Friday, August 1, 2008

U.S. Economy: Jobless Rate Rises to Four-Year High (Update1)

By Shobhana Chandra

Aug. 1 (Bloomberg) -- The U.S. unemployment rate rose to the highest level in more than four years as employers cut jobs again in July, increasing the threat of a deeper economic slowdown.

Payrolls fell by 51,000, less than forecast, the Labor Department said today in Washington. The jobless rate rose to 5.7 percent, from 5.5 percent the prior month. As recently as April, it was 5 percent. A separate report showed that manufacturing stagnated in July as companies were hit by rising raw-materials costs and slower spending.

``This is further evidence the economy is in a recession, probably a shallow recession,'' said Nariman Behravesh, chief economist at Global Insight Inc. in Lexington, Massachusetts, referring to rising joblessness. ``It will be a major drag on consumer spending.''

The last time unemployment climbed so much in three months was at the end of the last U.S. recession in 2001. Payroll cuts combined with decreasing property values, stricter lending rules and near-record energy prices to send consumer confidence levels close to the weakest in 16 years in July.

Cutbacks at UAL Corp. and Starbucks Corp. signal firings are spreading beyond builders and manufacturers as raw-materials costs soar. General Motors Corp., which today announced a second-quarter loss of $15.5 billion, may eliminate about 5,000 U.S. jobs by year-end, people familiar with the plan said this week.

Payroll declines spanned transportation, retailing, manufacturing and temporary services industries, the Labor figures showed.

Treasuries, Stocks

Stocks dropped and Treasuries were little changed. The Standard & Poor's 500 Stock Index fell 0.6 percent at 4:14 p.m. in New York, to 1,260.3. Yields on benchmark 10-year notes were at 3.93 percent from 3.95 percent late yesterday.

The Institute for Supply Management's factory index fell to 50, a higher reading than forecast, from 50.2 in June, the Tempe, Arizona-based group said today. A reading of 50 is the dividing line between expansion and contraction. The Commerce Department reported construction spending dropped 0.4 percent in June.

Today's unemployment figures reinforce the case for the Federal Reserve to hold off on any interest-rate increase until next year, economists said.

The Fed's ``hands are tied, there is nothing they can do with regard to this,'' said Kathleen Stephansen, director of global economics at Credit Suisse Holdings USA Inc. in New York in an interview with Bloomberg Radio.

Revisions added 26,000 to payroll figures previously reported for May and June. Economists had projected payrolls would drop by 75,000 after a 62,000 decline the prior month, according to the median of 80 forecasts in a Bloomberg News survey. The jobless rate was forecast to rise to 5.6 percent.

Losses So Far

The July cuts bring the total drop in payrolls so far this year to 463,000.

Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama plans to announce today an emergency economic plan that would impose a windfall profit tax on oil companies to pay for rebate checks of $1,000 to families and $500 to individuals. He also backs a $50 billion stimulus package, including funds for bridge and road maintenance, intended to save 1 million jobs.

Senator John McCain, the Republican candidate, criticized Obama for advocating higher taxes. ``There is no surer way to force jobs overseas than to raise taxes,'' McCain said.

The National Bureau of Economic Research, the official arbiter of U.S. contractions, tracks payrolls, sales, incomes, production and gross domestic product in making the recession call. The group defines downturns as a ``significant'' decrease in activity over a sustained period of time, and usually takes six to 18 months to make a determination.

Recession Call

The economy shrank at the end of 2007 and grew less than forecast in this year's second quarter, figures from the Commerce Department showed yesterday. Some economists said this indicated the U.S. slipped into a recession late last year.

``The economy is limping along right around zero, slightly positive,'' said former St. Louis Fed President William Poole in a Bloomberg Television interview today.

Fed policy makers will probably keep their benchmark rate at 2 percent when they meet on Aug. 5, futures prices show.

More Americans filed initial claims for unemployment benefits last week than at any time in over five years, Labor reported yesterday. Consumer confidence surveys have indicated that Americans, growing more pessimistic about job prospects, may trim spending.

Starbucks Cuts

Starbucks, the world's largest chain of coffee shops, this week said it'll cut another 1,000 jobs as sales slump. The Seattle-based company on July 1 announced plans to eliminate as many as 12,000 positions worldwide.

Factory payrolls fell 35,000 after declining by the same amount in June. Economists had forecast a drop of 40,000. The decrease included a drop of 3,000 jobs in auto manufacturing and parts industries.

July announcements at airlines included 7,000 cuts at UAL's United Airlines, and 6,840 at American Airlines parent AMR Corp.

The protracted housing slump and resulting credit crisis were also reflected in today's jobs report. Construction payrolls declined 22,000, the smallest drop since October, after decreasing 49,000. Payrolls at financial firms were unchanged after declining 13,000 the prior month.

Services Jobs

Service industries, which include banks, insurance companies, restaurants and retailers, subtracted 5,000 workers, the first decline since March. Retail payrolls decreased by 16,500 after a drop of 6,300.

Government jobs increased by 25,000, the 12th month of gains in public payrolls, after an increase of 43,000.

The average work week shrank to 33.6 hours from 33.7 hours. Average weekly hours worked by production workers were unchanged at 41, and overtime was also unchanged at 3.8 hours. That brought the average weekly earnings up by 22 cents to $606.82 in July.

Workers' average hourly wages rose 6 cents, or 0.3 percent, to $18.06, matching economists' forecasts.

Sealed Air Corp., the maker of Bubble Wrap packaging, said this week it plans to eliminate 900 to 1,000 jobs globally after second-quarter profit fell because of rising costs to make plastics.

``We certainly are facing a challenging environment in 2008,'' Chief Financial Officer David Kelsey said in a July 30 telephone interview.

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