WASHINGTON – U.S. employers have yet to start hiring aggressively — a trend the Federal Reserve will weigh in deciding this month whether to slow its bond buying and, if so, by how much.
Employers added 169,000 jobs in August but many fewer in June and July than previously thought, the Labor Department said Friday. Combined, June, July and August amounted to the weakest three-month stretch of job growth in a year.
The unemployment rate dropped to 7.3 percent, the lowest in nearly five years. But it fell because more Americans stopped looking for work and were no longer counted as unemployed. The proportion of Americans working or looking for work reached its lowest point in 35 years.
All told, the report adds up to a mixed picture of the U.S. job market: Hiring is steady but subpar. Much of the hiring is in lower-paying occupations. And many people are giving up on the job market in frustration.
The jobs picture is sure to weigh heavily when the Fed meets Sept. 17-18 to discuss whether to scale back its $85 billion a month in Treasury and mortgage bond purchases. Those purchases have helped keep home-loan and other borrowing rates ultra-low to try to encourage consumers and businesses to borrow and spend more.
David Jones, chief economist at DMJ Advisors, said he still thinks the Fed will begin slowing its bond buying later this month. But he suspects the August data and the reduced job totals for June and July will lead the Fed to trim more gradually than it would have otherwise: The Fed could start reducing its monthly purchases by $10 billion rather than $20 billion.
Jones said he expects periodic reductions of $10 billion between now and mid-2014. At that point, Chairman Ben Bernanke has said the Fed expects the bond buying could likely end.
The revised job growth for June and July shrank the previously estimated gain for those months by 74,000. July’s gain is now estimated at 104,000 — the fewest in more than a year and down from a previous estimate of 162,000. June’s was revised to 172,000 from 188,000.
In the past three months, employers have added an average of just 148,000 jobs. The average monthly gain for 2013 so far is 180,000, slightly below the 183,000 average for 2012.
Stock prices rose in afternoon trading as investors weighed the job report’s impact on the Fed and tensions over the prospect of U.S. military action against Syria. The Dow Jones industrial average was up about 62 points.
The yield on the 10-year Treasury note fell to 2.91 percent, from 2.95 percent before the jobs report was released at 8:30 a.m. Eastern time. Investors may think the report makes it less likely the Fed will significantly slow its bond purchases.
One possible concern for the Fed is that most of the hiring in August was in lower-paying industries such as retail, restaurants and bars. This continues a trend that emerged earlier this year.
Retailers added 44,000 jobs in August. Hotels, restaurants and bars added 27,000. Temp hiring rose by 13,000.
In higher-paying fields, the report was mixed.
Manufacturers added 14,000 in August, the first gain after five months of declines. Government, which has been a drag on job growth since the recession ended more than four years ago, gained 17,000. It was the biggest such increase in nearly a year. The increase was all in local education departments. Federal employment was unchanged, and state government lost 3,000 jobs.
Auto manufacturers added 19,000 jobs. Americans are buying more cars than at any time since the recession began in December 2007. Some of the jobs also likely reflected workers who were rehired last month after being temporarily laid off in July, when factories switched to new models.
But construction jobs were unchanged in August. And the information industry, which includes high-tech workers, broadcasting and film production, cut 18,000 jobs. The biggest losses were in the film industry.
Employers might have turned cautious last month as the economy slowed. And the downgraded job totals for June and July reflected a loss of government jobs that was likely related to federal spending cuts.
The economy grew at a 2.5 percent annual rate from April through June. Many economists think that is slowing to a rate below 2 percent in the July-September quarter.
Government job cuts were much steeper in June and July than previously estimated. They accounted for about half the reduction in job growth for those months.
The federal spending cuts likely also contributed to job cuts by defense contractors, said Diane Swonk, chief economist at Mesirow Financial.
Many defense contractors are included among manufacturers. And manufacturing jobs were revised lower by a combined 26,000 in June and July, more than offsetting August’s gain.
Hiring in construction has slowed drastically from earlier in the year despite the housing recovery. The construction industry has added an average of just 2,500 jobs a month in the past six months. That compares with an average 25,500 gain in the previous six months.
The percentage of adults working or looking for work, known as the participation rate, fell to 63.2, the lowest since 1978. The participation rate for men, which has been declining gradually, fell to its lowest point on records dating to 1948.
Doug Handler, chief U.S. economist at IHS Global Insight, said the decline in male participation rate suggests that many men who once worked in areas such as manufacturing and construction are giving up on finding work rather than transitioning to another industry.
“It seems they feel that they’re never going to get another job in their sector or in any other sector,” Handler said.
Still, some economists suggested that an increase last month in hours worked and average hourly pay provided important boosts to Americans’ pay and could support stronger consumer spending in coming months.
Average hourly earnings rose 5 cents to $24.05. Hourly pay has risen 2.2 percent in the past 12 months. That’s slightly ahead of the 2 percent inflation rate over the same period.
The average hourly work week ticked up to 34.5 from 34.4, a sign that companies needed more labor. That can lead to larger paychecks.
But the persistently sluggish pace of hiring will likely be the key factory the Fed will weigh at its policy meeting this month. And few expect any aggressive pullback by the central bank.
“The current pace of job growth does not quite take tapering off the table, but it does suggest the Fed will use a lighter touch,” said James Marple, at TD Economics.
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