Job Growth on Tap?

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- With the market eagerly awaiting the government's latest appraisal on the U.S. job market Friday morning, the buzz in some circles is that the economy will have added jobs for the first time in two years in December.

If the median estimate is to be believed, the Labor Department's nonfarm payrolls report will show no change in December, according to a Reuters survey. The nation's headline unemployment rate could advance by a tenth to 10.1%. But individual forecasts are varying widely ahead of the release, with some forecasts anticipating little change, one showing 100,000 jobs gained and another reflecting a cut of 80,000.

"I think the market will be content with a plus or minus 25,000, somewhere in that range," said Marc Pado, U.S. market strategist at Cantor Fitzgerald. "Neither losing or gaining many jobs and an unchanged unemployment rate at 10% is all that they really need. A plus number would get people a little excited."

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But the variance hasn't halted the feeling among several observers that a positive jobs figure is imminent after the most recent report showed a surprisingly slender 11,000 jobs lost in November.

"We believe it's already in the process of turning," said Bill Stone, chief investment strategist at PNC Wealth Management, who's forecasting that 25,000 jobs were added. "It looks like the trend is there to get to something like that."

The labor market is bleak, to be sure. The nation's unemployment rate will probably remain vexing for some time, and six-figure job growth per month is needed just to stabilize the environment over the long-term. But recent indicators have done nothing to dampen the mood that a rebound is underway and can only support more upbeat, short-term valuations. Already this week, the employment component of the ISM manufacturing index showed gains in December.

But another take on the private sector recently said employers slashed 84,000 jobs last month. That reading from Automatic Data Processing, however, is well-known for landing below the government's take and didn't muddy upbeat expectations for Friday.

Even more, solid declines in recent jobless claims has several analysts feeling confident an uptick in nonfarm payrolls is looming sooner rather than later. The Labor Department said Thursday that first-time applications for unemployment benefits ticked up by only 1,000 last week, keeping levels well below 450,000, supporting the view that job losses are still waning.

"The basis for the forecasts being so strong is because of the big drop in claims," said John Canally, economist at LPL Financial. "Claims are now down by over 200,000 since their peak in late March, early April. If you look back over history, that size of a drop in claims puts the job market in the same camp as the recoveries in the mid-70s and early-80s recessions. It's foretelling a pretty robust recovery in jobs."

But the recent steady flow of improved data has not convinced everyone that a full-fledged labor market reversal is coming soon. Indeed, small businesses are continuing to struggle with access to credit. That realization doesn't bode well since smaller firms account for a majority of the nation's jobs creation. Businesses have also managed to do more with less, achieving productivity gains of late while also slashing payrolls.

"I can understand where that's coming from. But at the same time, you can't deny what the claims data says," added Cannally. "I think people who are still skeptical just aren't following the right data sets or maybe just have blinders with regard to what they should be looking at."

The recovery also hasn't stopped some companies from continuing layoffs, with news this week discussing cuts at Alcoa ( AA) and Lockheed Martin ( LMT).

Beyond the headlining numbers, analysts and economists will pick apart Friday's data looking for subtle trends. More important than general jobs growth may be the type of jobs created. One analyst said an incremental jump in manufacturing jobs, in particular, will be seen as a positive, since skill-dependent and training-intensive factory positions can't be shed as easily when compared to temporary service sector positions. On the other hand, with Census 2010 hiring on the horizon, investors will probably shrug off overall improvements buoyed solely by a jump in government positions.

Analysts will also focus intently on November revisions, and for good reason. Because the initially reported loss was so slight -- the lowest decline since December 2007 -- even a subtle positive payroll revision could suggest that jobs were already added. The most recently released report revised previous valuations in September and October to the upside, giving hope that Friday's report will do the same for November.

Average hourly workweek statistics bounced off a record low of 33.0 hours to hit 33.2 hours in November. Observers expect the average to hold steady in December. Pado, who will be keying on Friday's hours worked figure, said each tenth of an hour equates to approximately 400,000 jobs, so even a small upward move may act as a precursor to a declining unemployment rate.

"If we even get a tenth of an hour more, I'd be really happy with that," said Cantor Fitzgerald's Pado. "That to me would be a metric that I would look at closely and something you could get excited about."

--Written by Sung Moss in New York

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