Saturday, October 9, 2004

U.S. employers added 96,000 jobs last month, a tepid performance that disappointed Wall Street markets but was strong enough to keep the unemployment rate from rising above 5.4 percent.

Yesterday’s report from the Labor Department, the last before the Nov. 2 presidential election, showed a sharp slowdown in job growth to about 100,000 a month since June after a brief surge in the hiring pace to about 300,000 during the spring. In the past 13 months, nearly 1.8 million new positions were created economywide.

The job figures fueled a heated exchange and dueling campaign ads from President Bush and his Democratic opponent, Sen. John Kerry. The Bush ad highlighted the addition of jobs in the past year, while the Massachusetts senator’s ad emphasized the 2.7 million jobs lost because of recession and productivity gains since 2000.

Adding the two together, what is left is a net job loss of 821,000 during Mr. Bush’s term — a figure that is likely to be ratcheted down to about 600,000 when the department publishes revisions early next year.

“We received another disappointing jobs report for America’s workers,” said Mr. Kerry, who has made the jobless recovery a top theme of his campaign.

“The verdict is in,” he said. “President Bush will be the first president in 72 years to face the electorate with an economy that has lost jobs under his watch.”

Mr. Bush has sought to tar Mr. Kerry as a pessimist who emphasizes the negative while ignoring the economy’s marked progress in the past year. His ad features people smiling as they work and go about their daily routines.

Yesterday’s report provided fodder for both views. Job growth proved subpar, yet strong enough to maintain recent declines in the joblessness for most groups.

Employers added 24,000 high-wage jobs for professional and technical workers in September, but the month also brought renewed losses of 18,000 manufacturing jobs after seven months of gains. Wage growth for most workers remained anemic at 2.4 percent over the year.

The unemployment rate, which remained at 5.4 percent, was low by historical standards, yet substantially above the 4 percent level that it was at when Mr. Bush took office.

“Job growth is still mediocre for this stage of an economic recovery,” said Nathaniel Paull, a portfolio manager at New Amsterdam Partners, noting the “smidge of disappointment” on Wall Street that prompted a 70-point loss in the Dow Jones Industrial Average yesterday.

“The market has a lot to deal with in terms of energy prices, the geopolitical situation and the election,” he said.

Even as the job report came out, oil prices were rising to a new record of $53.31 on the New York Mercantile Exchange — a trend that many analysts blame for the lackluster performance of both the markets and the economy this summer.

“Businesses are still extremely cautious about hiring,” said Sung Won Sohn, chief economist at Wells Fargo & Co. “There are too many uncertainties in the economy right now, from surging prices of oil, possible terrorism around the election time, to what could happen in Iraq.”

For workers and the unemployed, the past year’s job gains have been welcome, but nothing to get overexcited about, consumer surveys show.

A survey by Randstad North America found that jobs are still too scarce to enable workers to quit jobs they dislike, and seven in 10 workers say they are staying in their current jobs as long as they are secure and provide health-insurance benefits.

Job security now ranks above salary and bonuses as a reason to stay in a job, the survey found.

The angst among the rank and file mirrors a renewed hesitation in boardrooms since the economic recovery started to soften this summer.

“I think caution is a watchword today” for executives thinking about hiring, said Jeffrey Noddle, chief executive of Supervalu Inc. “People are not going to add employment until they are very certain that there is growth in their business or in their industry or in their sector of the economy.”

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