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Jobs Report Is a Rorschach Test

WASHINGTON ( TheStreet ) -- A wide array of predictions exist for the U.S. job market in January ahead of the government's nonfarm payrolls report Friday, but the more upbeat assessments come laden with a host of caveats.

First, the good news: The consensus predicts that 15,000 jobs were added to payrolls in January, according to Briefing.com. That would represent only the second positive reading in the last two years, but a definite step in the right direction after December's report showed employers shed 85,000 jobs. Still, individual estimates are varying widely in both directions, suggesting that a negative number wouldn't come as a surprise to anyone.

Analysts also expect the nation's unemployment rate to hold steady at 10%.

Unemployment

But job growth remains elusive. Just see Thursday's initial jobless claims report , which showed applications edged up again last week to their highest level since December. That helped accelerate a sharp stock selloff Thursday, as jittery investors turned pessimistic ahead of the jobs report.

Now, the grim news: Even if we see a marginal upturn in jobs, some economists say they may need to be taken with a major grain of salt. The December cold snap -- it was the 14th coldest showing for the month in the last 115 years -- likely played some role in the unexpected drop in jobs that month, particularly in construction. Employers, in turn, probably picked up more workers in the aftermath.

Also, fewer people showed up for work because of the bitter cold, making surveying by the Bureau of Labor Statistics more problematic, says Chris Low, chief economist at FTN Financial. Seasonal adjustment measures, too, may inflate the January figure more than usual. In typical years, retailers and others hire more in October and November in preparation for the holiday season. They then release those workers in the new year. Seasonal modeling adjusts for this trend, weighing down the tally in the fall while boosting the number in the spring.

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