WASHINGTON — The dismal U.S. job market, which has intensified fears of another recession, may be even worse than the unemployment numbers suggest.
The shockwaves from the Labor Department report on Friday that employers stopped hiring in August have rippled around the world, sparking a steep retreat in Asian stock markets. The lack of hiring in the U.S. last month surprised investors — economists were expecting 93,000 jobs to be added. Previously reported hiring figures for June and July were revised lower.
The jobs picture may even be worse than the 9.1 percent unemployment rate suggests, because America’s 14 million unemployed must also compete with 8.8 million other people not counted as unemployed — part-timers who want full-time work.
When consumer demand picks up, companies will likely boost the hours of their part-timers before they add jobs, economists say. It means they have room to expand without hiring.
The problem is that there simply hasn’t been any meaningful jobs growth, which is precisely why markets are so worried about slipping back into recession,” said Ben Potter of IG Markets in Melbourne, Australia.
“The authorities have thrown a lot of stimulus at the problem and to date, it’s basically done nothing,” Potter said. Markets are realizing “that there probably isn’t a lot more authorities can do.”
The unemployed will face another source of competition once the economy improves: Roughly 2.6 million people who aren’t counted as unemployed because they’ve stopped looking for work. Once they start looking again, they’ll be classified as unemployed. And the unemployment rate could rise.
Intensified competition for jobs means unemployment could exceed its historic norm of 5 percent to 6 percent for several more years. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office expects the rate to exceed 8 percent until 2014. The White House predicts it will average 9 percent next year, when President Barack Obama runs for re-election.
The jobs crisis has led Obama to schedule a major speech Thursday night to propose steps to stimulate hiring. Republican presidential candidates will likely confront the issue in a debate the night before.
The back-to-back events will come days after the government said employers added zero net jobs in August. The monthly jobs report, arriving three days before Labor Day, was the weakest since September 2010.
Combined, the 14 million officially unemployed; the “underemployed” part-timers who want full-time work; and “discouraged” people who have stopped looking make up 16.2 percent of working-age Americans.
The Labor Department compiles the figure to assess how many people want full-time work and can’t find it — a number the unemployment rate alone doesn’t capture.
In a healthy economy, this broader measure of unemployment stays below 10 percent. Since the Great Recession officially ended more than two years ago, the rate has been 15 percent or more.