CHRISTOPHER S. RUGABER, AP Economics Writer
WASHINGTON (AP) — U.S. employers added 162,000 jobs in July, a modest increase and the fewest since March. The gain was still enough to help lower the unemployment rate to a 4½-year low of 7.4 percent, a hopeful sign in an otherwise lackluster report.
The Labor Department said Friday that unemployment declined from 7.6 percent in June as more Americans found jobs and others stopped looking and were no longer counted as unemployed.
Still, the government said employers created a combined 26,000 fewer jobs in May and June than previously estimated. Americans worked fewer hours in July, and their average pay dipped. The figures suggest that weak economic growth might be making businesses cautious about hiring.
For the year, job growth remains solid. The economy has created an average 200,000 jobs a month since January. But the pace has slowed in the past three months to 175,000.
"A clearly weaker-than-expected report, but one should not overstate it -- the unemployment rate continues to trend down and average job growth of 175,000 will be more than enough to continue to push it lower," Peter Newland, an economist at Barclays Capital, said in a note to clients.
Reaction in financial markets was only slightly negative. The Dow Jones industrial average dropped 40 points in early-morning trading, and broader indexes also declined. The yield on the 10-year Treasury note fell to 2.62 percent from 2.71 percent.
The Federal Reserve will review the July employment data in deciding whether to slow its $85 billion a month in bond purchases in September, as many economists have predicted it will do.
Weaker hiring could make the Fed hold off on any pullback in bond buying, which has helped keep long-term borrowing costs down. Yet it's possible that the lower unemployment rate, along with the steady job gains the past year, will convince the Fed that the job market is strengthening consistently.
"While July itself was a bit disappointing, the Fed will be looking at the cumulative improvement," said Paul Ashworth, chief U.S. economist at Capital Economics. "On that score, the unemployment rate has fallen from 8.1 percent last August, to 7.4 percent this July, which is a significant improvement."
But Beth Ann Bovino, senior economist at Standard & Poor's, said she thinks Friday's job report will make the Fed delay any slowing in its bond purchases.
"September seems very unlikely now," she says. "I'm wondering if December is still in the cards."
The government's revised totals show that May's job growth was downgraded to 176,000, below the 195,000 previously estimated. June's was lowered to 188,000, from the 195,000 reported last month.
The job gains in July were mostly in lower-paying industries, such as retail, hotels and restaurants.
But manufacturing added 6,000 jobs, driven by strong gains at auto plants. Those were the first job gains at U.S. factories since February. And professional services such as finance, accounting and information technology also increased.
Governments added jobs for the first time since April, driven by the fifth straight month of hiring by local government.
The economy grew at a subpar 1.7 percent annual rate in April-June quarter, the government said Wednesday. While that was an improvement over the previous two quarters, it's still far too weak to rapidly lower unemployment.
Recent data suggest that the economy could strengthen in the second half of the year.
A survey Thursday showed that factories increased production and received a surge of new orders in July, propelling the fastest expansion in more than two years.
The survey, by the Institute for Supply Management, also showed that the housing recovery is spurring more output by lumber companies, furniture makers and appliance manufacturers.
Businesses have ordered more industrial machinery and other equipment for four straight months. Europe's troubled economies are showing signs of recovery, potentially a lift to U.S. exports.
U.S. automakers are reporting their best sales since the recession, a sign that Americans are confident enough in their finances to make large purchases. Car sales rose 14 percent in July from 12 months earlier to 1.3 million.
Healthy sales have encouraged more hiring by Ford Motor Co. The company said last week that it will hire 800 salaried professionals this year, mostly in areas such as information technology, product development and quality control.