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Steady U.S. job gains to keep Fed's focus on tapering

A man holds his briefcase while waiting in line during a job fair in Melville, New York July 19, 2012. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton
A man holds his briefcase while waiting in line during a job fair in Melville, New York July 19, 2012. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. job growth probably slowed in June, but not enough to shift the Federal Reserve away from expectations that it will start scaling back its massive monetary stimulus later this year.

Employers are expected to have added 165,000 new jobs to their payrolls last month, according to a Reuters survey of economists, slightly below the 175,000 positions created in May.

The unemployment rate is expected to fall a tenth of a percentage point to 7.5 percent.

The Labor Department will release its closely watched employment report on Friday at 8:30 a.m. EDT, two weeks after Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke offered an upbeat assessment of the economy's outlook and said the U.S. central bank expected to start trimming its bond purchases later this year.

"If we get this number, the Fed would still feel that the outlook is on track for them to make an announcement later this year on the tapering," said Sam Bullard, a senior economist at Wells Fargo in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Job growth has averaged 155,800 per month over the past three months, just about the amount economists say is needed to gradually push down the unemployment rate.

There is a risk, however, that June payrolls could beat expectations after reports on Wednesday showed a pickup in the pace of hiring by private businesses and the service industries.

The Fed is purchasing $85 billion in bonds each month in an effort to keep borrowing costs down and spur stronger growth.

Economists said even if June payrolls come in weaker than expected, it would probably not stop the Fed from curtailing purchases later this year.

"It will force them to reconsider the size and not necessarily the timing of any tapering," said Millan Mulraine, senior economist at TD Securities in New York. "My view is tapering is essentially baked into the cake."

Twenty-eight of 60 economists polled by Reuters in late June said they expect the Fed to begin dialing back its purchases in September, with most expecting the program to end by June 2014.

The majority also forecast the Fed initially would cut purchases by $20 billion a month.

A batch of economic data, including housing, manufacturing and auto sales, have general been consistent with the Fed's views of diminished downside risks to the economic outlook.

However, debt problems in Europe and slowing growth in China are hampering export growth.

The recent signals from Bernanke that a start date for reducing bond purchases is approaching triggered a global selloff in stock and bond markets, which have come to rely on the Fed as a steady source of demand for financial assets. Interest rates on everything from U.S. Treasury debt to home mortgage loans moved sharply higher, threatening to curtail credit for consumers and businesses.

DECLINING WORKFORCE PARTICIPATION

The central bank is closely watching the unemployment rate. It has said it expects the jobless rate to drop to around 7 percent by the middle of next year, when it anticipates ending the bond purchases.

Economists said there was a chance the labor force could shrink, leading to a bigger-than-forecast drop in the jobless rate, given that the number of people entering the labor force had gone up in each of the previous two months.

Those workforce entrants have lifted the participation rate - the share of working-age Americans who either have a job or are looking for one - up from a 34-year low touched in March.

Declining participation as older Americans retire and younger people give up the hunt for work in frustration has accounted for much of the drop in the unemployment rate from a peak of 10 percent in October 2009.

The private sector is expected to account for all the anticipated job gains in June, with payrolls there expected to have increased by 175,000, little changed from the prior month.

Government employment, in contrast, is forecast shrinking by 10,000 jobs. Economists, however, say the job losses were not due to the deep government spending cuts known as the sequester.

While the budget cuts that took hold on March 1 do not appear to be hitting government payrolls directly, some economists said they were weighing on private employers and helped explained a sharp slowdown in hiring in the health care and social assistance sector.

Consumer-related areas such as retail and wholesale trade are expected to show further gains in employment in June, reflecting strengthening demand that was highlighted by a surge in automobile sales in June.

"Consumers are pulling the economy forward," said Sung Won Sohn, an economics professor at California State University Channel Islands in Camarillo, California.

Manufacturing payrolls are expected to be flat after three straight months of declines. But there is a high risk of another contraction after a gauge of national factory employment released on Monday tumbled to the lowest in nearly four years in June.

Construction employment likely added to May's gains as the housing recovery pushes ahead, but it remains constrained by a still sluggish non-residential sector.

Other details of the report are expected to show average hourly earnings rose by 0.2 percent after being flat in May. Tepid wage growth is holding back the consumer-driven economy.

The length of the average workweek is expected to have held steady at 34.5 hours.

(Editing by Jan Paschal)

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