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Fears of slowdown sharpen focus on U.S. jobs report

WASHINGTON

Fears of an economic slowdown are heightening anticipation of what today's U.S. jobs report for January might reveal.

Stock markets sunk after signs of weaker growth in the United States, Europe and China. Turmoil in developing countries further spooked investors. The upheaval renewed doubts about the Federal Reserve's next steps.

Evidence of healthy U.S. job growth, however, would help soothe those jitters. It would suggest that the world's biggest economy is still expanding solidly enough to support global growth.

"The best antidote right now for all these problems is a robust U.S. economy," said Carl Riccadonna, an economist at Deutsche Bank. "The whole world is watching, even more so than usual."

Yet anyone looking to today's report for a clear picture of the U.S. economy's health might be disappointed. Unseasonably cold winter weather could distort January's hiring figures. Revised estimates of job growth last year and the size of the U.S. population might further skew the data.

Another complication: A cutoff of extended unemployment benefits in December might have caused an artificial drop in January's unemployment rate and perhaps a misleading snapshot of the job market's health.

"Just when we need it most, the employment report may fall short," Riccadonna said.

All the anxiety marks a reversal from a few weeks ago, when most analysts were feeling hopeful about the global economy.

U.S. growth came in at a sturdy 3.7 percent annual pace in the second half of last year. The Dow Jones industrial average finished 2013 at a record high. The Eurozone's economy was slowly emerging from a long recession. Japan was perking up after two decades of stagnation.

Yet, in just the past few weeks, there has been a barrage of dispiriting economic news. U.S. hiring slowed sharply in December. Employers added just 74,000 jobs, barely a third of the average gain in the previous four months.

On Monday, an industry survey found that manufacturing grew much more slowly in January than in December. A measure of new orders in the report plummeted to the lowest level in a year. That report contributed to a dizzying 326-point plunge in the Dow Jones industrial average.

For all that, most economists remain relatively optimistic about U.S. growth. They attribute the recent weakness in the United States in part to unseasonably cold weather, which disrupted trucking and shipping. The weather might have lowered hiring in December by up to 50,000 jobs, according to several economists' estimates. Few Americans want to test-drive cars or search for a new home in poor weather.

"I think the U.S. economy is still doing just fine," said Bob Baur, chief global economist at Principal Global Investors. "Maybe people are overreacting a bit."

Baur still thinks U.S. growth will come in at nearly a 3 percent pace this year. That would be the best showing since 2005.

But there's no way to know how it all will affect today's report.

"We view this month's (jobs) results as pretty much of a crapshoot," said Joshua Shapiro, an economist at MFR Inc., a forecasting firm.

Fears of slowdown sharpen focus on U.S. jobs report 02/06/14 [Last modified: Thursday, February 6, 2014 8:51pm]

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