Businesses add jobs, service sector growth dips

NEW YORK Wed Apr 4, 2012 1:44pm EDT

American University students walk among recruiting booths during a career job fair at American University in Washington March 28, 2012. REUTERS/Jose Luis Magana

American University students walk among recruiting booths during a career job fair at American University in Washington March 28, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Jose Luis Magana

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Businesses added more than 200,000 jobs in March, giving fresh evidence of recovery in the labor market, data showed on Wednesday.

The ADP National Employment Report showed the private sector added 209,000 positions last month, slightly above economists' expectations for a gain of 200,000 jobs.

Analysts said it did not change their forecasts for the government's more comprehensive labor market report for March due on Friday, which includes both public and private sector employment.

Separate data showed a measure of employment in the vast U.S. services sector also rose last month, even though the pace of overall growth slowed. Analysts said the pullback was expected after the index ran up to a year high in February.

Anthony Chan, chief economist at JPMorgan Private Wealth Management, said some of the positive effects of the unusually warm weather at the beginning of the year could be starting to wear off but the easing in activity was not as deep as some had feared.

"That worst-case scenario where the economy would completely fall off a cliff and do a 'Thelma and Louise' is not happening," said Chan.

Overall, the day's data "tells us that the recovery continues uninterrupted," Chan said.

But the economic reports were overshadowed on Wall Street as investors were disappointed by the Federal Reserve's toned-down talk on further stimulus to encourage the recovery. U.S. stocks were down more than 1 percent in afternoon trading.

Federal Reserve policymakers backed away from the idea of launching a third round of monetary action as the recovery gradually improves, minutes from the U.S. central bank's last meeting showed on Tuesday.

Still, the Fed's assessment of the economy remained cautious. Economists expect growth to have slowed in the first quarter compared to the 3.0 percent annualized rate seen in the final months of last year.

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For a graphic on ADP v. the U.S. Labor Department, see link.reuters.com/nub57s

U.S. and world services link.reuters.com/ryb57s

U.S. services employment link.reuters.com/wyb57s

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ADP also revised higher the job gains seen in January and February to 182,000 and 230,000, respectively. The report is jointly developed with Macroeconomic Advisers LLC.

"There's still a very, very long way to go with this healing we need to do in the labor market, but there is a little bit of steam that's picking up here," said Sam Bullard, senior economist at Wells Fargo in Charlotte, North Carolina.

"Firms are not able to get as much efficiency gains out of employees; we've seen a pick-up in the work week but that can only go so far. ... Firms are going to have to start looking at adding more people to meet existing demand."

The nonfarm payrolls report from the U.S. Labor Department on Friday is expected to show a net gain of 203,000 jobs last month, including a rise in private payrolls of 218,000.

The unemployment rate is seen holding steady at a three-year low of 8.3 percent.

The Labor Department report has shown the economy added more than 200,000 jobs in each of the last three months, helping to keep the economic recovery on track.

Economists often refer to the ADP report to fine-tune their expectations for the Labor Department's payrolls numbers, though the two sets of data are not always well correlated.

The average difference between ADP's figures and the government-reported private jobs numbers over the last 12 months was 1,000, according to Credit Suisse.

HOPE FOR HOUSING

The Institute for Supply Management said its services index fell to 56.0 last month from 57.3 in February, shy of economists' forecasts for 57.0. The forward-looking new orders component slipped to 58.8 from 61.2.

"We think it's consistent with the current tone of economic activity and points to growth of about two percent," said Millan Mulraine, senior macro strategist at TD Securities in New York.

The services sector accounts for about two-thirds of U.S. economic activity. The employment index improved to 56.7 from 55.7, while a measure of prices paid fell back to 63.9 from 68.4.

Other reports on Wednesday provided hints of optimism for the struggling housing market as applications for mortgages gained last week, while home prices excluding distressed sales managed to rise in February.

The Mortgage Bankers Association said its seasonally adjusted index of mortgage application activity, which includes both refinancing and home purchase demand, rose 4.8 percent in the week ended March 30.

Data from CoreLogic showed overall home prices declined 0.8 percent in February, but excluding cheaper distressed sales, prices rose 0.7 percent.

(Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)

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