The finance sector gained 15,000 jobs last month, more than double the number it gained in February, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics . Commercial banks and mortgage lenders were responsible for much of the growth.
The finance unemployment rate dropped to 5.1% in March, down from 7.1% in the same month a year ago. The broader economy added only 120,000 jobs in March, the first time since November that growth fell below 200,000. The overall unemployment rate dropped slightly to 8.2%.
Credit intermediation gained 11,000 jobs last month, a good sign for the finance industry. "It points to some improvement in lending activity," said Nigel Gault, chief U.S. economist with IHS Global Insight, an Englewood, Colorado-based financial and economic forecasting firm. "It's consistent with the fact that consumer credit has been growing in recent months."
Real estate, rental and leasing gained 5,100 jobs, which is "consistent with the notion that the housing marketing is starting to pick up," Gault said. "People are gearing up for a better spring and there's more activity in the housing market."
One area that was expected to slump and which did is securities, commodity contracts and investments, e.g., the investment banks. They lost 1,600 jobs in March as a result of Wall Street layoffs being factored into the BLS's tables.
"The Europe situation still hasn't been figured out," Gault said. "There are still a lot of risks in the financial sector." He expects investment banks to keep losing jobs over the next several months.
Like last month, accounting and bookkeeping also saw a gain, though a much smaller one of 2,300 jobs. Accounting firms both public and in-house have ratcheted up demand for controllers, financial analysts and accounting staff in recent months.
Write to Julie Steinberg at Julie.Steinberg@dowjones.com