U.S. employers added 155,000 jobs in December, a steady gain that shows hiring held up during the tense negotiations to resolve the “fiscal cliff.”
The solid job growth wasn’t enough to reduce the unemployment rate, which remained 7.8 percent last month, the Labor Department said Friday. The rate for November was revised up from an initially reported 7.7 percent.
Each January, the government updates the monthly unemployment rates for the previous five years. The rates for most months don’t change.
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The government said hiring was stronger in November than it first estimated. November’s job increases were revised up 15,000 to 161,000. October’s increase was nearly unchanged at 137,000.
The “gain is perhaps better than it looks given that firms were probably nervous about adding workers with the fiscal cliff looming,” said Paul Ashworth, an economist at Capital Economics.
Even so, hiring hasn’t been strong enough to quickly reduce still-high unemployment. The job gains for December almost exactly matched the average monthly pace for the past two years. Hiring has been steady but modest as the economy has grown slowly since the recession ended more than three years ago.
For 2012, employers added 1.84 million jobs, an average of 153,000 jobs a month, roughly matching the job totals for 2011.
Robust hiring in manufacturing and construction fueled the December job growth. Construction firms added 30,000, the most in 15 months. That increase likely reflected hiring needed to rebuild after Superstorm Sandy and also gains in home building that have contributed to a housing recovery.
Manufacturers added 25,000 jobs, the most in nine months.
Other higher-paying industries also added jobs. Professional and business services, which include positions in information technology, management and architecture, gained 19,000. Financial services added 9,000 and health care 55,000.
Lower-paying industry sectors were mixed. Restaurants and bars added 38,000 jobs. Retailers cut 11,300, a sign that the holiday shopping season might have been sluggish. But those cuts followed three months of strong gains.
All the job gains last month came from private employers. Governments shed 13,000 jobs, mostly in local school systems.
A separate gauge of U.S. service firms’ activity expanded in December by the most in nearly a year, driven by a jump in new orders and hiring.
The Institute for Supply Management said Friday that its index of non-manufacturing activity rose to 56.1 in December from 54.7 in November. That’s the highest level since February and above the 12-month average of 54.7. Any reading above 50 indicates expansion.
A measure of new orders rose to the highest level since February, suggesting that consumers and companies kept spending even as the country moved closer to the fiscal cliff.
An index of employment rose strongly. That conflicted with a Labor Department report Friday that said the economy added just 109,000 service jobs last month, the fewest since June. One key difference between the two reports is the government doesn’t include construction in service jobs. That would have boosted the December total by 30,000.
The stable hiring pace shows that employers didn’t panic during the high-stakes talks between Congress and the White House over tax increases and spending cuts that weren’t resolved until New Year’s.
That’s an encouraging sign for the coming months, because an even bigger federal budget showdown is looming. The government must increase its $16.4 trillion borrowing limit by around late February or risk defaulting on its debt. Republicans will likely demand deep spending cuts as the price of raising the debt limit.
Friday’s report did point to some weakness in the job market. For example, the number of unemployed actually rose 164,000 to 12.2 million. Approximately 192,000 people entered the work force last month, but most of them didn’t find jobs.
The unemployment numbers come from a government survey of households; the number of jobs added each month comes from a separate survey of businesses.
A broader category that includes not only the unemployed but also part-time workers who want full-time jobs and people who have given up looking for work was unchanged in December at 22.7 million.
Despite the still-modest job growth, the economy is showing signs of improvement. Layoffs are declining. And the number of people who sought unemployment aid in the past month is near a four-year low. Banks are lending a bit more freely.
The jobs report showed that hourly pay is staying slightly ahead of inflation. Hourly wages rose 7 cents to $23.73 last month, a 2.1 percent increase compared with a year earlier. Inflation rose 1.8 percent over the same period.
The once-depressed housing market is recovering. And Americans spent more in November. Consumer spending drives nearly 70 percent of economic growth.
Manufacturing is getting a boost from the best auto sales in five years. Car sales jumped 13 percent in 2012 to 14.5 million. And Americans spent more at the tail end of the holiday shopping season, boosting overall sales that had slumped earlier in the crucial two-month period.
“There is little doubt that the seeds of faster growth are being planted,” James Marple, an economist at TD Bank, said in a note to clients.
U.S. companies boosted their orders in November for manufactured goods that reflect investment plans even though total orders were unchanged for the month.
Factory orders were flat in November, compared with October when orders had risen 0.8 percent, the Commerce Department said Friday. Durable goods, everything from autos to steel, rose 0.8 percent while nondurable goods fell 0.6 percent, reflecting falling petroleum prices.
Orders for core capital goods, a category considered a proxy for business investment plans increased a solid 2.6 percent after a 3 percent rise in October which had been the strongest gain in 10 months.
Factories appear to be recovering slowly from a slump earlier in the year although there are still concerns given a weak global economy that is restraining U.S. exports.
The back-to-back increases in core capital goods followed a period of weakness that had raised concerns about business investment, a driving force in the economic rebound.
Analysts believe that companies will boost spending further on computers and other equipment to expand and modernize now that Congress and President Barack Obama have reached a deal on taxes that will remove uncertainty that had been weighing on business investment decisions.
But most economists expect little improvement in hiring this year. A 2 percentage point cut in the Social Security tax expired Jan. 1. That means a household with income of about $50,000 will have about $1,000 less to spend. And the government may impose spending cuts this year.
Both the higher taxes and spending cuts, along with uncertainty about future budget fights, could restrain growth and hiring.
That “likely means acceleration in the labor market will remain elusive for the time being,” said Ellen Zentner, an economist at Nomura Securities.