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For a piece of economic news whose bite is normally just as bad as its bark, the January

employment report

is looking toothless this month.

The consensus among economists, as polled by


, is for a 255,000 increase in nonfarm payrolls in January, for the unemployment rate to remain steady at 4.1% and for average hourly earnings to increase 0.3%. Figures like that will reinforce widely held views of current labor market tightness and start the market on a path that ends with another rate hike from the

Federal Reserve

on March 21.

However, since the Fed just raised interest rates Wednesday, and with another jobs report before the March 21

Federal Open Market Committee

meeting, the only impact this report could have on market sentiment is if it's much weaker than expected -- one that makes the market think the long-vaunted economic slowdown is actually on its way.

Don't hold your breath.

"People are largely looking for another move in March, and they're looking for things that might dissuade people from that point of view," says Carl Weinberg, an economist at

High Frequency Economics

in Valhalla, N.Y., who expects growth of 250,000 in nonfarm payrolls. "It's almost impossible that this will subtract from the view that we've got another move coming."

Surveys that economists use to try to formulate their forecasts for the unemployment report --

initial jobless claims

, the various consumer sentiment surveys -- all point to strength in job creation for January. Initial jobless claims for the week ended Jan. 15 dropped to their lowest level in 26 years, and according to the January

Consumer Confidence Index

, 54% of consumers believe jobs are plentiful.

"Almost every indicator is going in the same direction," says Brian Jones, an economist at

Salomon Smith Barney

who's looking for payrolls to increase by 400,000. "Even if you raise criticisms about one or the other, they are all heading the same direction. If the

Conference Board


Money Magazine

consumer surveys are at record levels, well, guess what? People are confident."

In addition, unseasonably warm weather during the second week of January, when the

Labor Department

conducts its survey, probably will boost job growth in the construction sector.

Jones believes the unemployment rate could drop as low as 3.9%, which would be a 30-year record. Not an unthinkable notion for other economists, who noted seasonal adjustments may also mess with the data enough to cause stronger-than-expected growth.

John Youngdahl, a money-market economist at

Goldman Sachs

, says he won't be surprised if the jobless rate fell below 4%, but his estimate for 250,000 in new nonfarm payrolls is consistent with a 4% unemployment rate.

"On average, you're seeing labor resources absorbed at the margin," says Youngdahl. "There's a lot of collateral indications that show that labor supply is still shrinking, edging down."

For that reason, economists are expecting wage costs to tick up further. The consensus for average hourly earnings is for a 0.3% increase, but Jones, Youngdahl and Weinberg all are looking for a 0.4% increase, which would be consistent with wage growth of 3.6% on a year-over-year rate. For the market, that would compare favorably with January 1999's 4% rate of increase and December's 3.7% rate of increase.

Expectations are for the

average weekly workweek

to remain unchanged at 34.5 hours per week.