Modest gains expected in January US jobs numbers

The US government releases its January jobs report Friday, expected to show just a slight improvement that nevertheless may be a welcome sign after the economy's shock contraction.

The 0.1 percent shrinkage in the economy in the fourth quarter, the first since the Great Recession ended in 2009, was largely due to weather and other "transitory" issues, the Federal Reserve said.

Citing a "paused" economy, the Fed on Wednesday stayed the course of ultra-loose monetary policy to support growth in a bid to pull down high unemployment.

That suggested that the US central bank sees enough strength in the economy to at least sustain the pace of job creation of last year, averaging 153,000 net new jobs per month.

"The trend appears to be no worse than flat, consistent with the employment growth at least maintaining its recent pace -- which has been strong enough to bring down unemployment," said Jim O'Sullivan, chief US economist at High Frequency Economics.

Indeed, economists digging into the details of the Commerce Department's estimate of gross domestic product growth uncovered evidence of resilience.

Third-quarter GDP growth was a robust 3.1 percent, and they forecast a modest rebound during the 2013 first quarter under way.

Consumers, however, were decidedly less upbeat. The research firm Conference Board reported this week that consumer confidence dived in January, likely because of fiscal-cliff concerns about rising taxes.

On average analysts expect the Labor Department's closely January jobs report on Friday will show the unemployment rate ticked down to 7.7 percent in January from 7.8 percent in December.

Economists predict the economy added 180,000 jobs in January, up from 155,000 in the prior month. The private sector is expected to continue to be the sole jobs engine, adding 193,000 posts compared with 168,000 in December.

"On average, 153,000 jobs were added each month in 2012 and 2011, a clear indication that the labor market has been moving sideways," Nomura Global Economics said in a client note.

There were signs this week of stable, sluggish improvement in the labor market.

Weekly initial jobless claims trended downward in January, suggesting layoffs have slowed.

Challenger's layoff report this week showed planned job cuts were at their third lowest January level in 30 years.

A report by payrolls firm ADP showed private-sector hiring grew by a stronger-than-expected 192,000 in January, extending a steady increase in net new jobs since mid-2012.

"The labor market appears to be holding steady despite the shock to consumer confidence this month as a result of the expiration of the payroll tax cut at the start of the year," said Marisa Di Natale of Moody's Analytics.

vs/pmh