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US employers likely added 155K jobs in January, steady hiring that could restart growth

WASHINGTON - The January employment report is expected to show Friday that job growth remained steady last month even though Americans began receiving smaller paychecks that could keep the economy sluggish.

Economists forecast that the economy added 155,000 jobs in January and that the unemployment rate stayed at 7.8 per cent for a third straight month, according to a survey by FactSet.

The Labor Department will release the report at 8:30 a.m. EST.

The economy has averaged about 150,000 additional jobs a month over the past two years, not enough to rapidly reduce still-high unemployment.

Still, even modest hiring would cushion the impact of the higher Social Security taxes that most consumers are paying this year. And it would help the economy resume growing after it shrank at an annual rate of 0.1 per cent in the October-December quarter.

Higher Social Security taxes are reducing take-home pay for most Americans. A person earning $50,000 a year will have about $1,000 less to spend in 2013. A household with two high-paid workers will have up to $4,500 less.

Analysts expect the Social Security tax increase to shave about a half-point off economic growth in 2013 given that consumers drive about 70 per cent of economic activity.

The hit to consumers is coming at a precarious moment for the economy. It contracted in the fourth quarter for the first time in 3 1/2 years. The decline was driven largely by a steep cut in defence spending and a drop in exports. Analysts generally think those factors will prove temporary and that the economy will resume growing.

Still, the contraction last quarter points to what are likely to be key challenges for the economy this year: the prospect of sharp government spending cuts and uncertainty over whether Congress will agree to raise the federal borrowing cap.

Most analysts predict that the economy will grow again in the January-March quarter, though likely at a lacklustre annual rate of around 1 per cent. They expect the economy to expand about 2 per cent for the full year.

Two key drivers of growth improved last quarter: Consumer spending increased at a faster pace. And businesses invested more in equipment and software.

In addition, homebuilders are stepping up construction to meet rising demand. That could generate more construction jobs.

And home prices are rising steadily. That tends to make Americans feel wealthier and more likely to spend. Housing could add as much as 1 percentage point to economic growth this year, some economists estimate.

Auto sales reached their highest level in five years in 2012 and are expected to keep growing this year. That's boosting production and hiring at U.S. automakers and their suppliers.

Some recent signs suggest that the job market is holding steady and may even improve a bit. The average number of people seeking unemployment aid each week in the past month is near a four-year low.

Weekly applications for unemployment benefits were distorted in January by the government's difficulties in seasonally adjusting its figures in January. Even so, applications are gradually ticking down, economists say.

Payroll provider ADP said Wednesday that private U.S. businesses added 192,000 jobs in January, up from 185,000 in December. Most of the gains came from small businesses, the ADP data showed.

The department will revise its estimates of job gains for the past five years on Friday. The changes are expected to show that the economy added more jobs in 2012 than previously thought.


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