By Andrew Scoggin
The U.S. job market remained on a steady but ho-hum pace of growth in January, adding 157,000 jobs according to the Labor Department.
The unemployment rate edged up to 7.9 percent from 7.8 percent a month earlier.
Job reports aren’t the high-stakes affairs they were a few months ago, evidenced in part by the lack of conspiracy theorists this time. Politicians aren’t trying to get new jobs or cling onto ones they already have, but, let’s be honest, the actual job market is a little more important.
The January job numbers weren’t altogether surprising and at least it signaled continued economic growth, unlike Wednesday’s report on GDP.
Wall Street traders were particularly pleased about Friday’s job numbers. The Dow Jones Industrial Average — an index made up of 30 huge companies — rose above 14,000 for the first time since 2007. There wasn’t much negative reaction to that GDP report, anyway, and traders’ spirits Friday were likely boosted by upward revisions in job numbers for November and December.
Of course, not everyone has investments in the Dow or even the S&P 500. Many people don’t have any sort of financial portfolio. The stock market is a good economic barometer, but is just one of many tools available to economists, including employment numbers.
Other economic measures are a mixed bag. Consumer confidence fell sharply in January, and consumption makes up more than a majority of U.S. GDP. Some attributed that pessimism to the fiscal mess at the end of 2012 and the expiration of the payroll tax cut. That measure was only meant to be temporary, anyway, but it seems the mood about Washington still had an effect.
The housing market — another important economic bellwether — continues to recover. The latest report showed home prices jumped 5.5 percent in November from a year earlier, the biggest such increase in six years. But the market, whose enormous collapse fueled the financial crisis and recession, isn’t quite back to what most would call healthy levels.
The auto industry seems to be on the right path, too. The three major American carmakers — Ford, General Motors and Chrysler — posted double-digit sales gains in January from a year earlier.
And Washington is at least trying to add some economic certainty, with the Senate passing a House bill to extend the government’s ability to borrow money through mid-May. But there’s still those looming questions about automatic spending cuts and the expiration of a funding stopgap.
Optimists and pessimists can both find what they’re looking for in economic data at this point. And those broad data points are the best we’ve got because, quite simply, some people will find work while others struggle.
Slow and steady goes the economy, at least for the time being.