Subprime crisis

Economists said the impact of the government programme made it difficult to know what was going on in the labour market, but the general sense of jobs being tough to find was clear.

"Anything above 400,000 is in recession range. It does make it easier to call it a recession," said David Wyss, chief economist at Standard & Poor's Ratings Services in New York.

The US economy has been weakened by the impact of the subprime mortgage crisis, when many in the US took out high-interest mortgages that they could not afford to repay.

The fallout has rocked international markets, with many large lenders taking large losses as a result.