Better weather may have lifted job growth in March

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Hiring went into a deep freeze this winter as harsh weather slowed the economy. A warmer March has raised a key question for Friday's monthly jobs report: Did hiring rebound in March along with the temperatures?

Most economists think it did.

But some of the pickup in hiring will likely reflect a temporary bounce-back from the cold winter months. It may not be immediately clear how much of the job growth will endure.

Analysts forecast that employers added 195,000 jobs last month, according to a survey by FactSet. That would be the highest total in four months and up from 175,000 in February. The unemployment rate is predicted to fall to 6.6 percent from 6.7 percent in February.

Low temperatures and heavy snowstorms this winter closed factories, interrupted work at construction sites and kept consumers away from shopping malls. Hiring fell to an average of 129,000 jobs a month from December through February. That was sharply lower than the average of 225,000 in the previous three months.

Some economists project that a much larger job gain took place last month. That's largely because they think some hiring was delayed until March by the cold weather in January and February, thereby boosting March's job growth.

Drew Matus, an economist at UBS, predicts that employers added 250,000 jobs last month, though he thinks 50,000 to 75,000 of that total will reflect delayed hiring from previous months.

"There's more uncertainty around this number than usual," Matus said.

Leaving aside the weather effect, economists generally expect hiring to average about 200,000 jobs a month for the rest of the year. Hiring at that pace should lower the unemployment rate and support steady growth.

Most recent economic data suggest that the economy is picking up from the winter freeze.

Auto sales jumped 6 percent last month to 1.5 million, the most since November. That was a sign that Americans remain willing to spend on big purchases.

And surveys by the Institute for Supply Management, a group of purchasing managers, showed that both manufacturing and service companies expanded at a faster pace in March. Factories cranked out more goods and received slightly more orders, a good sign for future production. Service companies also received more orders.

Manufacturers added jobs, the ISM found, though at a slower pace than in February. But service firms, including hotels, restaurants, retailers and financial companies, sharply ramped up hiring in March. That mostly reversed a steep fall the previous month.

The number of Americans seeking unemployment aid rose last week but remained close to pre-recession levels. The four-week average of applications, a less volatile measure, stayed near a six-month low. That means companies are cutting fewer workers and might be hiring more.

Home sales and construction, however, have been weak in recent months. Sales of existing homes have fallen in six out of the past seven months. Cold weather has likely caused some of the decline. But higher mortgage rates, rising prices and a limited supply of available homes have also held back sales.

Many economists think growth slowed to a 1.5 percent to 2 percent annual rate in the January-March quarter, down from a 2.6 percent pace in last year's fourth quarter. But most also forecast that steady hiring and less drag from government spending cuts should lift growth to nearly a 3 percent annual pace for the rest of the year.

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