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Economy

Hiring Likely Weakened in December Amid Resurgent Virus

WASHINGTON — America's employers likely cut back again on hiring last month — and might even have shed jobs — with the economy under pressure from a resurgent virus that has led many consumers to reduce spending and states and cities to reimpose business restrictions. 

Economists have forecast that employers added just 105,000 jobs in December, according to data provider FactSet. That would mark the sixth straight month that hiring has slowed from the previous month and the lowest job gain since May. It would also leave the economy 9.8 million jobs short of the number it had before the pandemic intensified in March. 

The unemployment rate is projected to rise from 6.7% to 6.8%, which would be the first increase since April. The rate has been held down by the millions of Americans who have lost jobs but aren't looking for work, either because they're discouraged by their prospects or fearful of contracting the virus. People who are not seeking a job aren't counted as unemployed. 

The pandemic will likely continue to weaken the economy through the winter and spring as cold weather discourages activities like outdoor dining. Economists and Federal Reserve policymakers say they remain hopeful, though, that the vaccines, once widely distributed, will propel a broad economic rebound in the second half of this year as consumers and businesses resume normal spending habits. 

The $900 billion financial aid package that Congress enacted last month should also help accelerate the recovery, economists say. It will provide a $300-a-week federal jobless benefit on top of an average state benefit of about $320. In addition, millions of Americans stand to receive $600 payments, some as early as this week. 

This week, Goldman Sachs upgraded its forecast for economic growth this year to a robust 6.4% from its previous estimate of 5.9%. Its upgrade was based in part on the expectation that the Biden administration, with help from the now-Democratic Senate, will support another rescue aid package. 

For now, the evidence suggests that hiring and economic growth are faltering under the weight of the pandemic. On Wednesday, the payroll processor ADP reported that private employers shed 123,000 jobs in December, the first such monthly decline since April. ADP's figures generally track the government's jobs data over time, although they can diverge significantly from month to month. 

Last month, Coca-Cola Co. said it would cut 2,200 jobs from its global workforce, with about half those layoffs occurring in the United States. 3M, a major manufacturer, has said it will lay off 2,900 workers worldwide.

In November, U.S. consumer spending declined for the first time in seven months, having steadily weakened since summer. Retailers have been especially hurt. Purchases at retail stores have dropped for two straight months.

During the holiday shopping season, consumers pulled back on spending, according to debit and credit card data tracked by JPMorgan Chase based on 30 million consumer accounts. Such spending was 6% lower in December compared with a year ago. That was worse than in October, when card spending was down just 2% from the previous year. 

Restaurant traffic has also dropped, according to the reservations website OpenTable. Seated dining is down 60% this week compared with a year ago, much worse than two months earlier, when they were down about 35%. 

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Retail sales took an unexpected dip in December in what could be a signal that persistently rising inflation is prompting a pullback in consumer spending.

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