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Pending Home Sales Plunge; Private Job Gains Fade

Pending sales of existing U.S. homes plunged by a record 12.2 percent in July, and private employers hired the fewest workers in more than four years in August, according to reports released Wednesday that point to a weakening U.S. economy.

Planned lay-offs at U.S. companies surged by 85 percent in August due to turmoil in the subprime mortgage market, another report said.

Together, the data raised expectations of a weak employment report from the government on Friday and added to the view that the U.S. Federal Reserve could lower its overnight enchmark interest rate at its Sept. 18 monetary policy meeting. The author of one of the reports said the weakening employment numbers added slightly to the prospects for recession.

The National Association of Realtors' Pending Home Sales Index, based on contracts signed in July, fell to a reading of 89.9, the lowest since September 2001 when the index stood at 89.8. The association attributed some of the decline to mortgages falling through at the last moment.

The fall, the largest month-over-month decline since the series began in 2001, was much bigger than the 2 percent drop in the index economists were expecting for July and helped paint a bleaker picture of the housing market moving forward.

"The decline in the pending sales index in the past three months has been by far the fastest at any time since the housing market began to slow," said Ian Shepherdson, chief U.S. economist at High Frequency Economics in Valhalla, New York. "This is disastrous."

Stocks weakened following the data, with the Standard and Poor's 500 index and the Dow Jones industrial average both falling more than 1 percent in early afternoon trade. The dollar tumbled, falling about 1 percent against the yen and nearly half a percent against the euro. U.S. government bond prices rose sharply sending benchmark yields to five-month lows.

Mortgage market troubles also played a big role in announced lay-offs in August, which rocketed to 79,459 from 42,897 in July, according to Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc, an employment consulting firm. August's job cuts were the highest since February, when they totaled 84,014.

"Nearly half of the August cuts came from the financial sector, as dozens of mortgage and subprime lenders caved under the pressure of a sinking housing market," Challenger, Gray & Christmas said in a statement.

LABOR MARKET CRACKING

Financial job cuts totaled 35,752 in August, the highest monthly total for the industry since Challenger, Gray & Christmas began tracking in 1993, the firm said.

Separately, a report from ADP and Macroeconomic Advisers LLC showed that U.S. private employers added 38,000 jobs in August, well below the 83,000 that analysts had expected and the slowest rate of growth in four years.

July's private sector job growth was revised downward to 41,000 from the originally reported 48,000 jobs.

"In short, evidence is starting to emerge that the labor market is finally cracking," said Shepherdson.

The ADP figure suggests that Friday's non-farm payrolls report from the U.S. Labor Department will show about 60,000 jobs were created in August, Joel Prakken, chairman of Macroeconomic Advisers said. That would be just over half the 110,000 jobs a Reuters poll showed as the median forecast rise for that month.

In July employers added 92,000 jobs and the unemployment rate ticked up to 4.6 percent from 4.5 percent in June. Economists reckon the Fed will not cut interest rates until signs of stress emerge in the labor market, which has remained relatively tight despite the slowdown in the housing market.

Still, investors are confident the Fed will cut the fed funds rate by at least a quarter point to 5.0 percent at its Sept. 18 meeting.

Macroeconomic Advisers' Prakken said his report's figures indicate the risk of U.S. recession has risen in the last month, although "it is still well below 50 percent. It's a slightly higher risk than it was a month ago, but it's still not a dominant risk."

Data from the Mortgage Bankers Association showed that applications for U.S. home loans rose last week, although rates on adjustable rate mortgages climbed to the highest in more than six years.

The portion of borrowers seeking an ARM, once sought after as a way to buy an otherwise unaffordable house, fell to the lowest in four years.

The MBA's mortgage applications index rose by a seasonally adjusted 1.3 percent to 622.9 in the week ended Aug. 31. Average 30-year loan rates rose 0.01 percentage point to 6.42 percent during the week.

One-year adjustable rate mortgage (ARM) rates also rose 0.01 percentage point, but at 6.52 percent, remain above longer-term borrowing costs.

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