but at this point it's still a slow process. The February jobs report is out from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), and while it's not a home run or even a nice stand-up double, it's still pretty solid: The economy added 227,000 jobs in the shortest month of the year. The unemployment rate remains unchanged at 8.3 percent.

That's the headline number, but what's really encouraging about this report is the revision to the January data. The BLS initially reported 243,000 jobs added, but that number has been revised up to 284,000, which means that on an adjusted basis we're getting closer to the 300-350,000 new-jobs-per-month number that would start to move the national unemployment level much lower. 

In any case, if the trend of upward revisions continues — the past two months have both been revised up the following month — then we can expect February to look better by the time the March data rolls in come April. The bottom line is that the official number came is slightly higher, by around 10,000 jobs, than both the ADP report and the so-called economic "consensus." It also beat bullish predictions that said we'd add less than 200,000 jobs and see the unemployment rate actually rise. 

If there's anything particularly troubling in the report it's that a lower number than January could indicate that the surge in GDP we saw at the end of 2011 has ebbed somewhat. The end of the year provided us with a gift, in the form of GDP at 3 percent, after it had run below 2 percent for much of 2011. The new February jobs number coming lower than January could be a signal that GDP is dropping back into the doldrums, something more like 2-2.5 percent.

Nevertheless, if you drill down into the BLS report, you see that jobs gains were broad-based. If there's a negative, it's that a lot of employment activity was "unchanged." Ultimately, however, this means that the recovery is actually a recovery. The patient was very, very sick, and extreme measures were called for. But at this point, we may be able to think about moving the U.S. jobs market out of intensive care.

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