WASHINGTON - A dreary employment report for August is reviving worries that even the modest pickup in economic growth forecast by the Clinton administration and the Federal Reserve may be wishful thinking.
Analysts say that they do not see any quick fixes and warn that the economy could remain hobbled for some time. Growth is not stalled, they say, but it isn't anything to bring about, either.
Moreover, federal policymakers seem to have their hands tied. The Fed is expected to stay neutral for now on rates, hoping that things will look better next month. And Clinton's package of tax increases and fiscal restraint, stripped of the stimulus programs, has been signed into law and won't be able to help much.
"There's no obvious solution to our problems," said Lyle Gramley, consulting economist to the Mortgage Bankers Association and a former member of the Fed board of governors.
The renewed sense of pessimism over the economy's growth prospects was prompted by the Labor Department's report on Friday that nonfarm payroll jobs fell by 39.000 last month, a figure that stunned the bond market and helped send the yield on the Treasury 30-year bond plummeting to 5.93%.
A separate report from the Commerce Department reinforced the idea that the economy will not have much punch in the months ahead. The index of leading economic indicators slipped 0.1% in July, the fourth decrease this year.
But the real shocker was the unemployment report, which showed companies in nearly all major sectors were either cutting back or hiring reluctantly. "There isn't any strength in employment anywhere." said Gramley. "This is an economy that is struggling, struggling, struggling to grow."
Economists noted that there were some positive features in the report. The Labor Department's household survey, which is used to calculate the unemployment rate, showed jobs surged by 409.000 last month. That brought the civilian jobless down from 6.8% to 6.7%, the lowest level in two years and a full percentage point below the peak of 7.7% in June, 1992.
But analysts tend to dismiss the household survey series, which is subject to large monthly revisions. Instead, they focused on the nonfarm payroll figures that showed the rate of job creation in the last two months averaged 85,000, half the 170.000 monthly gains posted during the first half of the year.
Other positive points in the report also were noted but ignored. The number of nonfarm jobs in July was up a revised 211,000 instead of 162,000. Hourly earnings and aggregate hours worked were up in August, suggesting that production and income rose during the month.
Predictions from the Fed and the administration call for growth picking up to 3% in the second half of the year after growing a meager 1.3% during the first six months. The administration's estimate came last week in the Office of Management and Budget's mid-session budget review.
But analysts were skeptical of the official numbers. "It's an economy that isn't doing well," Gramley said. "The wind is starting to blow in the other direction."
"There isn't any momentum," said Dana Johnson, head of market analysis for First National Bank of Chicago. "It's just not there, but there doesn't seem to be any evidence, either, of any, deceleration."
Still, Johnson said he does not expect the Fed to shift from its neutral policy on rates. "The Fed is going to be patient and watch and hope that over time a moderate acceleration does emerge," he said.
In July, members of the Federal Open Market Committee voted to maintain their policy bias toward raising short-term rates, and there has been no word on whether they opted to change back to a strict neutral policy directive when they met on Aug. 17.
Regardless of what the FOMC did last month, for all practical purposes the employment figures ensure that the July policy bias has been removed, said Johnson.
"I think the Fed is going to be forced to ease," said Lincoln Anderson. chief economist for Fidelity Investments in Boston. He attributed the weak job report to "ferocious cost-cutting by business" and predicted Fed officials will act once they get evidence that the consumer price increase index is slipping back to 2%.
Sung Won Sohn, chief economist for Norwest Corp., said he believes the Fed should slash the federal funds and the discount rate - both now at 3% - by 50 basis points to 2.5%. "The economy is in lousy shape, and any kind of economic rebound is not in sight," he said.
Sohn said small- and medium-size business leaders with whom he talks are worried about the talk of health-care reform coming out of Washington. "That's having a significant impact on employment." he said.
"Traders have thrown in the towel on economic rebound and say interest rates will continue to decline, so ~Give me something to buy.'" Sohn said. "There's a buying frenzy going on. Nobody wants to be caught off the bandwagon. This rally has a momentum of its own."
But Sohn said he does not believe Fed officials retreated: from their May policy directive favoring a tighter monetary policy. "They don't want to create the impression that their policymaking is flippant from month to month." he said. "And they don't want to give the impression that the economy's growth is running out of steam."