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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. unemployment rate fell in July for the first time in 15 months as employers cut far fewer jobs than expected, providing the clearest sign yet that the economy was turning around.
Employers shed 247,000 jobs in July, the Labor Department said Friday, the least in any one month since last August, taking the unemployment rate to 9.4 percent, down from 9.5 percent in June.
"It suggests the recession will be ending before the end of the year. There isn't any part of the economy that hasn't shown some slowing in deterioration," said Joe Davis, chief economist at Vanguard in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania.
Recent data ranging from home sales to manufacturing have pointed to an economy starting to dig itself out of one of the worst recessions since the Great Depression of the 1930s.
The fall in the jobless rate will be good news for President Barack Obama, who has seen his standing in public opinion polls slip as Americans fret about the weak economy and high unemployment.
The White House warned it would be "quite some time" before the economy saw sustained job growth, adding it still believed the jobless rate would hit 10 percent this year.
U.S. stocks and the dollar rose on the data as investors sensed the recession was ending. Safe-haven government bond prices tumbled.
Analysts had expected non-farm payrolls to fall by 320,000 in July and the jobless rate to hit 9.6 percent. The forecast was made earlier this week before other jobs data prompted some analysts to lower their estimates for job losses.
The government revised job losses for May and June to show 43,000 fewer jobs lost than previously reported.
The easing in the unemployment rate could have been the result of the labor force shrinking by 422,000 in July, far more than the 155,000 decline in June, suggesting jobless workers may have given up looking for new work.
In the U.S., for the purpose of calculating the unemployment rate, the labor force is defined as those with a job plus those out of a job but actively looking for work.
The small decline in July non-farm payrolls was a welcome reflief as some employment indicators released this weak had raised the risk of a big rise in the numbers of jobless.
Slowing job losses could also mean less pressure for a second government economic stimulus as a $787 billion package approved this year slowly works its way into the economy.
"This is another indication that the economy is on an improving track and a confirmation that we're going to see a positive GDP number for the third quarter...," said Robert Dye, senior economist at PNC Financial Services Group in Pittsburgh.
While employers cut fewer jobs than forecast in July, unemployment remains stubbornly high, meaning households have less income to spend. This could set the economy for an anemic recovery, analysts said.
Since the start of the recession in December 2007, the economy has shed 6.7 million jobs, the Labor Department said, adding that the number of long-term unemployed continues to rise.
However, in a sign that the labor market deterioration was slowing, a gauge of labor market slack that measures both the unemployed, people working part-time for economic reasons, and those only marginally attached to the labor force, fell to 16.3 percent in July from a record high 16.5 percent in June.
Job losses in July were spread across all sectors, but the pace of firings slowed markedly from previous months.
Manufacturing employment fell by 52,000 after shrinking by 131,000 in June. This was the first time since last September that manufacturing job losses were less than 100,000 and was probably due to the re-opening of General Motors and Chrysler assembly plants after the two automakers emerged from bankruptcy.
"Because layoffs in auto manufacturing already had been so large, fewer workers than usual were laid off for seasonal shutdowns in July," Labor Commissioner Keith Hall said, adding that the seasonally adjusted gain did not indicate an improvement in the industry.
Payrolls in construction industries slipped 76,000 after falling 86,000 in the previous month, likely reflecting spending on infrastructure projects from the government's $787 billion stimulus package and a modest pickup in ground breaking for new homes.
In the services sector, 119,000 workers were laid off, and the goods-producing industries lost 128,000 positions.
Education and health services continued to add jobs though, with payrolls increasing 17,000 in July after rising 37,000 in June. Government employment increased 7,000 after slipping 48,000 in June.
The closely watched average work week, the total amount of labor input, inched up to 33.1 hours in July after having slipped to 33.0 in June. The average work week in the manufacturing sector rose to 39.8 hours from 39.5 hours in June, the department said.
Average hourly earnings increased to $18.56 in July from $18.53.
Additional reporting by Richard Leong in New York, Editing by Andrea Ricci