WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. job market is proving surprisingly strong and raising hopes that the economy will be resilient enough this year to withstand a budget standoff in Washington and potentially deep cuts in federal spending.
Employers added 157,000 jobs last month, and hiring turned out to be healthier than previously thought at the end of 2012 just as the economy faced the threat of the "fiscal cliff."
Still, unemployment remains persistently high. The unemployment rate ticked up to 7.9 percent last month from 7.8 percent in December.
Many economists, though, focused on the steady job growth — especially the healthier-than-expected hiring late last year. The Labor Department revised its estimates of job gains for November from an initial 161,000 to 247,000 and for December from 155,000 to 196,000.
The department also revised its figures for all of 2012 upward — to an average of 180,000 new jobs a month from a previously estimated 150,000.
"The significantly stronger payroll gains tell us the economy has a lot more momentum than what we had thought," Joseph LaVorgna, chief U.S. economist at Deutsche Bank, said in a research note.
The government frequently revises the monthly job totals as it collects more information. Sometimes the revisions can be dramatic, as in November and December.
The January jobs report helped fuel a powerful rally on Wall Street. Stock averages all jumped more than 1 percent. The Dow Jones industrial average closed above 14,000 for the first time since October 2007, two months before the Great Recession officially began.
Beyond the job market, the economy is showing other signs of health. Factories were busier last month than they have been since April 2012. Ford, Chrysler and General Motors all reported double-digit sales gains for last month, their best January in five years.
Home prices have been rising steadily. Higher home values tend to make Americans feel wealthier and more likely to spend.
Housing construction is recovering, too. Construction spending rose last year for the first time in six years and is expected to add 1 percentage point to economic growth this year.
The housing rebound appears finally to be producing a long-awaited return of construction-industry jobs, which have typically help drive economic recoveries. Construction companies added 28,000 jobs in January. Over the past three months, construction has added 82,000 jobs — the best quarterly increase since 2006. Even with the gains, construction employment is about 2 million below its housing-bubble peak of 7.7 million in April 2006.
Health care employers added 28,000 jobs in January. Retailers added 33,000, and hotels and restaurants 17,000. The job growth in retail, hotels and restaurants suggests that employers have grown more confident about consumer spending, which fuels about 70 percent of the economy.
The government uses a survey of mostly large businesses and government agencies to determine how many jobs are added or lost each month. That's the survey that produced the gain of 157,000 jobs for January.
It uses a separate survey of households to calculate the unemployment rate. That survey captures hiring by companies of all sizes, including small businesses, new companies, farm workers and the self-employed. From month to month, the two surveys sometimes contradict each other. Over time, the differences between them usually even out.
The household survey for January found that 117,000 more Americans said they were unemployed than in December. That's why the unemployment rate inched up from 7.8 percent to 7.9 percent.
Some economists had feared that federal budget standoffs might chill spending, investing and hiring. They worried that companies wouldn't hire and consumers would scale back spending in November and December because big spending cuts and tax increases were to take effect Jan. 1 if the White House and congressional Republicans couldn't reach a budget deal.
It turns out, the fears were overblown. In the midst of the budget fight late last year, employers kept hiring.
And Friday's jobs report showed that average hourly wages — up 4 cents to $23.78 in January — were staying ahead of inflation. They had generally failed to keep up with prices since the recession ended in June 2009.
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