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Employers slash 63,000 jobs in February, most in 5 years, feeding recession fears
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    WASHINGTON — Employers slashed 63,000 jobs in February, the most in five years and the starkest sign yet that the country is heading dangerously toward recession or is in one already.
    The Labor Department’s report, released Friday, also indicated that the nation’s unemployment rate dipped from 4.9 percent in January to 4.8 percent last month as hundreds of thousands of people — perhaps discouraged by their prospects — left the civilian labor force.
    Job losses were widespread, with hefty cuts coming from construction, manufacturing, retailing, financial services and a variety of professional and business services. Those losses swamped gains elsewhere, including education and health care, leisure and hospitality and the government.
    The latest snapshot of the nation’s employment climate underscored the heavy toll of the housing and credit crises on companies, jobseekers and the overall economy.
    ‘‘It’s clear our economy has slowed,’’ President Bush said.
    To provide relief to persistent credit problems, the Federal Reserve announced Friday that it will increase the amount of loans it plans to make available to banks this month to $100 billion.
    It has already provided a total of $160 billion in short-term loans to cash-strapped banks since the auctions began in December. Another Fed step will involve making $100 billion available to a broad range of financial players through a series of separate transactions.
    On Wall Street, the Dow Jones industrials were down by nearly 180 points in early afternoon trading as the Fed’s actions helped to blunt worry about the eroding jobs situation.
    The Labor report also showed that January’s job losses were worse than the government first reported. Employers cut 22,000 jobs, versus 17,000.
    It was the first monthly back-to-back job loss since May and June 2003, when the job market was still struggling to recover from the blows of the 2001 recession.
    The health of the nation’s job market is critical in shaping how the overall economy fares. If companies continue to reduce hiring, that will spell more trouble.
    ‘‘It certainly solidifies the notion that the economy has fallen into a recession,’’ said Ken Mayland, economist at ClearView Economics.
    Friday’s report was much weaker than economists were expecting. They had been predicting that employers would boost payrolls by around 25,000. However, they were also expecting the jobless rate to edge up to 5 percent. The reason why the jobless rate went down, rather than up, is because so many people stopped looking for work and left the labor force.
    President Bush’s top economic adviser, Edward Lazear, acknowledged Friday that it’s possible the economy shrank in the current January-to-March quarter. A growing number of economists think that will be the case, but Lazear’s comment was the most pessimistic assessment heard out of the White House. He would not discuss whether the White House is predicting the economy will actually fall into a recession. Some economists think it already has.
    ‘‘We are disappointed any time you see a number showing lost jobs,’’ Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez told The Associated Press. ‘‘This is consistent with a slowdown,’’ he said. Still, he was hopeful that the recently enacted economic stimulus package forged by the White House and Congress will help bolster the economy in the second half of this year. Bush urged people to spend their rebates to help the economy grow.
    Workers with jobs, however, saw modest wage gains.
    Average hourly earnings for jobholders rose to $17.80 in February, a 0.3 percent increase from the previous month. That was on target with economists’ forecasts. Over the last 12 months, wages were up 3.7 percent. With high energy and food prices, though, workers may feel squeezed and feel like their paychecks aren’t stretching that far.
    With the economy losing momentum, fears have grown that the country in on the brink of its first recession since 2001.
    Economic growth slowed to a near standstill of just a 0.6 percent pace in the final quarter of last year. Many economists predict growth in the January-to-March quarter will be worse — around a 0.4 percent pace. Some believe the economy is shrinking now.
    Spreading fallout from the housing and credit debacles are the main factors behind the economic slowdown. People and businesses alike are feeling the strains and have turned cautious. Adding to the stresses on pocketbooks, budgets and the economy: skyrocketing energy prices. Oil prices have set a string of record highs in recent days. Gasoline prices have marched higher, too.
    To help shore up the economy, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke signaled last week that the central bank is prepared to lower interest rates again. Economists predict another cut on March 18, the Fed’s next meeting. The Fed, which has been slicing the rate since September, recently turned more forceful. It slashed the rate by 1.25 percentage points in the course of just eight days in January — the biggest one-month reduction in a quarter century.
    The White House and Congress, meanwhile, speedily enacted an economic relief package, including tax rebates for people and tax breaks for businesses. That — along with the Fed’s rate cuts — should help give a lift to the economy in the second half of this year, says Bernanke.
    Still, unemployment is expected to move higher this year. The Federal Reserve predict the jobless rate will rise to as high as 5.3 percent in 2008. Last year, the unemployment rate averaged 4.6 percent.
    All the economy’s troubles are putting people in a gloomy mood.
    According to the RBC Cash Index, confidence sank to a mark of 33.1 in early March, the worst reading since the index began in 2002.

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