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Despite slow job growth, there are reasons for optimism

President Barack Obama spoke about the economy Friday during a news conference in the White House. The president said the U.S. has the strongest, most durable economy in the world. He pointed to wage and income growth, job growth, lower oil prices and increasing health insurance as evidence.
President Barack Obama spoke about the economy Friday during a news conference in the White House. The president said the U.S. has the strongest, most durable economy in the world. He pointed to wage and income growth, job growth, lower oil prices and increasing health insurance as evidence. The Associated Press

Consider looking past January’s so-so job growth.

At first glance, Friday’s government report on U.S. hiring was a downer — 151,000 added jobs, well below the pace of the previous few months.

Yet once you take a fuller view, a brighter picture of the job market emerges: A sub-5 percent unemployment rate. Healthy pay raises. And a stream of people who grew confident enough in the job market to start looking for work.

“The January report is a solid report in disguise,” said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a former director of the Congressional Budget Office and president of the conservative American Action Forum.

That seems especially true given that the job gains come at a delicate time for the U.S. economy. Analysts have warned that the economy faces a growing risk of another recession within a year or two after having recovered only gradually from the Great Recession. Economic weakness overseas and reeling financial markets have slowed growth and squeezed manufacturers.

Still, last month’s pay raises and the addition of retail jobs suggest that consumers have the resilience to bolster growth. Average hourly wages have jumped 2.5 percent over the past 12 months, evidence that years of steady job growth are finally helping generate pay raises for more Americans.

“The wage numbers were the most encouraging bit of news all around,” said Carl Tannenbaum, chief economist at Northern Trust.

Tannenbaum said the figures gave him “extra comfort that the expansion wasn’t sliding toward an untimely conclusion.”

With the unemployment rate now 4.9 percent — its lowest level since 2008 — many workers have managed to gain raises because their employers have had to offer better incentives to compete for talent. The unemployment rate dipped in January even though a sizable 502,000 more people began hunting for jobs.

That reversed a trend in which the unemployment rate had been dropping for a discouraging reason: Job seekers had stopped looking for work and were no longer counted as unemployed.

Wage growth is a crucial indicator for the Federal Reserve, which is weighing whether to raise interest rates in the face of global risks that could imperil broader economic growth. The Fed wants to see earnings accelerate after years of sluggish gains.

Investors responded to the report by dumping stocks Friday.

The Dow Jones industrial average fell 211.61, or 1.3 percent, to 16,204.97. The Standard & Poor’s 500 index fell 35.40, or 1.9 percent, to 1,880.05. The Nasdaq composite fell 146.42, or 3.3 percent, to 4,363.14.

Stocks were mostly lower throughout the day, but losses accelerated as the end of trading approached. With Friday’s losses, the Dow was down 1.6 percent for the week, the S&P 500 fell 3.1 percent and Nasdaq lost 5.4 percent.

January’s hiring, though modest, followed robust job growth of a seasonally adjusted 280,000 in November and 262,000 in December. Last month, companies shed education, transportation and temporary workers but stepped up hiring in manufacturing, retail and food services.

The number of people working or seeking work rose last month, while the number of unemployed slipped from 7.9 million to 7.8 million, which caused the unemployment rate to dip from 5 percent.

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