Mild winter inflated jobs data, economist says

Posted April 07, 2012, at 6:41 a.m.
Last modified April 07, 2012, at 7:58 a.m.

As most Americans basked in the warmest, sunniest March in half a century, economists stared at the skies with dread:

Could good weather portend bad news for the economic recovery?

Several analyses show that the mild winter boosted job growth by as much as 75,000 positions — an artificial inflation that economists say will be paid back in the coming months. Translation: The recent surge in hiring may not be as strong as it looks.

“We’re thinking that the economic data is going to lose some momentum from here going forward,” said Bob Baur, chief global economist for Principal Global Investors.

According to weather consulting firm Planalytics, March was the warmest on record in 50 years. Several major cities experienced their warmest March in 118 years, including Chicago, Detroit, Minneapolis and Oklahoma City. Temperatures in those areas were about 15 degrees higher than average.

For many people, that meant an early debut of open-toed shoes and dinners al fresco, an early mulching and spring cleaning. It also meant more jobs for construction workers and retail employees to keep pace with demand. Planalytics said demand for lawn mowers jumped 40 percent last month, demand for sun care was up 17 percent and demand for bottled water rose 5 percent.

For economists, it meant a statistical nightmare.

Typically, these bumps in demand are evened out through a process called seasonal adjustment. That allows researchers to compare one month’s economic activity with the next for a more accurate picture of the nation’s health. But this year’s weather was so abnormal that those models fell short, and economists are now scrambling to figure out how much of growth over the past three months was simply due to a glitch in their systems.

“When the weather does not follow a normal seasonal pattern, then the seasonal adjustment cannot adjust for it,” said Chris Varvares, senior managing director and co-founder of Macroeconomic Advisers.

Varvares’s firm estimates that 30 percent of the 227,000 jobs added in February were the result of warmer weather. An analysis by Goldman Sachs found that the average monthly job growth between December and February was actually 210,000 when weather is factored in, not 245,000.

Economists are quick to note that even the revised numbers aren’t bad — they’re just not great. And that may help explain why recent data on consumer spending, manufacturing and jobs have looked rosier than actual economic growth would suggest.

Forecasts for the nation’s gross domestic product during the first quarter hover around 2 percent — a middling number at best. Somewhere, there is a disconnect, and Mother Nature is a valid scapegoat.

But unraveling the impact of weather is not always easy. Macroeconomic Advisers initially predicted that as many as 58,000 jobs may not have materialized in March because they were already taken in February. But then it hedged the bet as March turned out unseasonably warm as well.

On Friday, the Labor Department reported that the job market slowed in March as employers expanded payrolls by 120,000 jobs, falling short of expectations.

Varvares said the labor market boost from the mild winter will eventually even itself out. Though that may mean dips in job growth in coming months, the fact that workers found jobs earlier in the year — and pocketed a few more paychecks — could wind up being a net benefit to the economy, he said.

And despite the hand-wringing over the weather, economists seem to agree that the fundamentals of the recovery are solid. Baur believes that the second half of the year will pick up steam as state and local governments enjoy rebounds in tax revenue and layoffs slow down.

“We’re confident that the U.S. economy today is in a sustainable expansion,” he said. “These things that we’ve been talking about are mostly for data nerds like me and other economists.”

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