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Job creation tumbled in May, with the economy adding just 38,000 positions, casting doubt on hopes for a stronger economic recovery as well as a Fed rate hike this summer.
The Labor Department also reported Friday that the headline unemployment fell to 4.7 percent. That rate does not include those who did not actively look for employment during the month or the underemployed who were working part time for economic reasons. A more encompassing rate that includes those groups held steady at 9.7 percent.
Wall Street was looking for payroll growth of 162,000 and the unemployment rate holding steady at 5.0 percent.
"There's one word for it, which is just shocking," said Dan North, chief economist at Euler Hermes North America. "Unfortunately it does look like a trend. It's not great news."
The disappointing report immediately clouded the possibility of a Fed rate hike in June or July.
The probability for a June move plunged to 6 percent from 21 percent before the 8:30 a.m. ET release, while July fell to 42 percent from 58 percent. September now is the next most likely date for a rate increase, with a better-than-a-coin-flip chance of 52 percent.
"It makes it a lot tougher for the Fed, clearly. It now puts them in an awkward position of having to justify higher rates into a slowing job market," said David Lafferty, chief market strategist at Natixis Global Asset Management. "I don't think history would look very favorably on that."
The drop in the unemployment rate was primarily due to a decline in the labor force participation rate, which fell to a 2016 low of 62.6 percent, a level near a four-decade low. The number of Americans not in the labor force surged to a record 94.7 million, an increase of 664,000.
Instead, the private sector added just 25,000 jobs. Previous months' reports also saw sharp downward revisions, with March sliding from 208,000 to 186,000 and April going from 160,000 to 123,000.
After a rough start to the year, economic data have firmed lately, with strength in housing, spending and retail sales pushing some Fed officials to believe that their inflation target of 2 percent is within reach. Friday's report casts doubt on the breadth of economic strength.
What job growth there was came primarily from health care, which added 46,000 positions. However, mining lost 10,000 jobs, information-related jobs fell by 34,000 — the consequence of the recently resolved Verizon strike — while manufacturing lost 18,000.
Jobs were skewed toward part time, which added 139,000 positions. Full time lost 59,000 jobs.
One of the few bright spots in the report came from wages, which grew 2.5 percent on an annualized basis. The average work week was unchanged at 34.4 hours.
Correction: An earlier version misstated the number of workers not in the labor force.