Although I risk reinforcing my intra-familial reputation for being a curmudgeon, I’ll begin by admitting that the Northeast’s recent burst of beautiful spring weather and the profusion of buds and flowers that have come with it has resulted in allergies for me, and I’m annoyed with the imposition. After all, those lovely flowers and scents are really just functional adaptations of the instinct to reproduce and multiply. In other words, while trees party, we suffer. I suppose it’s appropriately humbling for humans that when the trees commence their annual and very visible mating season, our eyes itch and our noses run, but like the parties our neighbors downstairs like to throw, I wish they’d keep it a bit more to themselves. Besides, I’m in New York City, so all those seeds being created are just going to end up shriveled on a slab of concrete anyway.
Why such a churlish comment on what’s arguably the finest season of the year? It’s because I’m not the only one who has recently sneezed loudly—so has the labor market. After my recent upbeat comments in this space about hopeful signs in U.S. manufacturing, energy production and consumer attitudes, businesses ganged up on me, along with the trees, and produced a measly 120,000 new jobs during the month of March. Like most observers, I’d expected twice that many.
As with any single statistic—good or bad—that especially surprises us, my first response was to expect it to be revised. After all, the American public is acting as if things are getting better. We’re spending more, notably on cars, which we’re buying more than we’re junking for the first time since before the financial crisis. We’re expressing more confidence in the economy when responding to pollsters. Businesses—both manufacturers and service providers—report that they are expanding. Fewer of us are applying for unemployment and there are fewer—although far too many—that remain unemployed. Petroleum supplies are ample, which reduces the risk that gasoline prices will keep going up. There’s even a little life in the housing market. Still, last week’s employment statistic, like the tree pollen, can’t be ignored. Hiring a human being remains one of the riskiest steps a business can take, and U.S. businesses appear to be taking that step only when they’ve exhausted all other means to beat the competition.
As the electoral rhetoric continues to heat up and uncertainty increases over how health care will be financed and for whom, risk taking probably remains subdued. So, enjoy the flowers and don’t miss the beauties of spring, but keep your hanky close at hand.