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Friday's Labor Report: A Snow Job?

The larger meaning of Friday's government jobs report may be buried under a few feet of snow.
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Updated with recent February estimates and news of the House jobs bill passage.



) -- The larger meaning of Friday's government jobs report may be buried under a few feet of snow.

The monthly nonfarm payrolls report, scheduled for release by the Labor Department at 8:30 a.m. EST, is known to set the economic tone for any given month. But economists and equity strategists are bewildered about what to expect in February, when several major snow storms disrupted business as usual across much of the country, potentially hampering data results.

"I'd be concerned that there might be some premature extrapolation of that data in the sense it may show the jobs picture is necessarily worse than it actually is," said Art Hogan, chief market strategist at Jefferies, who's firm is expecting to see a loss of 122,000 jobs. "I think what you need to do is step back and say what was the revision in January and what may March look like, because I think this number is probably going to look worse than it should."

The blizzard-like conditions in February, which shuttered offices and schools in the northeast, may make last month's nonfarm payrolls figures less reliable, reflecting a deeper-than-expected drop due to delayed hiring and start dates, among other things.

Most analysts are expecting some sustained jobs growth to appear soon, but last month may not be it. According to, many believe another 63,000 jobs were shed from nonfarm payrolls in February, while the headline unemployment rate probably edged higher to 9.8%.

The jobs picture has taken on renewed importance in recent months as a sea of workers remain adrift in the unemployed ranks. The Labor Department said the nation lost another 20,000 jobs in January. But bulls were given something to cheer about as the unemployment rate dropped to 9.7%.

Bears, however, found more than enough ammunition in the report, too. The so-called "underemployment" rate, which includes part-timers seeking full-time work and discouraged workers who quit looking, remains unimaginably high at 16.5%. More workers are also going unemployed for longer periods, as the number of people unemployed for 27 weeks or more rose to 6.3 million. And the ranks of jobless minorities are vastly outpacing the broader population, with 16.5% of blacks and 12.6% of Hispanics counted among the unemployed.

Those jaw-dropping figures have since left many analyzing the moves of lawmakers and regulators. The Senate attempted to respond last week in passing a $15 billion jobs stimulus package in a 70-28 vote. The House took its turn Thursday, passing a version of the bill with subtle changes. The legislation will now go back to the Senate for a final endorsement before heading to President Obama for signing.

And this week, Sen. Jim Bunning (R., Ky.) came under fire when he attempted to delay an extension on jobless benefits citing government spending worries, only to relent later under waves of criticism.

Not all experts believe the winter storms will be a big impact on the jobs number, but enough of them are worried.

"There's going to be a lot of noise in these upcoming data," said Larry Adam, U.S. chief investment strategist at Deutsche Bank Private Wealth Management. "So, I wouldn't overreact one way or the other. I think it's more important to look at it on a trend basis rather than a cycle basis. Our economist thinks we'll see a pretty good rebound in March on the idea the employment market is starting to recover."

The noise may also force market observers to put more focus on the unemployment rate, which is culled from a separate survey.

Regardless of Friday's numbers, there are some encouraging figures suggesting such a recovery. An assessment from

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private sector employers shed their fewest jobs in two years, while a separate report from Challenger, Gray & Christmas said layoff announcements fell 41% last month.

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continued making layoff news last month. But just this week,


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said it would open several new stores, which will add more than 1500 positions.

The Institute for Supply Management also offered separate readings on the

service and

manufacturing sectors, each showing labor market improvements in their respective spaces.

In what Doug Roberts, chief investment strategist at, says "bodes well for the numbers tomorrow,"

initial jobless claims fell by 29,000 to a seasonally adjusted 469,000 last week. Though first-time applications for state unemployment insurance have held around 450,000 in recent weeks, they remain well below last year's highs when initial claims approached 700,000.

But firms are also improving productivity, learning to do more with less after slashing costs and warm bodies, and suggesting that sustained hiring may remain elusive. A Thursday morning release showed output was revised well beyond expectations to reflect a 6.9% surge during the fourth quarter.

Observers will continue to pan Friday's report looking for particular nuggets. The manufacturing labor market showed positive growth for the first time in three years in January, so many will be eyeing February's report to discern a trend. A pickup in Census hiring may also cloud the overall tally since the quality of fleeting government jobs are considered inferior compared to their longer lasting private sector counterparts. Yet others will be looking closely at overall temporary hiring figures, which some see as a precursor for future growth.

-- Written by Sung Moss in New York