A sagging global economy has finally caught up with the United States.
Nervous employers pulled back on hiring in August and September as China’s economy slowed, global markets sank and foreigners bought fewer U.S. goods. Friday’s monthly jobs report from the government suggested that the U.S. economy, which has been outshining others around the world, may be weakening.
Lackluster growth overseas has reduced exports of U.S. factory goods and cut into the overseas profits of large companies. Canada, the largest U.S. trading partner, is in recession. China, the second-largest economy after the United States, is growing far more slowly. And emerging economies, from Brazil to Turkey, are straining to grow at all.
A result is that economists now expect the Federal Reserve to delay a long-awaited increase in interest rates, possibly until next year.
Employers added just 142,000 jobs in September, and the government sharply lowered its estimate of gains in July and August by a combined 59,000. Monthly job growth averaged a mediocre 167,000 in the July-September quarter, down from 231,000 in the April-June period.
The unemployment rate remained a low 5.1 percent, but only because many Americans have stopped looking for work and are no longer counted as unemployed. The proportion of adults who either have a job or are looking for one is at a 38-year low.
U.S. stock prices have tumbled as fears of a global slowdown have intensified. Volatile financial markets can make businesses too anxious to expand and hire.
“We’re back to a period of what I call corporate caution,” says Nariman Behravesh, chief economist at IHS. “It’s wait and see. If things stabilize, we could see hiring come back.”
On Friday, the Dow Jones industrial average fell about 200 points soon after the jobs report was issued before recovering to close up 200. The yield on the 10-year Treasury note dipped below 2 percent, a sign that investors anticipate sluggish growth and low inflation.
Over the past year, the dollar has risen about 15 percent against overseas currencies, making U.S. goods costlier overseas and imports cheaper. Declining exports have led many analysts to slash their growth estimates for the July-September quarter to a subpar 1.5 percent annual rate or less.
Heavy equipment maker Caterpillar has said it will cut up to 5,000 jobs by year’s end. Lower oil prices have hurt its sales of drilling equipment, and overseas sales of its construction machines have fallen.
Hershey has said it will shed 300 positions in the U.S. this year after sales in China plunged.
A host of other companies have announced layoffs in recent weeks, including Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer; ConAgra Foods, which makes Chef Boyardee and Slim Jims; and Chesapeake Energy, which has been hurt by lower oil prices.
The tepid pace of hiring clouds the picture for the Fed, which is considering whether to raise rates from record lows. Fed Chair Janet Yellen has said that the job market is nearly healed. But she’s also said she wants to see further hiring and pay growth for reassurance that inflation is edging toward the Fed’s 2 percent target. Average hourly wages are up just 2.2 percent in the past year – far below the 3.5 percent or 4 percent considered healthy.
Many economists now expect no rate hike until 2016, though some still think the Fed will begin raising rates in December – a step that would eventually send consumer and business borrowing rates up.
Some analysts, like Michael Gapen, chief U.S. economist at Barclays Capital, say they remain confident in the economy’s resilience. Gapen notes that the threats from overseas resemble earlier periods in the economic recovery when anxiety about Europe’s financial crisis slowed hiring and roiled U.S. markets.
He says he thinks underlying drivers of the U.S. economy are healthier now and can power through overseas pressures.
“The consumer is in much better shape, and the housing sector is in better shape,” Gapen said. “This is something that is more of a soft patch,” rather than a “meaningful recession risk.”
Some Americans are still willing to splurge out on pricey goods: Auto sales surged to the highest level in a decade last month, and sales of new homes reached a seven-year high in August.
The disparity between overseas weakness and solid consumer spending was evident in the September jobs report: Manufacturers shed jobs for a second straight month while retailers, restaurants and hotels all added positions.
Central banks in China and Europe could take further steps this year to stimulate growth. And most expect growth in Germany to pick up next year. That could lessen the threat from overseas.
Still, the sluggish growth of the U.S. labor force – the number of people either working or looking for work – poses a headwind for job growth. The aging population means more baby boomers are retiring.
The decline in the proportion of Americans in the workforce also signals that many remain discouraged about their job prospects. Modest growth and steady, if unspectacular, hiring haven’t encouraged lots more people to look for work.