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Hiring Up Modestly, Jobless Rate Steady

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JEANNINE AVERSA | December 7, 2007 04:56 PM EST | AP

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WASHINGTON — Employers hired at a moderate pace in November and the unemployment rate held steady at a relatively low 4.7 percent, reassuring signs for an economy that is fighting to avoid a recession.

The Labor Department's report Friday showed that companies are still adding to their ranks _ albeit at a slower pace _ even as deepening troubles in the housing and credit markets are weighing heavily on national economic activity.

Employers added a net 94,000 new jobs to their payrolls last month. That was down from a surprisingly strong gain of 170,000 jobs in October, but was still sufficient to prevent the unemployment rate from rising. The jobless rate has held steady at 4.7 percent for three months in a row.

"The economy has been hit by some large juggernauts, but the labor market is holding together reasonably well," said Lynn Reaser, chief economist at Bank of America's Investment Strategies Group. "Today's report would suggest there is no need to panic about the economy."

Still, fallout from the housing collapse was painfully evident. Construction companies slashed jobs last month. So did mortgage companies, banks, real-estate firms and manufacturers. Those losses, however, were more than offset by hiring gains elsewhere, including in health care, retail, hotels and motels, temporary help firms, computer services and the government.

"Jobs growth near 100,000 combined with a steady unemployment rate does not signal an economy dipping into recession, and provides important support for consumer incomes," said Nigel Gault, economist at Global Insight.

The health of the nation's job market is a critical factor in determining whether the economy will, in fact, weather the stresses from the housing collapse and credit crunch. Job and wage growth have been shock absorbers, helping individuals to cope with all the negative forces in the economy. The employment climate has helped to support spending by individuals, a major shaper of overall economic activity.

Still, a lingering fear among economists is that consumers will cut back on their spending, throwing the economy into a tailspin. The odds of a recession have grown this year, although Federal Reserve officials, the Bush administration and others are hopeful the country can avoid one.

To stave off the possibility of a recession, the Federal Reserve has sliced a key interest rate twice this year. Many expect rates to be lowered for a third time when policymakers meet Tuesday. A reduction of at least one-quarter percentage point is expected as insurance against undue weakening in the economy, economists said.

On Wall Street, the Dow Jones industrials edged up 5.69 points to close at 13,625.58.

Workers' wages grew last month.

Average hourly earnings rose to $17.63 in November, a 0.5 percent increase from October. It marked the biggest monthly gain since June. Over the past 12 months, wages increased 3.8 percent. High energy prices have pushed up inflation and probably made some workers feel like their paychecks aren't stretching as far as they would like, some analysts said.

To be sure, workers want to see wages go up. But a sustained pick up in wages _ if not blunted by other economic forces _ can fan inflation.

"American workers are feeling the squeeze of paychecks that are barely keeping up with the rising costs of basic living expenses," said Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y.

Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, in an interview with The Associated Press, welcomed the latest employment figures, saying they demonstrate that the "economy is flexible and resilient."

Job growth has slowed. Employers have added an average of 118,000 new jobs a month so far this year. That's down from an average of 189,000 a month for all of last year.

Still, economists are encouraged that the labor market as a whole isn't crumbling under the strains plaguing the economy.

"The November employment report was not a blowout, but it was certainly healthy enough to put off talk that the economy is careening off the cliff into a recession," said Stephen Stanley, chief economist at RBS Greenwich Capital.

Problems in the economy have elevated such talk this year. The housing and mortgage markets have melted down. Home foreclosures have soared to record highs. Credit has dried up. Lenders have been forced out of business. Financial companies have wracked up billions of dollars worth of losses from bad subprime mortgage investments. Wall Street has endured bouts of turbulence.

Given these stresses, economic growth is expected to slow to a pace of just 1.5 percent or less in the current October-to-December period. Growth is expected to remain sluggish into part of 2008, and the unemployment rate is expected to climb to 5 percent by early next year.

Economic uncertainties are coloring peoples' views of President Bush's stewardship. His approval rating on the economy was just 36 percent in December, according to an AP-Ipsos poll. The meltdown in the housing and mortgage markets has raised dangers to the economy and created headaches for politicians, giving Republicans and Democrats plenty of fodder to point blame at each other.

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On the Net:

Employment report: http://www.bls.gov/