NEW YORK (MainStreet) — A trend toward an increasing number of jobs in the labor market coupled with low consumer debt levels are among the indicators demonstrating marked improvements in the economy.

Labor Market Shows Improvements

The number of jobs added to the economy is one definitive sign that the economy is rebounding. Even though the economy hit a minor blip with only 126,000 nonfarm jobs added this March, according to the latest jobs report, unemployment is down to 5.5%. To boot, job creation has been consistently robust; the U.S. added more than 3.1 million jobs in 2014 or about 260,000 jobs per month.

“That's the best year for job growth since 1999,” said Gus Faucher, a senior economist at PNC Financial Services Group in Pittsburgh. “The economy is definitely doing better and that is evident in the labor market.”

Job growth for 2015 “should be almost as good” with about 250,000 jobs per month, he said. The unemployment rate continues to decline - it was 5.5% in February and March, down from a peak of 10% in 2009. The unemployment rate will end this year at about 5%, Faucher said.

Recent speed bumps may keep optimism measured.

While February’s surprise decline in the number of durable goods was not a positive indicator, manufacturing orders from businesses will “show gradual improvement in the upcoming months, as increased consumer spending and strong job gains boost domestic demand,” said Amanda Augustine, a BBVA economist in a report. The number of durable goods sold is an indicator of how well factories are faring and the number of workers they need to employ.

Conditions are “likely to improve” as the severe winter weather shifts into spring, she said. “As was the case in 2014, we expect to see stronger growth through the rest of the year to offset weakness in the first quarter,” Augustine wrote.

Wage Growth Stymied

One significant area where the recovery has proven to be “disappointing” is the lack of wage growth, Faucher said. The U.S. Department of Labor reported the average hourly earnings measure for all private-sector workers was up only 2% in February from one year ago. What comes into play is that normally an unemployment rate of 5.5% would “point to stronger wage growth,” Faucher said.

The good news is that wage growth should increase as companies “find it necessary to raise pay as the labor market tightens and more workers leave for better paying opportunities,” he said. “This can be seen in the recent announcements by Walmart, Target and TJX that they will be raising worker pay.”

The trend in the growth of the number of jobs and GDP does indicate a strengthening economy despite a lack of increase in salary, said Mike Davis, a strategy and economics professor at Southern Methodist University’s Cox School of Business. “The bottom line is that no one measure can tell you for sure what’s going on.”

Consumer Debt At Good Levels

The level of debt that consumers have is another key component. Consumer balance sheets are in “good shape because the financial obligations ratio, which measures debt payments as a share of after-tax income, is near an all-time low,” Faucher said.

The number of credit card delinquencies is at an all-time low while the residential real estate delinquency rate is still above its long-run average, but is steadily declining, he said.

One indicator of strong consumer activity is the number of car and light trucks sold in 2014 are at the highest since 2006.

Consumers have been paying down their debt steadily even after their December holiday expenditures. Credit card debt decreased in January after a larger-than-expected increase in December, said Matt Schulz,'s senior industry analyst. “It seems like people might have spent January paying down the holiday debts they ran up, rather than pulling out their cards and continuing to shop,” he said.

Slight declines in credit card debt have occurred during three of the last six months, the first occurrence since 2012.

Savings Rate Increases

Lower gasoline and energy costs have boosted the savings of Americans, freeing up some of their cash. Consumers have more disposable income now and some people are socking it away. The savings rate in February was 5.8%, up from 2.5% in 2005, 3.3% in 2006 and 3.0% in 2007, said Faucher. It is still lower compared to the 2009 to 2012 period when consumers were “very cautious in the wake of the Great Recession,” he said.

The markets are moving positively higher despite a range of growth concerns and geopolitical risks, boding well for investors saving for their retirement, said Valentijn van Nieuwenhuijzen, head of strategy at the multi-asset team at ING investment Management in The Hague, in Holland.

“The markets continue to push higher despite an occasional day of volatility on the back of investor mood swings,” he said. “Many fear factors have influenced the latter in recent months - ranging from growth concerns to geopolitical risks, oil price volatility and Fed hike worries - but none of them has really become entrenched in investor mindsets.”

Economic Growth Could Be Sluggish in Future

While the growth in debt has declined and the improving economy has reduced mortgage defaults, wage growth has been anemic and slow, resulting in a less stable econonmy, said James Mallett, a professor of finance at Stetson University in DeLand, Fla.

“Retirement savings is improving for the upper middle class but not the lower and middle class families,” he said. “The short-term outlook for the U.S. economy is positive, but economic growth is likely to be slower than in past recoveries."

--Written by Ellen Chang for MainStreet

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