WASHINGTON - U.S. services sector activity hit a more than 19-month low in March and private payrolls grew less than expected, underscoring a loss of momentum in the economy that supports the Federal Reserve's move to suspend interest rate hikes this year.
The reports on Wednesday came on the heels of some modestly upbeat data earlier in the week, including retail and motor vehicle sales and manufacturing. Investors are worried about a sharp slowdown in economic growth in the first quarter.
The Fed last month ended its three-year campaign to tighten monetary policy, dropping projections for any interest rate increases this year. The U.S. central bank lifted borrowing costs four times in 2018.
"The yin and yang of the numbers makes it clear that the year of tax-induced solid growth is over," said Joel Naroff, chief economist at Naroff Economic Advisors in Holland, Pennsylvania. "But growth is still decent."
The Institute for Supply Management (ISM) said its non-manufacturing activity index fell 3.6 percentage points to 56.1, the lowest since August 2017. A reading above 50 indicates expansion in the sector, which accounts for more than two-thirds of U.S. economic activity.
Last month's sharp slowdown in services industry activity reflected a 7.3 points drop in the production subindex. Activity was also weighed down by decreases in new and export orders measures. A gauge of service sector employment rose. But many industries continued to believe that their inventories were too high, a potential hurdle for increased production.
The ISM said while businesses in the services sector remained mostly optimistic about overall business conditions and the economy, "they still have underlying concerns about employment resources and capacity constraints."
It said 16 industries, including utilities, real estate, finance and insurance, healthcare and social assistance, information, and professional, scientific and technical services reported growth last month. The two industries reporting contraction were education services and retail trade.
Businesses in the accommodation and food services industry complained that "labor is tight and in short supply." Similar complaints were also voiced by businesses in the transportation and public administration sectors.
Miners said activity "held flat," while businesses in the professional, scientific and technical services reported that an "initial surge in business at the beginning of the year has peaked and settled to a more stable level."
The economy is losing speed as stimulus from the Trump administration's $1.5 trillion in tax cuts diminishes. It is also facing headwinds from slowing global growth, Washington's trade war with China and uncertainty over Britain's exit from the European Union.
Growth estimates for the first-quarter range from as low as a 1.4 percent annualized rate to as high as a 2.1 percent pace. The economy grew at a 2.2 percent pace in the fourth quarter.
"For the most part, GDP source reports have firmed lately following some very weak readings around the turn of the year," said Daniel Silver, an economist at JPMorgan in New York. "The timelier survey data signal that the recent firming may be temporary."
The dollar was trading lower against a basket of currencies. U.S. Treasury prices fell, while stocks on Wall Street rose.
The shortage of workers could be curbing job growth. The ADP National Employment Report on Wednesday showed private employers added 129,000 jobs in March, the fewest since September 2017, after creating 197,000 positions in February.
The ADP figures came ahead of the Labor Department's more comprehensive non-farm payrolls report on Friday, which includes both public- and private-sector employment.
The ADP report, which is jointly developed with Moody's Analytics, has a poor record predicting the private payrolls component of the government's employment report. But job growth has slowed from last year's 223,000 monthly average pace.
Economists polled by Reuters are looking for private payroll employment to have grown by 170,000 jobs in March, up from 25,000 the month before. Total non-farm employment is expected to have increased by 180,000 jobs after a paltry 20,000 gain in February.
"There is sure to be a bounce back in the official data given how weak February was, the only question is how big it will be?" said Paul Ashworth, chief U.S. economist at Capital Economics in Toronto.
According to the ADP report, employment in the goods producing sector fell by 6,000 jobs in March, with manufacturing payrolls shrinking 2,000 and construction shedding 6,000 positions. The services sector added 135,000 jobs last month, concentrated in professional and education and health services.