U.S. jobs, factory data point to steady economic growth
By Lucia Mutikani | February 2, 2013 5:49 AM EST
U.S. employment grew modestly in January and factory activity touched a nine-month high, supporting views the economy's mild recovery remained on track.
Other data on Friday also suggested that the surprise contraction in economic activity in the last three months of 2012 was largely a fluke, not a trend. Two of the nation's big automakers reported better-than-expected sales last month.
Nonfarm payrolls rose by 157,000 last month and revisions showed 127,000 more jobs created in November and December than previously reported, the Labor Department said.
Annual revisions also show the labor market in 2012 was a bit more healthy than initially thought.
"It is clear that the economy has a forward momentum. Most pistons in the economic engine are firing, pointing to sustained economic growth," said Sung Won Sohn, an economics professor at California State University Channel Islands.
The unemployment rate rose 0.1 percentage point to 7.9 percent.
The closely watched report showed an increase in hourly earnings and solid gains in construction and retail employment.
Separately, the Institute for Supply Management said its index of national factory activity rose to 53.1 last month, the highest level since April, from 50.2 in December. A reading over 50 suggests expansion in the manufacturing sector.
Activity was boosted by a rebound in orders and inventories, as well as gains in employment. That offered hope manufacturing will continue to support the economy.
Investors cheered the fairly upbeat reports and bought U.S. stocks, lifting them to a five-year high. The dollar rallied against the Japanese yen, while U.S. Treasury debt prices seesawed.
OUTPUT CONTRACTION SEEN AS A FLUKE
A third report on Friday showed consumer sentiment on the rise even as households faced up to smaller paychecks as some federal taxes rose on January 1.
The economic growth picture was also brightened by reports showing General Motors Co
The flurry of upbeat reports followed Wednesday's surprise contraction in gross domestic product in the fourth quarter, and as a group should ease worries that the United States was at risk for recession.
GDP contracted at a 0.1 percent annual rate in the fourth quarter, largely because of a plunge in defence spending and slowdown in the pace of inventory accumulation.
Superstorm Sandy, which hit the East Coast in late October, also weighed on output, a drag that should lift this quarter and could be replaced by new spending linked to rebuilding projects.
"Underneath the surface, the fourth-quarter economy was really pretty good despite all the defence cuts. I think the private sector is leading the way," said Jack Ablin, chief investment officer at BMO Private Bank in Chicago.
Still, the pace of job growth is too slow to absorb the roughly 22.7 million Americans who are either unemployed or working part-time while hoping for full-time work. Economists say employment gains in excess of 250,000 a month over a sustained period are needed to make a significant dent in the jobless rate.
The Federal Reserve on Wednesday left in place a monthly $85 billion bond-buying stimulus plan, saying economic activity had "paused" in recent months.
"The report keeps the Fed clearly in play to continue their easy monetary policy," said Eric Stein, portfolio manager at Eaton Vance Investment Managers in Boston.
The Labor Department's annual benchmark revisions, going back to 2008, found the level of employment as of March 2012 was 422,000 higher than previously reported. That helped to push the average job growth for 2012 to 181,000 a month from 153,000 previously.
MODEST JOB GROWTH
Those steady gains, if sustained, could help the economy weather the headwinds of higher taxes and lower government spending. A payroll tax cut expired on January 1 and automatic spending cuts will kick in in March unless Congress acts.
January's job gains all came in the private sector. Hiring was broad-based, as it was in December, and declines in public sector employment were small.
The goods-producing sector showed a third month of solid gains, and manufacturing employment advancing for a fourth straight month. Construction payrolls increased 28,000, adding to December's healthy 30,000 gain.
Since hitting a low in January 2011, construction employment has grown by 296,000. Fully one-third of those gains have taken place in the last four months alone.
Though the level of construction jobs remains about 2 million below its peak in 2006, further improvement is expected this year as the housing market recovery gains momentum.
Housing is expected to support the economy this year, taking over the baton from manufacturing, as many Americans buy and start to furnish and renovate houses.
Within the vast private services sector, retail jobs rose by a solid 32,600 jobs after rising 11,200 in December. Retail employment has now risen for seven straight months.
Education and health payrolls added 25,000 jobs in January after employment grew by the most in 10 months in December.
Government payrolls dropped by 9,000 last month after falling 6,000 in December. The pace of cuts is moderating as local government layoffs, outside education, subside.
Average hourly earnings rose four cents last month and were up 2.1 percent in the 12 months through January.
"It may be that we are now getting to a point in the labor market where we are going to see an upward creep in average hourly earnings," said John Ryding, chief economist at RDQ Economics in New York.
"That's going to be good for the consumer and they need help because they are being whacked by the payrolls tax increase."
The length of the workweek for the average worker was steady at 34.4 hours for a third straight month.
(Additional reporting by Ellen Freilich and Steven C. Johnson, and Leah Schnurr in New York; Editing by Ros Krasny and Andrea Ricci)
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