U.S. Economy Adds 162,000 Jobs

The U.S. economy added 162,000 jobs last month while the unemployment rate remained steady at 9.7 percent, the U.S. Labor Department reported this morning, adding evidence that the recovery from the tailspin set off by the economic crisis is well under way.

The payroll increase, the largest in three years, was slightly below the 190,000 new jobs economists were expecting. The U.S. government contributed significantly to the jobs increase: 48,000 of the jobs created came from the hiring of temporary workers for the U.S. Census.

The Census hiring in March, however, was lower than some were projecting. The Census is expected to hire of 1.2 million temp workers this year.

Joel L. Naroff, president and founder of Naroff Economic Advisors, said the jobs numbers show that "the recovery can now stand on its own."

"True, some estimates had the gains twice what actually occurred, but this is one case where the details are better than the headline," Naroff said in a note to clients. "The federal government didn't hire nearly as many Census workers as thought. It was the private sector that stepped up to the plate."

In addition to the government, industries that added jobs last month included health care, mining, manufacturing and construction. Companies may have boosted payrolls in March in part to compensate for reduced hiring during February's bad weather, Mark Zandi, chief economist for Moody's Economy.com, said this week.

The new jobs numbers don't mean much to Wilton, Conn., resident Sean Byrnes.

About a month ago, the 41-year-old father of four lost his job as a salesman at a Manhattan-based financial research firm. He has struggled to find so much as even a job interview since then. Last month, Byrnes was one of 15 million unemployed Americans who searched in vain for work.

"I talk to headhunters and they say the same thing," he says. "No one is hiring."

The financial services industry shed 21,000 jobs last month, according to today's government report.

Huge Cash Reserves

One piece of economic data that has caught the attention of Byrnes, and others in his predicament, is a fairly staggering figure that comes out of the Bureau of Economic Analysis: Despite widespread unemployment, the BEA reports that U.S. corporations, reluctant to expand in an uncertain economy, are sitting on $1.6 trillion in cash reserves, a record amount, according to BEA economist Greg Key.

Even looking at the companies in the Standard & Poor's 500 index of blue chips -- and stripping out financials, which are required by regulators to keep large cash reserves in order to cushion against risk -- the cash on hand number is still rather monstrous: $1.1 trillion. To put that in perspective, as a percentage of companies' total market capitalization, that $1.1 trillion is more than double the ratio seen before the crisis.

"Cash is piling up faster than companies can figure out what to do with it," said David Bianco, head of U.S. equity strategy at Bank of America.

Asked about the mountain of corporate money sitting on the sidelines, the out-of-work Byrnes offered his own suggestion for what to do with it.

"Companies should absolutely spend some of that money to put people back to work," Byrnes said by telephone earlier this week, clearly frustrated. "I suppose they need to make shareholders happy, but come on already."

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