A Last Hurrah for Jobs Market as Coronavirus Hits the Economy

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As one economist put it, "This jobs report is the most backward-looking and least-relevant economic report that we are likely to see for a while."

That's not because measuring employment growth, the jobless rate, wages and other inputs that help investors and analysts gauge the strength of the U.S. economy aren't important or relevant. 

It's because February's jobs numbers were tallied up by the Bureau of Labor Statistics before the coronavirus began to pop up in the continental United States, raising the very real spectre of a significant drop-off in economic activity and job growth going forward.   

The U.S. economy added 273,000 new jobs last month, well above economists’ forecasts of 174,000 new positions. The unemployment rate edged back down to 3.5% from January’s 3.6%, a touch better than the FactSet consensus estimate.

Average hourly earnings rose by 0.3% last month, the same pace as in January and in line with analysts’ expectations. On a year-over-year basis, average hourly earnings gained 3%, also in line with January's gains and analysts’ forecasts.

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The big issue for investors is exactly how the U.S. economy - and in turn the jobs market - will respond to the widely unknown impact of the coronavirus, and U.S. government's efforts to try to counter it both with lower interest rates and fiscal stimulus.

Indeed, the U.S. economy faces a crucial test in the coming months as the coronavirus spread shutters factories, slows business activity and cripples transport demand globally, raising concerns of a near-term recession. The official number of coronavirus cases globally surpassed the 100,000 mark on Friday morning.

The U.S. economy gained an average of 243,000 jobs per month from December through February, up from average monthly job growth of 178,000 in 2019.

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