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Weak US jobs report still provides cause for hope

Job seekers lined up to meet prospective employers at a career fair last month in Dallas.

L.M. Otero/Associated Press

Job seekers lined up to meet prospective employers at a career fair last month in Dallas.

WASHINGTON — A second straight month of weak job growth renewed concerns Friday that the vigor displayed by the American economy late last year may be gone, at least for the moment.

The Labor Department’s monthly employment report showing a tepid gain of 113,000 jobs in January followed December’s puny increase of 75,000 — far below last year’s average monthly gain of 194,000.

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Yet the report provided some cause for optimism. Solid hiring last month in manufacturing and construction points to underlying strength.

And in a healthy sign, more Americans began looking for jobs, suggesting they were more hopeful about their prospects. A sizable 115,000 formerly unemployed people also said they found jobs. Their hiring reduced the unemployment rate to a seasonally adjusted 6.6 percent, the lowest in more than five years.

Most economists say they think hiring will strengthen the rest of the year as the economy improves further.

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Job growth ‘‘clearly has downshifted over the past two months,’’ said Doug Handler, chief US economist at IHS Global Insight. ‘‘But we still believe the economic fundamentals remain strong and . . . forecast an acceleration of growth later in the year.’’

Janet Yellen will be pressed about jobs and the economy when she testifies to Congress next week in her first public comments since becoming Federal Reserve chair on Feb. 1. Fed officials are scaling back their stimulus for the economy. They’ve also said they would consider raising their benchmark short-term interest rate at some point if the rate falls below 6.5 percent.

But the Fed has not been clear about the timing. With the unemployment rate now close to that threshold, economists think the Fed may update its guidance after its next meeting in March.

Most economists say two weak hiring months won’t lead the Fed to halt its pullback on the stimulus. Fed policy makers will have February’s job report to consider when they next meet in March.

Friday’s figures add to evidence that the economy is slowing in the first few months of the year after expanding at a robust 3.7 percent annual pace in the second half of 2013.

The figures follow other signs of a possibly softening economy. A survey of manufacturing firms showed that factory expansion slowed last month. A measure of forthcoming home sales fell.

The jobs report offered some hints that hiring could return to last year’s healthier levels in coming months.

To begin with, the unemployment rate is at its lowest point since October 2008, when the financial crisis was erupting. The rate fell because many of the unemployed found work. And the influx of people seeking jobs was an improvement from December. In that month, the unemployment rate fell only because about 350,000 people stopped looking for work and were no longer counted as unemployed.

Another positive sign: Manufacturers, construction firms, and mines added a combined 76,000 jobs last month, the most since January 2006. Goods-producing employers like those tend to hire only when they’re confident in the economy.

Home sales and construction are rising, a trend economists expect to continue. If it does, more construction jobs would be created, likely leading to higher retail spending as people furnish homes.

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