WASHINGTON – Pounded by a fierce financial crisis, the country is sinking deeper into economic despair that has pushed the number of newly laid-off workers to a 16-year high, with problems likely to stretch well into next year.
With economic troubles cutting into customers' appetites, cost-cutting businesses dropped the ax harder.
New claims filed for unemployment insurance zoomed last week to 542,000, the highest since the summer of 1992, when the nation was recovering from a recession, the Labor Department reported Thursday. The latest news on the crucial jobs market was worse than analysts expected. They had forecast a small decline in claims.
Meanwhile, the number of people continuing to draw jobless benefits climbed to more than 4 million, the highest in just over a quarter-century. Those figures partly reflect growth in the labor force, which has increased by about half since the early 1980s, but nonetheless underscore the difficulties of people trying to find work.
Against this backdrop, the White House signaled Thursday that President George W. Bush would sign legislation pending in Congress to extend unemployment benefits.
The Senate is expected to take up a bill this week, already passed in the House of Representatives, that would extend unemployment insurance for those whose benefits have run out. The Senate vote could occur as early as Thursday night and would require support from 60 senators to pass.
White House press secretary Dana Perino says Bush is "always concerned" when people lose their jobs and is eager to help ease their economic situations.
Meanwhile, there were new efforts afoot on Capitol Hill to provide financial help to the tottering U.S. auto industry before lawmakers quit for the year. Aides to a bipartisan group of auto-state senators say a compromise to speed emergency loans to Detroit's Big Three car makers had been reached. It was unclear, however, whether the compromise would be embraced by a reluctant Senate.
On Wall Street, stocks seesawed. The Dow Jones industrials were up around 75 points in early afternoon trading Thursday, after bouncing around between positive and negative territory earlier in the session. Stock markets in Europe and Asia slid, a day after the Dow lost 427 points, or about 5 percent, to 7,997 — its lowest close since March 2003.
Another report, from the Conference Board, showed the economy's health worsening in October. Its forecast of economic activity dropped a bigger-than-expected 0.8 percent.
The latest grim economic news follows a gloomy outlook from the Federal Reserve.
Despite a flurry of bold government actions, including $700 billion financial bailout package now being rolled out by the Treasury Department, financial and economic problems rage on.
Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson — who is overseeing the rescue effort — will deliver an assessment of the economy in a speech Thursday in Simi Valley, Calif.
Paulson's outlook comes one day after the Federal Reserve dramatically lowered its projections for economic activity this year and next, and signaled that additional interest rate reductions may be needed to revive the economy.
To cushion Americans from all the fallout, many economists believe the Fed will ratchet down its key interest rate — now at 1 percent — by one-quarter or one-half percentage point on Dec. 16, the last session of the year for its policy-making committee.
The economy will log little, if any, growth this year, and could jolt into reverse, according to various Fed projections released Wednesday. And, the frailty will extend into next year, the Fed said, where the economy could shrink or turn in subpar growth.
The economy "would remain very weak next year" and "the subsequent pace of recovery would be quite slow," the Fed said in its new economic projections. "The unemployment rate would increase substantially further."
The Fed projected that the national unemployment rate will rise to between 6.3 percent and 6.5 percent this year. That would be up sharply from last year's average rate of 4.6 percent.
For 2009, the Fed expects the jobless rate to climb to between 7.1 percent and 7.6 percent.
General Motors Corp. Chief Executive Rick Wagoner, meanwhile, warned the House Financial Services Committee on Wednesday that the collapse of the U.S. auto industry could lead to a loss of 3 million jobs within the first year.
With economic slowdowns both in the U.S. and overseas, inflation will moderate, the Fed predicted.
On that front, American consumers got a reprieve and saw prices actually fall by a record amount in October, just a few months after getting hammered by runaway costs.
The shift away from inflation worries to a possible bout of dropping prices, or "deflation," however, underscored just how quickly dangers faced by the economy can change in what many fear will be a painful recession.
For the average person, falling prices sure sounds like a good thing. But a prolonged and widespread price decline — which would drag down incomes, further clobber home and stock prices and shrivel corporate profits — would spell disaster for the economy. All that would make it harder for people and businesses to pay off debt.
America's last serious case of deflation occurred during the Great Depression of the 1930s. For now, economists think the chances are slim that the country will tip into a deflationary spiral. But they aren't ruling it out, either.
The Fed, in documents Wednesday, said "more aggressive easing" of interest rates "should reduce the odds of a deflationary outcome."
Once established, deflation is hard for Fed policymakers to break. That's partly because the Fed can lower its key rate only so far — to zero — to combat it.