Outlook darkens over weak US employment numbers

AP, WASHINGTON

Sun, Feb 09, 2014 - Page 13

A second-straight month of weak job growth renewed concerns on Friday that the vigor displayed by the US economy late last year may be gone, at least for the moment.

The US Labor Department’s monthly employment report showed a tepid gain of 113,000 jobs last month followed December’s puny increase of 75,000 — far below last year’s average monthly gain of 194,000.

Yet the report provided some cause for optimism. Solid hiring last month in manufacturing and construction point to underlying vitality.

And in a healthy sign, more Americans began looking for jobs, suggesting they were more hopeful about their prospects. A sizable 115,000 formerly unemployed people also said they found jobs. Their hiring reduced the unemployment rate to a seasonally adjusted 6.6 percent, the lowest in more than five years.

Most economists say they think hiring will improve this year as the economy grows further.

Job growth “clearly has downshifted over the past two months,” said Doug Handler, chief US economist at IHS Global Insight. “But we still believe the economic fundamentals remain strong and ... forecast an acceleration of growth later in the year.”

Janet Yellen will be pressed about jobs and the economy when she testifies to the US Congress next week in her first public comments since becoming chair of the US Federal Reserve on Feb. 1. Fed officials are scaling back their stimulus for the economy. They have also said they would consider raising their benchmark short-term interest rate at some point after the rate falls below 6.5 percent.

However, the Fed has not been clear about the timing. With the unemployment rate now close to that threshold, economists think the Fed may update its guidance after its next meeting next month.

Most economists say two weak hiring months will not lead the Fed to halt its pullback on the stimulus. Fed policymakers will have this month’s job report to consider when they next meet.

Friday’s figures add to evidence that the economy is slowing in the first few months of the year after expanding at a robust 3.7 percent annual pace in the second half of last year.

The figures follow other signs of a possibly softening economy. A survey of manufacturing firms showed that factory expansion slowed last month. A measure of forthcoming home sales fell.

The jobs report offered some hints that hiring could return to last year’s healthier levels in coming months.

To begin with, the unemployment rate is at its lowest point since October 2008, when the financial crisis was erupting. The rate fell because many of the unemployed found work. And the influx of people seeking jobs — a sign of optimism — was an improvement from December.

In that month, the unemployment rate fell only because about 350,000 people stopped looking for work and were no longer counted as unemployed.

Another positive sign: Manufacturers, construction firms and mines added a combined 76,000 jobs last month — the most since January 2006.

Goods-producing employers like those tend to hire only when they are confident in the economy.

“You rarely see expansions in these industries without the economy being in fairly healthy shape,” said Gary Burtless, an economist at the Brookings Institution.