By Shobhana Chandra and Rich Miller
Oct. 3 (Bloomberg) — U.S. payrolls plunged in September, signaling the economy may be heading for its worst recession in at least a quarter century as the 13-month-old credit crisis on Wall Street finally hits home on Main Street.
Employers cut the most jobs in five years in September as cash-squeezed companies pulled back in an effort to bolster pinched profits. In its last employment report before Americans choose their next president, the Labor Department said the unemployment rate was 6.1 percent, a climb of 1.4 percentage points from a year before.
“If credit markets remain dysfunctional, the current recession could turn out to be as severe as any in the postwar period,” said former Federal Reserve governor Lyle Gramley, now senior economic adviser at the Stanford Group Co. in Washington.
The spreading crisis is also having reverberations on the campaign trail, as polls show anxious voters increasingly see Democrat Barack Obama as the candidate best placed to see the U.S. through its economic travails. The unemployment rate has only risen twice in the year leading up to elections since World War II, and in each case the incumbent party lost.
`This country can’t afford Senator McCain’s plan to give America four more years of the same policies that have devastated our middle class and our economy for the last eight,” Obama, 47, said in a statement.
Arizona Senator John McCain, 72, took the opportunity to paint his opponent as a tax-and-spend liberal, whose prescriptions would exacerbate the crisis.
“Unlike Senator Obama, I do not believe we will create one single American job by increasing taxes, going on a massive spending binge, and closing off markets,” McCain said in a statement. “Our nation cannot afford Senator Obama’s higher taxes.”
Job losses accelerated as the credit crisis deepened last month, forcing the failure or government takeovers of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc., Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and American International Group Inc.
The figures came hours before a scheduled vote in the House of Representatives on a $700 billion rescue plan for the U.S. financial industry pushed by Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson. The Senate approved the legislation two days ago after the House rejected an initial version of the bill Sept. 29.
Stocks rose and Treasury securities fell on optimism the rescue plan would pass the House. The Standard & Poor’s 500 index rose 2.9 percent to 1,146.1 at 11:08 a.m. in New York. The yield on the benchmark 10-year note rose to 3.72 percent from 3.63 percent late yesterday.
Today’s report showed that hours worked — considered a good proxy for the state of the overall economy — matched the lowest level since records began in 1964. That indicates the likely current recession may be at least as severe as the 1981-82 slump, during which gross domestic product shrank by 2.7 percent.
Payrolls fell by 159,000 in September, the Labor Department said in Washington. Aside from a 9,000 gain in government payrolls, all major categories showed declines except education and healthcare.
“The really bad news here is that job losses are now widespread,” said Nariman Behravesh, chief economist at Global Insight Inc., a Lexington, Massachusetts, forecasting firm. “The problems in housing and manufacturing are now spreading everywhere. We are in a recession, there is no debate about that.”
Even the vibrant health-services industry is showing signs of succumbing to the economy’s troubles. Health care employment rose 17,000, about half the average monthly gain for the prior 12 months.
Walgreen Co., the largest U.S. drugstore chain, reported Sept. 29 that its profits rose less than analysts estimated after it posted its smallest sales increase in a decade.
A private report today showed that services-industry growth remained stagnant in September. The Institute of Supply Management’s non-manufacturing index slipped to 50.2 from 50.6 the month before. Fifty is the dividing line between growth and expansion.
Total payrolls were forecast to drop 105,000 after declining by a previously estimated 84,000 in August, according to the median of 76 economists surveyed by Bloomberg News. The jobless rate was projected to remain at 6.1 percent.
Jan Hatzius, chief U.S. economist at Goldman Sachs Group Inc. in New York, said the unemployment rate may eventually rise to more than 7 percent as the credit crunch takes its toll on the economy. If that happens, that would make the overall rise in unemployment the biggest since the early 1980’s.
Workers’ average hourly wages rose 3 cents, or 0.2 percent, to $18.17 from the prior month. Hourly earnings were 3.4 percent higher than September 2007. Economists surveyed by Bloomberg had forecast a 0.3 percent increase from August and a 3.6 percent gain for the 12-month period.
After today, the total decline in payrolls so far this year has reached 760,000. The economy created 1.1 million jobs in 2007.
Americans will go to the polls on Nov. 4 and the October jobs report is due Nov. 7.
“Voters are extremely angry, and they want someone to blame,” said Scott Anderson, senior economist at Wells Fargo & Co. in Minneapolis.
Obama has opened up a lead over Republican rival John McCain in the aftermath of their first debate and amid growing concerns about the economy, according to a Pew Research Center survey taken Sept. 27 to Sept. 29. A mid-September poll from Washington- based Pew had shown the candidates were in a statistical tie.
Earlier in September, a Bloomberg/Los Angeles Times poll showed more respondents said Obama would do a better job handling the financial crisis than McCain, and almost half of the voters believed he had better ideas to strengthen the economy than his rival.
Factory payrolls fell 51,000 after decreasing 56,000 in August. Economists had forecast a drop of 57,000.
Today’s report also reflected the housing slump. Payrolls at builders declined 35,000 after falling 13,000. Financial firms decreased payrolls by 17,000, the most since November last year.
Service industries, which include banks, insurance companies, restaurants and retailers, subtracted 82,000 workers after eliminating 16,000 in the previous month. Retail payrolls slid by 40,100 after a 25,400 drop.
In the past month, Hewlett-Packard Co., the world’s largest personal-computer maker, announced it will cut 24,600 jobs, and auto-parts maker Federal-Mogul Corp. said it would eliminate 4,000 positions globally.
Marriott International Inc., the world’s largest hotel chain, yesterday reported third-quarter profit fell 28 percent as U.S. companies and consumers cut back on travel.
Without action from Congress, “the resulting credit squeeze could threaten businesses,” Chief Financial Officer Arne Sorenson said on a conference call. There are “tens of thousands of jobs at stake in our company alone, and we are typical.”
Mounting job cuts will further limit consumer spending, which accounts for more than two-thirds of the economy. A Bloomberg survey in September predicted spending will be unchanged this quarter, the weakest performance since 1991.
The ISM on Oct. 1 said manufacturing shrank in September at the fastest pace since the last recession in 2001. The odds the central bank will lower its benchmark rate by a half percentage point, to 1.5 percent, were almost 100 percent today, up from 32 percent a week ago.