WASHINGTON: The US unemployment rate dropped to near a 50-year low of 3.5% in September, with job growth increasing moderately, suggesting the slowing economy could avoid a recession for now despite trade tensions that are hammering manufacturing.

The Labor Department’s closely watched monthly employment report on Friday, however, contained reminders that the risks to the longest economic expansion on record remained tilted to the downside. Wage growth stagnated and manufacturing payrolls declined for the first time in six months. The retail and utilities sectors also continued to shed jobs.

The report followed a string of weak economic reports, including a plunge in manufacturing activity to more than a 10-year low in September and a sharp slowdown in services industry growth to levels last seen in 2016, that heightened fears the economy was flirting with a recession.

“The unemployment rate usually rises ahead of a recession, so a fresh decline pushes out the timeline for any potential recession into late 2020 at the earliest,” said Josh Wright, chief economist at iCIMS in New York.

The two-tenths of a percentage point drop in the unemployment rate from 3.7% in August pushed it to its lowest level since December 1969. The jobless rate, which had been stuck at 3.7% for three straight months, declined even as 117,000 people entered the labor force last month.

September’s job gains were below the monthly average of 161,000 this year, but still above the roughly 100,000 needed each month to keep up with growth in the working-age population. The smaller household survey from which the unemployment rate is derived showed a jump of 391,000 in employment in September.

With signs that the Trump administration’s 15-month trade war with China is spilling over to the broader economy, continued labor market strength is a critical buffer against an economic downturn. The trade war has eroded business confidence, sinking investment and manufacturing.

There is also political uncertainty in Washington after the Democratic-controlled U.S. House of Representatives launched an impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump after accusations he pressed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to investigate former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, a leading candidate for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.

These factors, together with benign wage inflation, are likely to prompt the Federal Reserve to cut interest rates at least one more time this year, economists said. The U.S. central bank cut rates last month after reducing borrowing costs in July for the first time since 2008, to keep the economic expansion, now in its 11th year, on track.

 “We continue to expect the Fed to cut its target interest rate later this month,” said Michael Feroli, an economist at JPMorgan in New York. “We believe it would have taken a much stronger number to convince Fed leadership that they have already taken out enough insurance against downside risks.”

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