By Bob Willis
March 30 (Bloomberg) — The U.S. lost jobs for a third month in March and manufacturing contracted at the fastest pace in five years, signs the economy continues to turn down, economists said before reports this week.
Payrolls probably shrank by 50,000, according to the median estimate of economists surveyed by Bloomberg News before the Labor Department’s April 4 report. The last time the economy lost jobs for at least three consecutive months coincided with the start of the Iraq War in 2003.
“The economy has slipped into a recession,” said Ethan Harris, chief U.S. economist at Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. in New York. “We expect the labor market to weaken, with payrolls falling steadily through the middle of next year.”
Job losses, slumping confidence and the biggest plunge in housing in a generation all point to a slowdown in consumer spending that will weaken growth. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke will testify before Congress this week after lowering interest rates and extending credit to non-banks in an attempt to calm financial markets.
The projected decrease in payrolls would follow a decline of 63,000 in February and a smaller drop in January. The jobless rate likely rose to 5 percent from 4.8 percent, the survey said.
Factory payrolls in March probably shrank by 40,000 workers, reflecting automakers’ efforts to trim costs and a strike at a suppler for General Motors Corp., economists project the jobs report may show.
A walkout by workers at American Axle & Manufacturing over pay and benefits that started on Feb. 26 has idled almost half of GM’s North American workforce. The payroll figures may be reduced by as much as 20,000 workers because of the effects of the strike, according to Morgan Stanley economist David Greenlaw.
Ford Motor Co., which lost $15.3 billion in the past two years, may cut more jobs in North America, Chief Executive Officer Alan Mulally said earlier this month.
“The old ways of doing business are gone,” Joe Hinrichs, Ford’s manufacturing chief, and Marty Mulloy, vice president of labor affairs, said in a March 19 commentary sent to newspapers in communities where Ford has plants. “We must continue to downsize and simply will not have enough jobs for all of our current hourly workers.”
Job losses in financial markets are also mounting following the collapse in subprime lending.
Wall Street banks hit by mortgage losses and writedowns have cut more than 34,000 jobs in the past nine months, the most since the dot-com boom fizzled in 2001, according to the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association.
This year, banks including Lehman, Citigroup Inc. and Morgan Stanley have been reducing staff in fixed income trading, securitization and investment banking. So far, Lehman has eliminated 18 percent of its workforce, Morgan Stanley has cut 6.2 percent, and Merrill Lynch & Co. has trimmed 4.5 percent.
“Rising unemployment should continue to slow wage growth, adding to the strain on consumers,” said Lehman’s Harris.
Manufacturers are retrenching as demand weakens. The Tempe, Arizona-based Institute for Supply Management may report April 1 that its factory index fell to 47.5 this month, the lowest level since April 2003, from 48.3 in February, according to the survey median. A reading of 50 is the dividing line between expansion and contraction.
The following day, the Commerce Department may report that factory orders in February dropped 0.8 percent following a 2.5 percent decline the prior month.
In another sign that the housing recession is dragging down other areas, service industries contracted for a third month in March, the ISM is projected to report on April 3.
The group’s non-manufacturing index, which covers 90 percent of the economy, fell to 48.5 this month, from 49.3 in February, according to the median forecast. Services haven’t contracted for three consecutive months since 2001-2002, when the economy was emerging from the last recession.
“The tightening of credit conditions and the deepening of the housing contraction are likely to weigh on economic growth over the next few quarters,” the Fed said March 18 following its last policy meeting. “Growth in consumer spending has slowed and labor markets have softened.”
Bernanke will elaborate on the outlook before the Joint Economic Committee of Congress on April 2.
Seeking to ease credit, restore confidence to financial markets and cushion the slowdown, the Fed on March 18 lowered its key rate by three-quarters of a point and vowed to act “as needed” to cushion the economy. The Fed has cut the benchmark rate by 3 percentage points since September.