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US Factory Orders Jump, Housing Contracts Slump

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Michael Bowman

Demand for U.S. manufactured goods is up, while sales of existing American homes is down. The latest batch of mixed economic news comes amid word of record-low job satisfaction in the U.S. workforce.

America's struggling manufacturing sector got a welcome boost in November, posting a robust 1.1 percent jump in factory orders that far exceeded analysts' expectations. Orders for iron, steel, machinery, computers, electronic goods, chemical products and textiles saw the biggest gains.

It was the seventh monthly rise in factory orders in the last eight months, and would appear to signal that overall business activity in the United States is on the rebound after the longest and deepest economic recession since World War II.

But Tuesday's economic data was not uniformly rosy. Sales contracts for existing homes fell sharply in November, according to the National Association of Realtors. The private group's index of sales agreements fell 16 percent compared to October, but remains above levels seen during the depth of the recession, according to association spokesman Walter Maloney. "Contract activity is down. But we are still above year-ago levels, and that is encouraging. We think there will be a little bit of a lull [in homes sales] and then another surge in the spring," he said.

Contract activity is a leading indicator of home sales, which have also rebounded somewhat from severely-depressed levels a year ago. Housing contracts had surged months ago as Americans rushed to take advantage of a tax credit for first-time home buyers that was to expire in November. The federal government has since extended and expanded the program.

U.S. unemployment stands at 10 percent, more than double the pre-recession rate that was reported in 2006 and 2007. With millions out of work, how do Americans lucky enough to be gainfully employed view their jobs? A study released by the New York-based Conference Board shows just 45 percent of the U.S. workforce is satisfied. That is down four percent from 2008, and the lowest level recorded in history of the survey.

"There is a growing level of dissatisfaction being expressed [by U.S. workers]. They are losing interest in their work, and that really has implications for productivity, for a company's bottom line [profits], and for their overall performance, as well," said Conference Board researcher Lynn Franco.

By comparison, in 1985, nearly 80 percent of Americans said they were satisfied with their jobs.

Economists note that massive job cuts at businesses across the nation have forced heavier workloads on remaining employees during the recession. In addition, the last decade has seen largely stagnant pay levels and ever-greater portions of American incomes consumed by rising health care costs.

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