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American job growth, markets anemic
Updated: 2004-08-07 16:10

U.S. employers added just 32,000 workers to payrolls last month, a surprisingly weak number that led Wall Street to fret about second-half economic growth and to expect a slower pace of interest-rate rises.

The Labor Department on Friday also cut its tally of job growth in May and June by a combined 61,000, adding to the soft tenor of a report that came as unwelcome news for an election-bound President Bush.

"It's a huge disappointment, a big surprise," said Scott Brown, chief economist at Raymond James in St. Petersburg, Fla.

Economists said the data, coming only days before the Federal Reserve's next meeting, showed the economy had yet to regain momentum after a speed bump in June. Expectations on Wall Street had centered on a 228,000-job gain.

Stocks were punished, closing at their lowest level of the year, as investors grew jittery on outlook. The blue chip Dow Jones industrial average fell 147 points to 9,815.

Bonds surged, sending market-set interest rates sharply lower, and the dollar tumbled as traders bet the Fed would tread a careful path on raising official rates.

While the department's survey of employers showed job growth all but stalled in July, its separate poll of households showed a huge jobs gain, which pushed the unemployment rate to a more than 2-1/2 year low of 5.5 percent in July from 5.6 percent in June.

Bush administration officials seized on job gain in the household survey as a positive, but the Labor Department warned it was drawn from a smaller and more volatile set of data.

Fed policy-makers were sure to parse the data closely at their meeting on Tuesday, but analysts said they would still likely bump overnight interest rates up a notch.

The bigger question seemed to be what happens next.

"We still think that the Fed will raise rates next week, but the case for moving slowly and deliberately is strengthened by this report," said Patrick Fearon, an economist at A.G. Edwards and Sons in St. Louis.

A Reuters poll of 20 of the 22 large bond firms that deal directly with Fed found a still-universal expectation the central bank will boost short-term borrowing costs by a quarter-percentage point next week. However, only 10 forecast a rate hike at the Fed's subsequent meeting in late September.


Analysts said the report spelled trouble for Bush, who is locked in a close battle for the White House with Democratic Sen. John Kerry in which the economy, and job creation in particular, are commanding the spotlight.

Bush administration officials highlighted the creation of 1.5 million jobs in 11 straight months of hiring gains, as well as the drop in the unemployment rate and a slightly longer workweek, but admitted more needed to be done.

"Today's employment report shows our economy is continuing to move forward," the president declared at a campaign rally in Stratham, New Hampshire. "We've got more to do. I won't be satisfied until everybody who wants to work can find a job."

Citing New Hampshire's low 3.9 percent unemployment rate, Bush said, "You've proved that we're moving America forward and we're not turning back," a twist on his campaign trail mantra that America is "turning the corner."

Kerry said the data belied Bush's rhetoric.

"The president keeps saying we've turned the corner. But unfortunately, today's job numbers further demonstrate that our economy may be taking a U-turn instead," he said in a statement.

Democrats pointed to a net loss of 1.1 million jobs since the president took office and a slowing over the past three months in the pace of employment growth, which had perked up earlier this year after three years in the doldrums.


Some economists said the report suggested businesses were holding off on hiring in the face of surging oil prices and uncertainty caused by the potential for terror attacks and the looming U.S. elections.

The government said last week the economy advanced at just a 3 percent annual rate in the second quarter, a sharp slowdown from its heady 4.5 percent first-quarter clip, but fresher data had led many to think the pace of growth quickened last month.

The jobs report, however, raised doubts over how quickly the economy might bounce back.

Factories added 10,000 workers in July, after cutting 1,000 in June, while construction firms hired just 4,000 new workers. The service side of the economy put in a poor showing as well, creating only 14,000 new jobs.

July's overall gain was the smallest since December and well short of the 150,000 or so jobs economists say need to be created each month just to keep pace with an expanding labor force and ensure the unemployment rate doesn't rise.

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