The U.S. unemployment rate fell to a seven-year low in August as employers added a modest 173,000 jobs, a key piece of evidence for the Federal Reserve in deciding whether to raise interest rates from record lows later this month.
The Labor Department said Friday that the jobless rate fell to 5.1 percent — a level consistent with a normal economy and the lowest since April 2008 — from 5.3 percent in July.
Though hiring in August was the slowest in five months, the government revised up job growth for June and July by a combined 44,000. From June through August, the economy added a robust 221,000 jobs a month, up from an average of 189,000 from March through May. Three years of solid hiring have put nearly 8 million more Americans to work.
Friday's report appeared neither so strong nor so weak as to tilt the Fed decisively toward either a rate hike or against one. But as the final report on the job market before the Fed meets Sept. 16-17, it's one of the most significant pieces of evidence it will consider.
U.S. stocks opened lower Friday after the report left investors uncertain about the outlook for interest rate policy.
While the steady hiring could encourage the Fed to raise interest rates for the first time in almost a decade later this month, some economists think that a sharp economic slowdown in China could cause policy makers to refrain from hiking.
The Dow Jones industrial average fell 235 points, or 1.4 percent, to 16,136 by mid-morning. The Standard & Poor's 500 index gave up 27 points, or 1.4 percent, to 1,923. The NASDAQ composite slipped 52 points, or 1 percent, to 4,682.
Investors had a muted early reaction to the jobs numbers. Stock index futures were already sharply lower before the report came out and stayed there afterward. The yield on the benchmark 10-year Treasury note edged down to 2.14 percent from 2.16 percent late Thursday.
Many economists think the Fed will decide in two weeks to raise its benchmark rate for the first time in nine years. At the same time, stock market turbulence, a persistently low inflation rate and a sharp slowdown in China have complicated the decision.
Chris Williamson, chief economist at the financial information firm Markit, said Friday's report provided "frustratingly little new insight into whether the Fed will start to raise rates."
"A bumper payrolls number would have sealed the case for higher interest rates in many people minds, while a low number would have dealt a blow to any chances of tightening of policy at the next meeting," Williamson said.
Once the Fed begins raising borrowing rates, higher rates are likely to eventually ripple through the economy. Americans could face higher costs for mortgages and other loans, though the increases could be modest and gradual.
A key question is how a faltering China, slow growth in Europe and a strong dollar will affect the overall U.S. economy. The answer probably won't be clear for months.
Friday's jobs data was gathered before the U.S. stock market plunged in late August, after signs emerged that China's troubles were worsening.
"This report settles little, we think, leaving the next two weeks essentially as unsettled as they were prior to the report's release," said Dan Greenhaus, chief market strategist at institutional brokerage BTIG LLC.
A stumbling global economy and stronger dollar, which makes U.S. exports costlier overseas, could slice a percentage point off U.S. growth through the second half of next year, according to economists at Goldman Sachs.
More so than other months, August's jobs totals typically undershoot the revisions that the government provides later. The government struggles to seasonally adjust the data for the millions of summer jobs that are eliminated throughout the month. August job gains have been revised higher by 79,000 over the past five years, Goldman Sachs estimates.
The report contained hints that international pressures that infected stock and commodity markets may have begun to weigh on employers. More than half of the jobs added last month came from sectors insulated from the global economy: Government, education and health services.
Their share of job creation nearly doubled from 27.1 percent in July, reflecting not just the start of the school year but also weaknesses in other sectors of the economy where foreign customers and capital matter more.
Public education accounted for more than 18 percent of the jobs added in August. Local school districts and state colleges added 31,900 workers.
Service sector companies, such as restaurants, retailers, banks and construction companies are expanding at the fastest pace in nearly a decade, according to a survey by the Institute for Supply Management.
But manufacturing firms have been stumbling amid the global headwinds. Manufacturers cut 17,000 jobs in August, the most since July 2013. Construction companies added just 3,000, even though home building and other construction have picked up.
Overall, the number of Americans seeking unemployment benefits remains very low by historical standards — evidence that companies are still confident enough about customer demand to maintain their staff levels.
There are other signs that the U.S. job market remains solid. Americans overall have a brighter outlook: According to the Conference Board's consumer confidence survey, nearly 22 percent of Americans said jobs were plentiful in August. That matched the proportion who said jobs were hard to get — the first time since early 2008 that the two figures have been equal.