US economy flashes contradictory signals

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WASHINGTON — Anyone puzzled by the most recent U.S. economic data has reason for feeling so: The numbers sketch a sometimes contradictory picture of the economy.

We’ve learned that:

Fewer people are losing jobs, but not many are being hired. Home and stock prices are up, but workers’ pay is trailing inflation. Auto sales have jumped, but manufacturing is faltering.

This is what an economy stuck in a slow-growth rut can look like, and it’s a focal point of the presidential campaign. The U.S. economy grew at a scant 1.3 percent annual rate in the April-June quarter — too weak to reduce high unemployment. And most economists foresee little if any improvement the rest of the year.

Many Americans are reducing debt loads instead of spending freely. Builders are borrowing less and constructing homes at a modest pace. Businesses are being cautious about hiring and expanding.

In the long run, reduced debts and rising home and stock prices will help rebuild household wealth, boost consumer spending and spur job growth. But it’s taking time.

HOUSING

After plunging when the housing bubble burst, home prices are finally rising steadily, according to the Standard & Poor’s/Case-Shiller index. The index rose in July compared with a year earlier. That was the second straight year-over-year gain.

Still, the annual pace of new-home sales dipped in August from a two-year high in July. At the same time, sales were nearly 28 percent above the level a year earlier.

BUSINESS CONFIDENCE

Businesses appear to be less confident than consumers. A survey of chief executives of large U.S. companies has found their outlook to be at its most pessimistic level since the fall of 2009 — just after the recession officially ended. Orders for long-lasting factory goods plummeted in August.

In part, that reflects Europe’s financial and economic crises, which have reduced demand for U.S. exports. Six European countries are in recession. More are expected to follow.

CONSUMER SPENDING

Americans spent more in August. But that was mainly because they had to pay more for gas and some other items. Adjusted for inflation, consumer spending barely rose in August. That’s been true for most of this year.

Spending will likely grow sluggishly without bigger increases in workers’ pay and perhaps a moderation in gas prices.

JOBS

The number of people applying for unemployment benefits fell sharply in the week ending Sept. 22. That suggests that the weak job market could strengthen. Employers added just 96,000 jobs in August — barely enough to keep up with the growth of the working-age population. The unemployment rate did fall to 8.1 percent from 8.3 percent. But that was because many people gave up looking for work, so they were no longer counted as unemployed.

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