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Jobs Report Inflicts First Fears in Months

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- The December jobs report offered investors their first real scare in months.

The U.S. economy added 74,000 jobs, far short of the 197,000 economists surveyed by Bloomberg Data predicted. Though the unemployment rate dipped to 6.7% from the prior 7% reading, analysts were quick to note that the labor participation rate shrank 0.2 percentage points.

"It seems like there's a lot of noise in this data, and largely, I'd say, it's inconsistent with the other data we're seeing," Darrell Cronk, regional chief investment officer at Wells Fargo Private Bank, said in an interview.

Cronk referred to the ADP private payrolls report (which beat the consensus forecast by 33,000), NFIB small jobs data, ISM manufacturing and services numbers and the major jump in gross domestic product for the third quarter of 2013.

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"It seems like an outlier," said Cronk.

And that may best explain the worry.

Since the government shutdown ended in October, U.S. economic data on housing, labor, trade, retail, consumer confidence, gross domestic product and other indicators have surpassed expectations. While many economists forecast that the government shutdown would cut back upside potential in the economy, numbers repeatedly offered positive surprise to the markets.

The strong run may best have been realized when the final reading on third-quarter real GDP reported 4.1% quarter-over-quarter growth.

December's payroll report was the first five-figure number since July, when payrolls rose just 89,000. Then the labor market promptly rattled off four strong months in a row -- 238,000 in August, 175,000 in September, 200,000 in October and 241,000 in November.

The most bullish Wall Street prediction, by Deutsche Bank, called for 250,000 jobs in December. So when 74,000 printed, Deutsche Bank Senior Economist Carl Riccadonna told TheStreet that people in his office gasped.

Riccadonna and the bank, though, weren't concerned by the "outlier" report.

"If we put together a report card of all of the labor indicators over the past month, we would give it about an A-minus," Riccadonna said in an interview. "If the economy is accelerating, as it has been over the last four quarters, and likely continues into 2014, it makes sense that the pace of hiring should be improving as well -- this doesn't change anything."

Most economists and analysts by the end of last year increased their 2014 outlook for growth of about 3%, but Friday's report was a sharp reminder to investors that this economy still has Federal Reserve intervention, despite recent strength.

Next, market participants will gauge company sales and profits as earnings season kicks off. The focus, though, likely rests on company revenues. An increasing number of analysts forecast that top line growth will improve in the latest quarter, thanks largely to an expanding economy and the end of political gridlock (for now) in Washington.

"During the credit crisis and thereafter, the [banks] had been quite defensive," Paul Sorbera, president of Alliance Consulting, said in a phone interview. "Now I see them in an offensive mode; they're saying 'how do we make more money'?"

Sorbera helps place employees for work on Wall Street, and he said that he expects major banks will increase revenue in 2014 -- an event that would encourage more lending and suggest overall growth in the economy. Part of that would include sustained labor growth.

But Sorbera quickly reminds us of the U-6 unemployment rate -- a measure of the total unemployed, which includes people marginally attached to the work force and part time workers. It's 13.1%.

"That's not quite depression-level unemployment, but that's quite a big number," said Sorbera.

Maybe Friday's report is an outlier, but embracing a tad bit of fear may not hurt patient investors.

-- Written by Joe Deaux in New York.

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