Is the job market going back into hibernation?

The labor market is cooling down, and this time we can't blame the polar vortex

Whatever the reasons for the unexpectedly weak job-creation last month, they don't appear to the same ones that chilled hiring in December. This is troublesome. After average payroll gains of 219,000 between August and November, raising hopes that the U.S. economy was heating up after a mostly lackluster 2013, the last two months have been a bracing dose of reality.

"The January performance was a huge disappointment, since we can no longer dismiss December's poor numbers as an aberration....," Doug Handler, chief economist with IHS Global Insight, bluntly tells clients in a report. "These new data provide evidence that the December data should be taken seriously. Employment growth clearly has downshifted over the past two months."

Less clear is where the economy goes from here. Pessimists (who, as Clare Boothe Luce is said to have quipped, are usually better informed) foresee another year of living dangerously, of schizoid ups and downs amid what is already the slowest post-recession recovery in U.S. history.

Optimists, otherwise known as investors, see an economy slowly digging itself out of the snow. Financial markets seemed unfazed by Friday's disappointing jobs data, with the Dow gaining 165 points on the day. 

Perhaps they're on to something. Peering through the fog, the latest job numbers may not be as bad as the headline number suggests. The U.S. Labor Department uses two major tools to asses the state of the job market. The so-called establishment survey, which comes directly from employers' and government agencies' payroll data, is essentially a job count. And by that measure -- only 113,000 jobs added in January, on top of the paltry 75,000 that were created the previous month -- the job market looks positively wintry.

But the government's other key employment readout, the household survey, looks somewhat stronger for January. It shows that unemployment in the U.S. fell to a five-year-low of 6.6 percent. More important, the jobless rate is falling for the right reason -- more people are finding work. Another positive sign is that the share of working-age Americans who have a job is steadily rising. Meanwhile, wages are growing more quickly, according to the Labor Department, which bodes well for consumer spending.

Translation: The economy remains a good bet to emerge from the freezer at some point later this year, as Janet Yellen is likely to tell lawmakers this week in her first major address to Congress since being confirmed as head of the Federal Reserve. 

Still, better bundle up. Here are this week's major economic releases.

Tuesday, Feb. 11
- Federal Reserve Chairman Janet Yellen's semi-annual address to Congress (U.S. House)
- Job openings and labor turnover survey (U.S. Labor Department)

Wednesday, Feb. 12
- U.S. Treasury Department budget
- Mortgage Bankers Association index

Thursday, Feb. 13
- Federal Reserve Chairman Janet Yellen's semi-annual address to Congress (U.S. Senate)
- Weekly jobless claims (U.S. Labor Department)
- Retail sales (U.S. Commerce Department)

Friday, Feb. 14
- Industrial production (Federal Reserve)
- Reuters/University of Michigan consumer sentiment index

  • Alain Sherter On Twitter»

    Alain Sherter is an award-winning business journalist who has written for The Deal, MarketWatch and Thomson Financial Media.

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