Jobless rate dips to 7.7 percent, but economy shows vulnerability in face of fiscal crisis

Dec. 5, 2012: Hundreds of veterans and military spouses meet with prospective employers at the Hiring Our Heroes DC job fair at Nationals Park in Washington, D.C.

Dec. 5, 2012: Hundreds of veterans and military spouses meet with prospective employers at the Hiring Our Heroes DC job fair at Nationals Park in Washington, D.C.  (AP)

The unemployment rate ticked down to 7.7 percent in November, but the economy continued to showed vulnerability in the face of sweeping tax hikes and spending cuts hitting as early as next month. 

The Labor Department's latest monthly report, the first since the presidential election, underscored how ill-equipped the economy is to withstand the looming fiscal crisis -- which economists warn could send the country plunging back into recession unless lawmakers avert it. 

The report showed the economy added a modest 146,000 jobs in November. On the positive side, the government said Superstorm Sandy had only a minimal effect on the figures. 

But while the jobless rate fell from 7.9 percent to 7.7 percent, the lowest since December 2008, the dip was in large part due to people giving up the job hunt. The government also said employers added 49,000 fewer jobs in October and September than initially estimated. 

On balance, the report reflected what has been the case for months -- an economic recovery far weaker than the typical post-recession burst, though one still headed in the right direction. 

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill are scrambling to keep that precarious growth from reversing, trying behind the scenes to craft a deal that would avert a host of tax hikes on Jan. 1, coupled with defense and other budget cuts. 

Sources say "lines of communication are open" between the White House and House Speaker John Boehner after several days where talks appeared to be cooling off. It's unclear whether they've made any progress toward a deal, with the two sides still at odds over the issues of whether to raise tax rates on top earners and how to address the debt ceiling. 

In the latest labor report, there were signs that the storm disrupted economic activity. Construction employment dropped 20,000. And weather prevented 369,000 people from getting to work -- the most in almost two years. They were still counted as employed. 

Since July, the economy has added an average of 158,000 jobs a month. That's a modest pickup from 146,000 in the first six months of the year. 

The increase suggests employers are not yet delaying hiring decisions because of the "fiscal cliff." That's the combination of sharp tax increases and spending cuts that are set to take effect next year without a budget deal. 

Retailers added 53,000 positions while temporary help companies added 18,000 and education and health care also gained 18,000. Auto manufacturers added nearly 10,000 jobs. 

Still, overall manufacturing jobs fell 7,000. That was pushed down by a loss of 12,000 jobs in food manufacturing that likely reflects the layoff of workers at Hostess. 

Sandy forced restaurants, retailers and other businesses to close in late October and early November in 24 states, particularly in the Northeast. 

The U.S. grew at a solid 2.7 percent annual rate in the July-September quarter. But many economists say growth is slowing to a 1.5 percent rate in the October-December quarter, largely because of the storm and threat of the fiscal cliff. That's not enough growth to lower the unemployment rate. 

The storm held back consumer spending and income, which drive economic growth. Consumer spending declined in October and work interruptions caused by Sandy reduced wages and salaries that month by about $18 billion at an annual rate, the government said. 

Still, many say economic growth could accelerate next year if the fiscal cliff is avoided. The economy is also expected to get a boost from efforts to rebuild in the Northeast after the storm. 

The Associated Press contributed to this report.