Job market is awful, but may get worse

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Friday’s report showing the biggest monthly job loss in 34 years confirmed forecasters' worst fears that the decline in the U.S. economy accelerated in November, after the financial system seized up and consumers hunkered down. As the government scrambles to break the downward spiral, some economists are predicting the unemployment rate is headed substantially higher through next year.

Since the start of the recession in December 2007, the economy has lost 1.9 million jobs, lifting the number of Americans out of work to 2.7 million. At 6.7 percent, the jobless rate has now risen 2.3 percentage points since it bottomed in March 2007.

Most sectors of the economy are now losing jobs, including manufacturing, construction, financial firms, retailers, and the leisure and hospitality industries. Only government, education and health services managed to post job gains.

Friday’s report also slashed another 200,000 jobs from the numbers already reported for September and October — a sign that the economy was hit harder than first reported when the credit crunch deepened.

Economists, who had been expecting a loss of some 350,000 jobs last month, were stunned by the news, describing the report as “horrendous,” "horrific" and “eye-poppingly bad.”

“We’re scrambling around here for historical parallels,” said Robert Barbera, chief economist at ITG, an investment advisory firm.

More big job cuts are on the way, as companies slash costs to try to offset the expected drop in revenues. In just the past few weeks, major employers like AT&T Inc., DuPont, Citibank, JPMorgan Chase and Pratt & Whitney have announced steep job cuts.

"These numbers are shocking," said economist Joel Naroff, president of Naroff Economic Advisors. "Companies are sharply reacting to the economy's problems and slashing costs. They are not trying to ride it out."

Chrysler, General Motors and Ford continued to fight for survival Friday with another round of testimony on Capitol Hill, where the companies' CEOs are asking lawmakers for as much as $34 billion in emergency aid. But the auto industry has already sustained major damage. Car sales cratered to a 26-year low last month after the financial storm erupted in September.

“This is unprecedented in the history of the industry — and it happened from one day to the next,” said Mike Jackson, chairman and CEO of AutoNation, the largest U.S. chain of car dealers. “The strong will survive and the weak will be swept away by this toxic combination of Depression sales level and the lack of credit for business. It's going to be painful and unfortunate, but it does need to happen.”

What makes the latest data so worrisome is that they point to an economic decline that is picking up speed.

“The economy is now locked in a vicious downward spiral in which employment, incomes and spending are collapsing together,” said Nigel Gault, chief U.S. economist at IHS Global insight.

Consumers also are taking a hit to their finances as the collapse in housing prices and the rise in foreclosures that tipped the economy into recession show no signs of abating.

A record one in 10 American homeowners with a mortgage were either in foreclosure or at least a month behind on their payments at the end of September, according the latest survey released Friday by the Mortgage Bankers Association. The percentage of auto loans that was behind by 60 days or more rose 15.9 percent in the third quarter compared to last year, according to credit reporting agency TransUnion.

As consumers struggle to keep up with existing debts, lenders have cut credit card limits and tightened up on extending new loans, which has further crimped spending. The collapse of the stock market has wiped out trillions of dollars of personal wealth, forcing consumers to try to increase savings to make up for those losses.

All of which is accelerating the pullback in consumer spending – the main engine of the U.S. economy that accounts for roughly two-thirds of gross domestic product. Consumption dropped 3.7 percent in the third quarter; the spending pullback is expected to worsen during the holiday season that retailers rely on for the bulk of their profits. Gault expects consumer spending to shrink by 4.7 percent in the fourth quarter.

Economists already have begun comparing the current downturn to the back-to-back recessions of 1980-1982. The unemployment rate peaked at 10.8 percent then after the government pushed interest rates to high double-digits to try to break a decadelong inflationary spiral.

“You had interest rates that soared, the credit system shut down, and everything stopped,” said Barbera. “That's what this (jobs) number says, and that's what it suggests for the GDP numbers."

Before Friday’s jobs data, economists had expected GDP to contract at a sharp 4 to 5 percent rate in the current fourth quarter. Barbera said the latest data indicated the drop could be more like 8 percent.

“We're in a deep contraction with very little offset now,” said former Treasury Secretary John Snow. “The consumer is parked. China is slowing. India's slowing — Brazil, Mexico. Virtually every sector of the American economy is being affected.”

To some observers, the current economy is in even worse shape than the early 1980s recession that was brought on by the government-induced credit squeeze. Once the government cut rates, the economy recovered quickly.

Now the government has so far been unable to halt the steep decline, despite the commitment of trillions of dollars in spending, investment and loan guarantees.

The current credit drought follows the excesses of a prolonged period of low interest rates and easy-money lending that began to reverse course in 2007 and all but shut down lending in mid-September. To spur borrowing, the Federal Reserve has cut the target overnight lending rate to 1 percent and is expected to cut by as much as a half-percentage point on Dec. 16. But short term market rates have been well below the Fed’s official target for weeks.

With short-term rates approaching zero, the Treasury and the Fed are considering other measures to try to drive down the cost of long-term borrowing, including mortgage rates.

President-elect Barack Obama already has called for a half-trillion-dollar government spending package to generate 2.5 million jobs over his first two years in office, which Congress is hoping to have ready by Inauguration Day in January. The latest data may prompt enactment of an even bigger spending package.

“We had assumed a $550 billion package over three years — we will need more than that,” said Gault. “The trick will be making the stimulus effective quickly, which is difficult since infrastructure projects take time to gear up.”

Regardless of the size of the package, Friday’s jobs report heightens the urgency of an aggressive government response, said Mark Zandi, an economist at Moodys’

“The only way out is for government to be extremely aggressive on every front — the Federal Reserve, economic stimulus, help for the automakers, extending out TARP money (to buy bad assets from banks) — everything,” he said.  “Because we're now in this self-reinforcing, negative cycle, and the only way out is for the government to fill the void.”

Even if the government acts quickly and stems the slide in the financial markets and the economy, some economists believe the jobless rate will top 10 percent before beginning to subside.  If this recession drags on past mid-2009, it would be the longest since the Great Depression. (The recessions of 1973-75 and 1981-82 both lasted 16 months according to the National Bureau of Economic Research.)

In any case, the eventual recovery will likely be more gradual and weaker than after past recessions, according to Stuart Hoffman, chief economist at PNC Financial.

“I think the mind-set will be different on the other side of this recession over the next couple of years,” he said. “That will prevent borrowers and would-be borrowers and lenders from saying, “Alright, game’s back on. Let’s start running house prices up and credit cards and credit limits up. It’s not going to happen.”